The Denouncer

A meeting with Tikhon Khrennikov, the official who attacked Shostakovich and Prokofiev -- and outlived the Soviet Union.

The Boston Globe, September 2, 2007


Great dictators typically leave behind a toxic legacy and their deputies often become radioactive by association. Or sometimes they reinvent themselves and stay in power. Witness the strange, fascinating case of Tikhon Nikolayevich Khrennikov, who died last month at the age of 94.

He is a figure barely known by most concertgoers in the West, but he was a major force in Russian music of the 20th century, not for his many compositions but for his role as a cultural official appointed by Stalin in 1948 to lead the country’s composers’ union. During the grim final years of the Stalin era, in keeping with the ideological campaign of the day, Khrennikov notoriously attacked the country’s most prominent composers – among them Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev.

But, strange to say, Khrennikov was also one of the great survivors of the Soviet Union. Stalin died in 1953 yet Khrennikov held onto his highly influential post for more than four decades, riding out all the various political regimes and ideological fashions that followed and essentially closing the door behind him as his organization dissolved in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union. He was one of the canniest creations of the Soviet bureaucracy, and one of Russia’s most persistent musical enigmas.

In the West, he has been largely demonized for his treatment of Soviet composers, not only Shostakovich and Prokofiev, but also the leading lights of the country’s avant-garde of the 1960s and ’70s. But among Russians his reception has been decidedly more mixed. One emigre writer has described the composers’ union as “an extremely conservative, mafia-like organization” with Khrennikov as its “Godfather.” But others have claimed that behind Khrennikov’s severe public image was a sympathetic man who used his access to power to protect some of his colleagues and transform the composers’ union into a relatively stable body throughout the country’s darkest times.

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On a visit to Russia in 2001, I interviewed Khrennikov in his Moscow apartment. His responses, not previously published, do not put to rest any of the lingering questions about his controversial history, but they do provide a small window into the self-justifying psyche of a man at the dark center of the Soviet Union’s musical machinery for more than half of its existence.

Khrennikov was already in his late 80s at the time of the interview, walking slowly but still vigorous in conversation. His apartment was spacious and comfortable; he had a bust of himself and large concert posters trumpeting performances of his works through the decades adorning his living room. As a prolific composer himself, Khrennikov excelled at pops-ish music, film scores and operetta, with a gift for upbeat and blustery tunefulness that endeared him to the mid-century Communist Party elite. To be sure, he was not one of his country’s great composers, but his political prominence led to frequent performances of his works. When we first sat down to talk in his living room, he preferred to speak about his own music. Eventually, reluctantly, he allowed the conversation to drift toward politics and history.

“I love my colleagues; I’ve always tried to help them in their lives, in their joys and in their sorrows,” he said through a translator. “When the clouds got thick over their heads, I tried to do my best to disperse those clouds.” He proudly stated that he had used his authority to protect the composers in the union, and noted that he himself had suffered the loss of a brother to Stalin’s terror in the 1930s, and that the psychological strain of the times was grueling. “They wrote awful things about me to the central party committee,” he continued. “I had a nervous breakdown and it took me a year to recover. Saving others I became so vulnerable, I became a victim myself.”

How then did he regard his famous speech in 1948, his legendary denunciations of the music of Shostakovich (full of “tenseness, neuroticism, escapism, and repulsive pathology”) and Prokofiev (“natural emotion and melody has been replaced by grunting and scraping”)? As part of the cultural commissar Andrei Zhdanov’s campaign against Western influence in the arts, these critical barbs were dangerous, cutting blows with severe ripple effects. Khrennikov responded that he had no choice. “Prokofiev and Shostakovich were not only my friends, but people that I admired. . . . It was not me who wrote [the speech]. It was written in the central committee of the Communist Party, and everybody knows it. But I had to read it out at the Congress. I think this is the most tragic event in my life, when I had to do this. I couldn’t do anything else. The discipline in the party was very strong.”

Even some of Khrennikov’s harshest critics concede that he may not have had much choice but to accept the position when Stalin thrust him onto the political stage in 1948, and that he probably did not write his own early speeches. But if Khrennikov claimed the mantle of victimhood for himself, he was far less generous in extending that mantle to the very people who suffered on account of the words he spoke. “When [Shostakovich] was criticized, it was not so pleasant for him to hear,” he said, “but all this criticism of persons of the range of Shostakovich, [composer Aram] Khachaturian and Prokofiev, or other major personalities – it could not affect their creative activity. It was no harm to them.”

The historical record suggests otherwise. Prokofiev and Shostakovich were both personally devastated by the wave of official criticism that hit them that year. It was not just the bureaucratic epithets but the banning of works, the public humiliation, the loss of income, and the real existential danger that these denunciations carried when backed up by the organized terror of the Stalinist state. The scholar Harlow Robinson, a Prokofiev specialist, said that the events of 1948 were “disastrous” for Prokofiev, who died, as it happened, on the same day as Stalin in 1953. In her biography of Shostakovich, the scholar Laurel Fay speculates that the events of the year may have driven Shostakovich to consider suicide. If nothing else, it drove the composer’s finances into such disrepair that his housekeeper had to use her own savings to help feed his family.

Over the course of the interview, Khrennikov had more to say about Shostakovich. He was incensed by the notion, grown popular in recent decades, that Shostakovich was not a “loyal son” of the Communist Party but a secret dissident. This, Khrennikov insisted, was pure slander. He claimed that Shostakovich joined the Communist Party in 1960 out of sincere belief in its goals. “People just think that they can invent a new biography for him. I think of it as an accusation. It [makes him seem] that he’s insincere and that he’s a liar. It’s not fair to Shostakovich. It shows no human respect. . . . He was a very good member of the Communist Party.”

Khrennikov’s description is directly challenged by Shostakovich’s close friend Isaak Glikman, who recorded an account of visiting Shostakovich shortly after he had made his fateful decision. According to Glikman’s commentary in “Story of a Friendship,” Shostakovich was in a state of “hysterical collapse,” weeping on the bed “with great aching sobs” about having given in to pressure to join the Party.

By the time the Stalin era ended, Khrennikov had evidently grown fond of his position and was learning the art of holding onto it. In later years, during the Brezhnev regime in particular, he worked tirelessly to police what he saw as the proper borders of Soviet music, and made life extremely difficult for the “non-conformists” in the composers’ union.

Among them were the avant-gardists Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Alfred Schnittke, whose First Symphony he harshly criticized and effectively derailed. In later years as Schnittke’s fame grew, Khrenniknov prevented him from traveling to attend premieres of his music in the West. In 1985, Schnittke suffered the first in a series of debilitating strokes and his biographer, Alexander Ivashkin, credits Khrennikov with indirectly shortening the composer’s life. (“He might have done many positive things for certain people,” said Ivashkin recently by phone from London, but “he definitely made it much more painful for real leaders of the Soviet music. He made the whole of life for them much more difficult, much less comfortable, more nervous.”)

When asked directly about Schnittke, Khrennikov claimed simply that he did not care for much avant-garde music, but he expressed his opinion as if he were an everyday concertgoer casually disappointed by a concert he had just heard. “Everyone has a right to write any kind of music he wants to write. Each person also has the right to have his own opinion of this or that music. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “Who said that composers should like each other? Schnittke is just one composer. He has several compositions that are good, and there are some compositions that I don’t like, and that other composers might not like either. This is normal. Why should there be such a fuss?”

Toward the end of the interview, when asked if he had any regrets, Khrennikov stated an unequivocal no. “I’ve never done a bad thing I should be ashamed of or regret so that my conscience would not let me sleep.”

He did, however, make one last comment about socialist realism – the aesthetic principle in whose name so many composers had been denounced – that ended the conversation on a strangely truthful yet almost absurdist note. “Socialist realism,” he said, “had nothing to do with music. Maybe in literature or fine arts, it was applied more to those spheres. But to music, it just could not be applied. To say music of socialist realism is [to say] something very stupid.”

Khrenniknov may well have been convinced of everything he said that day, but it was still shocking to hear at the time. The notion that the harsh denunciations he delivered could be innocuous in the era of high-Stalinism seemed patently absurd. And whether willfully or not, he seemed to have re-invented Shostakovich in the image of his own ideological past. Most mystifying of all were his casual comments about not personally caring for Schnittke’s music. They suggested that he took no responsibility for the power of his office during that era, or the fact that his private opinions about avant-garde music could essentially translate into stultifying, state-sponsored artistic repression.

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And yet, strange as it may seem, in the six years since this interview took place, I have met a surprising number of Russians who have spoken positively about Khrenninkov, his deeds behind the scenes, and his ability to shepherd many of the composers of the union safely through the vicissitudes of the late Soviet era. In the weeks since Khrennikov’s death, I have labored to contact scholars, composers, and musicians who have spent their lives immersed in this milieu, curious as to whether the jury had finally returned a unified verdict on how Khrennikov should be judged by history. The answer is: not even close.

It will likely take years of archival digging by future historians to validate or refute Khrennikov’s claims. That said, many observers contacted for this article agreed that, generally speaking, the composers’ union under his watch enjoyed a relative calm not experienced by other creative unions. The composer Rodion Shchedrin, a firsthand witness to much of this history, was the firmest in this conviction: “Objectively, from the time that Stalin died, nobody from union of composers was arrested. This means something,” Shchedrin said by phone from Munich. “In the unions of writers, or painters, or architects, they lost a lot of very, very gifted persons,” he added.

When speaking with musicians and composers about Khrennikov, one also hears many stories of how he helped people navigate the faceless Soviet bureaucracy. The young pianist Evgeny Kissin, reached in Paris, staunchly defended Khrennikov’s reputation, and said how grateful he was that the composer not only helped launch his career but enabled his entire family to move from their apartment on the outskirts of Moscow to a new home near the city center. (Khrennikov also promoted the violinists Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin.) He was known to help others with medical concerns and financial difficulties, and he aided Prokofiev’s widow, Lina, after she was released from a prison camp, according to Soviet music specialists Harlow Robinson and Malcolm Brown. After Mstislav Rostropovich intervened, Khrennikov also apparently provided some limited aid to Prokofiev, who was destitute in his final years.

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Not everyone, however, interpreted his generosity as selfless. “He could help people with some everyday life things, and he did it quite a lot for composers, but through this way, he bought people,” said composer Elena Firsovaby phone from England. “After that, they had to do what he wanted.” Firsova was part of the so-called Khrennikov Seven, denounced by Khrennikov in 1979 for having her work included in a Western festival. Her music was banned at home, but, she added, the domestic boycott actually piqued interest in her music in the West. “It worked like an advertisement.”

Reached by phone in Moscow, Irina Shostakovich, the composer’s widow, replied to questions about Khrennikov with a long, angry-sounding torrent of Russian, which a translator on the line reduced to “I have nothing to say on the matter.” Before hanging up, however, Shostakovich blurted out that Khrennikov “did not have the right to have a clear conscience.”

The Soviet music scholar Laurel Fay offered a more moderate take. “There are many people whose opinions and views I respect, who love him dearly, so I can’t dismiss him in the way that he is frequently dismissed in the West – as the demon,” said Fay by phone from New York. She pointed out that even the tormented avant-garde composers still remained in the composers’ union and drew its benefits, rather than being expelled. “What exactly is one culpable for?” she asked. “For living life under the Soviet system? For following the rules and enforcing the rules? For not being a dissident? That’s a hard one for me to call, because that affects everyone. Stalin was evil. I would not put Khrennikov in the same category.”

The veteran composer Shchedrin seemed to agree. “In my opinion, a lot of Western critics think Russian life in that time was black and white. It’s totally not true – life is so complicated. It’s impossible to say that somebody was a hero or, you know, the opposite. That’s a very primitive point of view.” He added: “I never liked his music, but as a person, I have to say that he helped many, many people. Everybody could connect with him 24 hours a day – just call his private number and he answered.”

When one speaks with enough observers, Khrennikov begins to fade into the totalitarian shades of grey. His life and career were sufficiently long and variegated that all theories have evidence to draw on. What is beyond question is his political astuteness and his ability to perpetually reinvent himself according to the needs of each new Soviet regime. After the entire country collapsed, his reinvention continued as he became another victim of his times.

Despite the pleas of Khrenniknov’s ardent defenders, the composer’s own words from 2001 have a way of lingering eerily in memory. Shchedrin is surely right to caution against simplistic judgment from a distance, but one still takes away a certain impression from a meeting, and Khrennikov, on the occasion I met him, seemed preternaturally unburdened by the difficult times he had lived through, the impossible tasks his job had entailed.

At this point, whatever hope remains for a truly accurate and comprehensive assessment of Khrennikov may lie deep in the records of the composers’ union. Ivashkin, the Schnittke biographer, said that he recently tried to request the minutes from meetings that took place during the 1960s, only to discover that they are locked from public access, or he speculated, possibly destroyed.

He has a few ideas about who may be responsible.


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This story was published in the Boston Globe on September 2, 2007 under the headline “The Denouncer.”