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The Shostakovich Case

To the Editors:

There are precious few original observations or insights in Orlando Figes’s review of my book Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator [NYR, June 10]. Instead, the review is a rehash of inaccuracies, outright distortions, and ill-observed factoids of all sorts, which is not surprising given Professor Figes’s well-publicized research methods (cf. Rachel Polonsky’s “The Trouble with Bistro Culture,” TLS, October 5, 2002). To correct in full all his misstatements will require a small book, not a humble letter to the editors.

Professor Figes relies heavily on Laurel Fay’s attempts to discredit Shostakovich’s memoirs, which have continued for almost a quarter-century and are part of a fierce ongoing debate that tries to define Shostakovich’s complex personality and politics. I have a nagging feeling that these debates, which have already produced several highly polemical tomes, will extend for another twenty-five years or more without a satisfying resolution—so multilayered are Shostakovich’s oeuvre and life.

Setting the Shostakovich controversy aside, I would still like to object to Professor Figes’s underhanded effort to create the impression that all my collaborative books were published after the death of their subjects, thus casting doubt on their provenance.

The facts speak for themselves. My book with Nathan Milstein appeared when the great violinist was alive and well and met with his full approval. Professor Figes conveniently fails to mention another of my books of interviews, Yuri Lyubimov in America, published in New York by Slovo/Word Publishing House in 1992 and reprinted in part in Moscow, 2001. Its subject, the famous Russian director, is happily still working in the theater at the ripe age of eighty-six.

Professor Figes does not mention that my book of conversations with George Balanchine was warmly endorsed by the choreographer’s closest associates, such as Lincoln Kirstein and Barbara Horgan, director of the Balanchine Trust. And he ignores the fact that my interviews with Joseph Brodsky appeared in print on at least fourteen occasions during the poet’s lifetime, twice in book form. As the editors of The New York Review should be well aware, Brodsky was a notoriously contentious person, not at all reluctant to display his displeasure publicly. Yet he never lodged a single objection to any of these publications.

My Conversations with Joseph Brodsky received enthusiastic public support from such old friends of the poet as Anatoly Nayman, Lev Loseff, Yakov Gordin, and Vyacheslav Ivanov (the latter two contributed introductions to the Russian-language editions of the book). It seems that the only person displeased remains the poet’s widow, Maria Sozzani-Brodsky, voicing her objections via her spokesperson, Ann Kjellberg, assistant editor of The New York Review.

Alas, widows of famous men are a rather capricious lot, much harder to please than their great spouses had been. This fact of life is well known to any practicing biographer.

Solomon Volkov
New York City

Orlando Figes replies:

Does Mr. Volkov always respond to a critical review by attacking the integrity of the reviewer? I shall not indulge in a point-by-point rejoinder to his long self-defense, which contains a number of half-truths, but I can assure him that I formed my own opinions about the provenance of what he calls the “Shostakovich memoirs” and that I am not some stooge or copyist of Laurel Fay. I recommend that readers refer to the documented facts and testimonies in A Shostakovich Casebook, upon which I drew for my review, where they will find that the opinions which I expressed are widely shared by many more distinguished scholars than myself, including Henry Orlov, Malcolm Brown, David Fanning, and Paul Mitchinson.

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