In the old days, you sometimes read about “Soviet” musicians. Kirill Kondrashin, for example, was a “Soviet conductor.” But was he? He was Russian, right? Nobody was “Soviet.”

Well, Stalin was. A Georgian, he could not be Russian, though he found it convenient to talk a lot about Russia after Hitler broke his pact with him. Dmitri Kabalevsky, I would say, was a Soviet composer. He was Russian, to be sure – Petersburg-born – but he was a loyal Party member and a faithful apparatchik, earning his three Stalin Prizes, his four Orders of Lenin, and so on. He also wrote some lovely music, particularly for children.

The Soviet Union lived from 1917 to 1991. Some people in Soviet lands had unlucky birth dates. They never had a chance to do much living, or any, before or after the Bolsheviks. Take Shostakovich, who was born in September 1906. He was 11 when the Bolsheviks came to power. When he died in 1975, they had more than 15 years to go. Yevgeny Mravinsky, the great conductor, lived from 1903 to 1988. He was music director of the Leningrad Philharmonic for 50 years. He was barely known in the West.

Listen to the Shostakovich string quartets. They tell you something about life under the Bolsheviks, something deep and terrible.

Consider, now, Rodion Shchedrin, the composer. He was born in 1932. He says that he was fairly lucky in the following respect: he was but 20 when Stalin died. That gave him some breathing room, but still the air was not free. In 1991, when the Bolsheviks left, he could really breathe. The music poured out of him. He composed more than ever. At age 60 or so, he was virtually reborn.

Prokofiev was a weird case. He was out – free – in the West. And he returned to the Soviet Union, in 1936, just in time for the Great Terror. Famously, he died the same day as Stalin: March 5 1953. There were no flowers available for his funeral.

Often, composers in the Soviet Union wrote under great pressure, and, often, you can hear this in their music. I think of Mendelssohn, of whom it is sometimes said that he was handicapped by happiness. His life was not carefree, needless to say (and it was also relatively brief: 38 years long). But it was apparently basically happy. And his music is not marked by struggle.

Composers in the Soviet Union had no such handicap.

Many of them made compromises, and some were ashamed. Shostakovich was a good man. He was deeply ashamed by some of his actions. For instance, he allowed himself to denounce Stravinsky as “decadent” (though he admired Stravinsky’s music). Shchedrin has said, “In a totalitarian system, relations between the artist and the regime are always extremely complex and contradictory. If the artist sets himself against the system, he is put behind bars or simply killed.”

Shchedrin signed a letter against Andrei Sakharov, the great physicist and great dissident. So did Shostakovich and Khachaturian, among others. But Shchedrin points out that he had better moments – as in 1968, when he refused to sign a letter supporting the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

 
The Leningrad première of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, while the city of Leningrad was under siege by Nazi German forces. Most of the musicians were starving, with musicians frequently collapsing during rehearsals, and three dying. Despite this, the concert was highly successful, prompting an hour-long ovation. The symphony was broadcast to the German lines by loudspeaker as a form of psychological warfare.

He was married to Maya Plisetskaya, the prima ­ballerina, who died in 2015. (They were arguably the most talented couple on earth, rivaled by the tennis players Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf.) Plisetskaya’s father was murdered by the regime, and her mother was sent to the Gulag. In 1964, Plisetskaya accepted the Lenin Prize.

It was a strange place, the Soviet Union, as well as a brutal one.

Twenty years after his wife, Shchedrin accepted his own Lenin Prize. He also wrote Lenin Is Among Us, an oratorio. He did that in 1970 for the founder’s centenary. A lot of composers did that sort of thing. In 1939, Prokofiev wrote Hail to Stalin, a cantata. It was in honour of the dictator’s 60th birthday. One lyric goes, “He hears all, he sees all” – which, in a way, was true.

Cold War competition did odd things to people. Svetlana Stalin tells a story in one of her memoirs. At a concert, she was seated in a box with Lazar Kaganovich, the Old Bolshevik. David Oistrakh, Odessa-born, and Yehudi Menuhin, New York-born, were playing Bach’s Double Violin Concerto. Svetlana, along with others, was entranced. In the middle of the performance, Kaganovich turned to her with glee and said, “Do you see how our boy is beating their boy?”

In 1939, Prokofiev wrote Hail to Stalin, a cantata. It was in honour of the dictator’s sixtieth birthday. One lyric goes, “He hears all, he sees all” – which, in a way, was true.

What was true of the Soviet Union was true, to a large degree, of its bloc. About ten years ago, I interviewed René Pape, the German bass. He grew up in Dresden (East Germany). I said, “Did you always want to be a singer? Or did you want to be an athlete or something else? What were your hopes and dreams?” He looked at me like I was the stupidest, most pathetic person on earth. “It was a Communist country,” he said. “We didn’t have hopes and dreams. We were thinking about surviving until the next week.” When he first came to the West, his eyes bulged at the food.

Several years later, I recounted my exchange with Pape to Angela Gheorghiu, the Romanian soprano. Bristling, she said, “The shops in Romania – not like in Germany, excuse me – were completely empty. Just white. Just white.”

You can learn about the Soviet Union and its satellites through books, movies, conversations, etc. You can also learn a bit about them, as I have suggested, through music. Listen to the Shostakovich string quartets, for example. They tell you something about life under the Bolsheviks, something deep and terrible.