For the composer Dmitri Shostakovich and writer Vassily Grossman, the experience of making art in Stalinist Russia was fraught, hazardous, privileged—and emotionally, politically, and artistically complex. And the art they made, at times officially lauded and at other times suppressed, resists easy categorization. How can we understand the position of the artist in Soviet Russia, particularly during the period between the Revolution and the final destruction of Nazi Germany? And how can we understand the art Shostakovich and Grossman produced? Is it celebratory, dissident, or ambivalent—and why, for us, does it matter?
In Ambivalence and Revolution, co-presented by Carnegie Hall, Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, and New York Review Books, BISR faculty Nathan Shields, Rebecca Ariel Porte, and Ajay Singh Chaudhary gathered to explore, via listening sessions, readings, and discussion, the music of Shostakovich and the novels of Grossman, as well the context in which they were produced: revolution, modernization, terror, and war. Why do Cold War commitments seem to linger in our reception of Soviet artists? In what ways do Shostakovich and Grossman resist the strict binary of dissident and conformist? Can propagandized art also be successful art? And, is cultural production in the West, touted as diametrically unlike the conditions for art-making in the Soviet sphere, as free as we reflexively believe?