One such individual that inspired me in the last couple of weeks was a Russian composer called Dmitri Shostakovitch. What makes him heroic is not specifically his music, but what he did with it. Here, a little context is required. Shostakovich (Mytia in Russian) was considered one of the greatest composers of his generation for one reason: Not only was he avant garde and revolutionary in his compositional style, but his music had an uncanny ability to communicate the emotions of his people more than anything else could. When he first started composing, it was music that reflected enthusiasm for the newly formed Soviet Union.
And then along came Stalin.
To this day, he is recognized as one of the greatest villains of the 20th century, directly responsible for the murder of at least three million of his compatriots between 1934–1953 (others estimate the number of people murdered by the NKVD or KGB under orders of Stalin was closer to 60 million).
Where Shostakovich fits into all this, is that unlike many of his fellow artists, he did not hide from the Stalinist horrors. He did not flee to another country, nor did he take his own life as many did. He stood before the giant beast that was the Stalinist purge, and he spoke his rage, his fear and his angst at the Soviet authorities through his music. The most fascinating aspect of his story is that many of the Aparatchik, or party members, absolutely loved his music: They called it avant garde, and the true voice of the proletariat. When I hear how they reacted to his music, I sometimes wonder what they were listening to. This is especially true of his 5th symphony.
It was written in 1937, at the height of Stalin’s terror. The opening movement captures the depth of that fear that lied in the hearts of all Soviets, but it also expressed a profound grief around the events of people disappearing by the hundreds every day. As I said, the Soviet authorities were quite pleased by this piece. They saw it as a tremendous representation of Soviet art. And it was unique: it was hailed around the world as one of the most intense and innovative pieces of music composed in the 20th century. But it wasn’t composed for the proletariat or for the glorious future of Mother Russia. Nor was it really written for the advancement of the Arts. He wrote for the people who experienced the terror first hand. This symphony voiced their outrage, but also brought relief (“finally, somebody is speaking out against this monster, Stalin”), and hope; the hope that this nightmare would soon be over.
Shostakovich really practicing Social Justice? I don’t know. What I do know is that something in his defiance to the system (a system he cooperated with, since he was a lifelong communist), in his desire to be a voice for and to the voiceless does speak to me in a powerful way about our own mission to be a voice to the voiceless. This reveals the need to cry out in the desert when the insanity of our own world has become too much. This is something we are called to do. This is part of our walk with the Radical Christ. I only pray this year that God grant me the courage to be that voice.