Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

by M.T. Anderson Truth is stranger than fiction sometimes.  Sometimes, the truth is so bizarre, so out in left field, so deliciously weird that even Muldar and Scully would have to investigate.Our tale begins with a spy-worthy journey as a mysterious microfilm makes its way from Soviet Russia to Tehran, then on to Cairo, through northern Africa, where it crossed the Atlantic Ocean, landing in Recife, Brazil, where it was picked up by a U.S. Navy plane and flown to Florida, finally landing in Washington, D.C.  What is on this mysterious microfilm?  Battle plans?  Spy reports?  Wait, what?  A symphony?  All that for a symphony? You bet!The following pages present a multi-layered biography, not just of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, but also of the establishment of the Soviet Union and its often bloody and terrifying history under Joseph Stalin.  A dual biography is important for context here.  It’s impossible to understand Shostakovich and his works unless you understand the circumstances under which he composed.  For this particular book, M.T. Anderson uses Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony — the Leningrad Symphony — as the lens through which he views not only Shostakovich, but the Soviet Union.  One of the most remarkable things about the Seventh Symphony is that Shostakovich composed most of it while living in Leningrad during the brutal Nazi siege (September 1941-January 1944) in World War II.  The Seventh Symphony became synonymous with the Soviet war effort during World War II, and was key in gaining material support from Western allies.  The symphony humanized the Soviets to Western audiences and was often played as part of fundraising efforts on behalf of Soviet civilians. Anderson presents a well-researched book about one of the most well-known 20th century composers, who wrote music under unimaginable circumstances (the Russian Revolution, the purges under Stalin, the repudiation of Shostakovich by people he considered friends). He also refuses to condescend to his intended audience, and never sugarcoats the torture under the Stalin regime or the privations in Leningrad under the siege.  Anderson doesn’t dwell on it, either, but he offers more than enough detail to get the point across without gratuitous lingering over some of more gruesome aspects. Anderson is also mindful of his subject.  The Soviet Union was not a place where one could necessarily freely exchange ideas.  Every so often, Anderson reminds his readers that quotes attributed to Shostakovich might genuinely be Shostakovich’s ideas, but there is a good chance Shostakovich spoke under duress.  It also wasn’t uncommon for the Soviet government to allow artists to travel outside the Soviet Union, but keep their family home as “insurance” that the artist in question would not only toe the Communist party line, but return home.Anderson provides several photographs of Shostakovich, Leningrad during the siege, and production photos from the Soviet performing arts scene of the 1920s.  He also helpfully provides maps that outline the Nazi siege of Leningrad, delineating German and Soviet held territory.  Anderson also includes an extensive bibliography of works he consulted while he wrote the book.This book would be a great resource if you’re in Social Studies 11/12, and would like a different perspective of World War II.  To be honest (and I was a history teacher for many years before I earned my library degree), the Soviet side of things is somewhat forgotten in the larger narrative of World War II.  It would be also a good idea to track down some of Shostakovich’s recordings and listen to them after you’ve read the book.  Google “Shostakovich Seventh Symphony,” and you ought to find several recordings on YouTube.  You don’t have to watch the video, just listen.  Shostakovich’s symphonies really are as Anderson describes them: film scores without the film.  After reading Symphony for the City of the Dead, you don’t really need a film to appreciate Shostakovich’s music.M. T. Anderson is the author of the award-winning books Feed and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing.*On a side note, if you look on a map of Russia today, you won’t find a city called Leningrad.  You will find St. Petersburg, though;  Anderson traces how St. Petersburg became Petrograd, then Leningrad under Soviet rule.  It wasn’t unusual for cities to have their names changed under Soviet rule, and they sometimes changed almost overnight when a new Party leader came to power.