811.42700(R)/2–1148: Telegram

The Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Smith) to the Secretary of State


269. Rumored purge in Soviet musical world, reported in Embtel 170, January 30,1 broke publicly in central press February 11. Front pages carry four-column text decree party central committee (CC) titled “Regarding opera ‘The Great Friendship’ by V. Muradeli”2 and dated February 10. This opera was written response demand last [Page 809] spring of Committee on Art Affairs for more contemporary “ideological” operas and had premiere at Bolshoi Theatre November 7 holiday.

Summary of decree: CC considers opera depraved and anti-artistic. Its faults lie in poor, inexpressive, confused and disharmonious and false, artificial libretto. Faults of opera result from fallacious, pernicious path which Muradeli has taken, and its failure is closely connected with “bad condition of contemporary Soviet music with prevalence among Soviet composers of formalistic trend.”3

As early as 1936 decree in regard Shostakovich’s4 “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” demands on Soviet composers were set forth. Despite that and later warnings such as decrees regarding Leningrad literary magazines and film The Great Life, there has been no improvement in Soviet music, of which symphonic and operatic particularly bad. Formalist, antipopular trend among Soviet composers finds worst expression in works Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturyan, Shebalin, Popov, and Myaskovski. This group calls classic music old-fashioned, has lost contact with popular taste and has debased high social role of music. Composers have forgotten how to write for people, as proved by fact no Soviet opera of recent times up to level Russian classic opera. Separation of musicians from people has reached point where composers have theory that people have not “grown up” to their music yet but will in a hundred years. Such views and tolerance of them harms our music. Depraved, formalist trend also has bad effect on development young composers in our conservatories, especially that of Moscow (Director Comrade Shebalin)5 where formalistic trend reigns and teachers follow Shostakovich and Prokofiev6 blindly. Musical criticism is also unbearable state. Leading place among critics is held by opponents of Russian realistic music and supporters of decadent music, who praise every work Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Myaskovski and Shebalin. Criticism has ceased to express opinion of Soviet society. All this means survivals bourgeois ideology and influence contemporary decadent western European and American music remain among some of our composers. CC considers bad condition [Page 810] Soviet music result incorrect line Committee for Art Affairs and/or Committee Union Soviet artists. These committees and their directors, Khrapchenko7 and Khachaturyan,8 encouraged formalist trend alien to Soviet people. Soviet people expect new, high-quality works from their composers, CC decrees: (1) To condemn formalistic trend Soviet music as anti-popular and destructive. (2) To propose to administration of propaganda and agitation of CC to correct situation. (3) To call on Soviet composers to follow correct path. (4) To approve organizational measures aimed at improvement musical affairs.

This decree ranks in importance as fundamental ideological pronouncement with that of August 1946 on Leningrad literary magazines,9 and it will probably have an equally huge effect in its field. This not first attack of its kind on Soviet composers, it is incomparably most serious. Although whole movement is rumored to have origin in irritation of Politburo members with Muradeli’s opera at November 7 presentation, it far transcends personal tastes and represents considered plan Soviet rulers to “purify” music as they have already purified literature, of all individual freedom and to put composers to work alongside writers, philosophers and scientists in assisting “development of socialist state”. Terms of decree make clear composers contribution to this cause must be production of simple stereotyped music to which “the people” can beat time and which they will hum as they engage in socialist competition for higher production.

Effect of decree on Soviet musical world will, of course, be both basic and far-reaching. Khrapchenko has already been fired, and rumor has it at least Shebalin and Shostakovich have lost positions at Moscow Conservatory, center of USSR’s musical life. Neither established, world-renowned oldsters or young Soviet composers will dare henceforth give rein to their originality or to conduct the experimentation necessary to keep an art living. In all probability Soviet music, only cultural field in which USSR has produced works of highest artistic level, will now follow Soviet painting and Soviet drama into stultification or hidebound unprogressiveness.10

[Page 811]

As suggested in reference telegram Embassy believes this development offers opportunity for effective counter propaganda. Suggest wide reporting of facts by VOUSA and background for American press with comment stressing absence of artistic and thought freedom in USSR and ridiculousness of party CO telling some of world’s greatest living composers how to write music. Suggest tying in August 1946 decree on literature, September 1946 decree on film Great Life, this year’s chastisements of Aleksandrov11 and Varga,12 and August 1947 reorganization of Art Academy. Omnipotent Politburo has now closed door of free intellectual expression in every medium of human endeavor.

Full text by pouch.

  1. Not printed.
  2. Vano Muradeli was a Georgian musical composer and playwright.
  3. The Embassy reported in despatch No. 308 from Moscow on March 31, not printed, that the recent revelation of a previously unpublicized three day meeting in mid-January of the Central Committee of the Communist Party attended by high party dignitaries and “more than 70 composers and leading figures of the Russian music world” had preceded the issuance of the decree of February 10. It was here that Andrey Aleksandrovich Zhdanov, Politburo member and a leading Marxist theoretician and propaganda specialist, levelled his charges against Muradeli’s opera and criticized the mistaken tendencies in modern Soviet music, which were so badly in need of correction. (811.42700(R)/3–3148) The address has been printed in his book, Essays on Literature, Philosophy, and Music (New York, International Publishers Company, 1950), pp. 76–96.
  4. Dmitry Dmitriyevich Shostakovich.
  5. Vissarion Yakovlevich Shebalin was director of the Moscow Conservatory of Music, 1942–1948.
  6. Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofyev.
  7. Mikhail B. Khrapchenko was replaced by an order of Jan. 28 as Chairman of the Committee for Affairs of Arts under the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union by Polikarp Ivanovich Lebedyev.
  8. Aram Ilyich Khachaturyan was Chairman of the Organizing Committee of the Union of Soviet Composers, but was reported as not being replaced at this time.
  9. See telegram 3284, Moscow, Aug. 22, and telegram 3290, Moscow, Aug. 23, Foreign Relations, 1946, vol. vi, pp. 774 and 776, respectively.
  10. From time to time the Embassy sent to the Department supplemental, interpretative comment on details of the developments on this important subject following the promulgation of the decree. In a lengthy despatch No. 224 from Moscow on February 26, not printed, the Embassy referred to “its considered opinion of this musical purge as a ridiculous and disgusting example of the Soviet Government’s long-established policy of prostituting the intellectual integrity of its intelligentsia for purely political gain” and concluded with the evaluation that: “Complete justice in interpreting this musical decree also requires the admission that, as far as the Embassy can determine with its restricted contacts, the Soviet people and even Soviet intellectuals, are not overly unhappy at the chastisement meted out to their leading composers. Apparently a good many people do feel that modern Soviet music was too unmelodic and cacophonous, and possibly also that the small group of leaders too completely dominated the field.” (811.42700(R)/2–2648)
  11. Georgy Fedorovich Alexandrov was a prominent philosopher, who had been attacked for serious ideological distortions in his book, History of Western European Philosophy.
  12. Evgeny Samoylovich Varga was a leading economist whose viewpoints expressed in his book, Changes in the Economy of Capitalism as a Result of the Second World War, were being disputed for their serious errors.