No stranger’s wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
Survivor of that time, that place.
— Anna Akhmatova, 1961
How does an artist work in the context of an oppressive political regime? This question never loses relevance (since oppression never does either), and it’s especially in focus now, with Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei‘s recent incarceration and release. In Soviet Russia under Stalin’s terror, how an artist maneuvered the need for personal expression against the erratic demands of an unpredictably umbrageous state meant the difference between living a pampered (if precarious) life and slavery in the gulag or death. Anna Akhmatova was among the USSR’s most celebrated poets, yet her work was repeatedly condemned and censored by Stalin. Dmitri Shostakovich, the era’s most famous composer, survived — not unscathed, and not without being forced to make some risible and humiliating concessions, declarations, and betrayals (his forced public condemnation of the work of Igor Stravinsky he described as “the worst moment of my life”). Author Wendy Lesser has written an account of the artist’s personal, professional, and political life as revealed through his 15 quartets in Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets. (continue reading)