Siege Diaries 2/27/2022

What’s happened since the last post?

Well, suddenly no one’s talking much about the pandemic or the Freedom Convoy. The latter’s pathetic cries of “freedom!” have been drowned out by the cries of a people whose freedom to even exist is now in peril.

In the world I live in, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” is now the rallying cry of the people of Ukraine. Putin fucked around, and now he’s finding out. I suspect he’s just a little bit stunned at how quickly the world of Western liberal democracies, despite his very careful cultivation of divisions within their societies, has united against him.

Ever since I became aware of Shostakovich’s Symphony 14, my favourite movement has been this one:

It’s two minutes of furious, scatalogical invective. And it has a visual, in Ilya Repin’s famous painting:

The Zaparozhye Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan *oil on canvas *358 × 203 cm *signed b.c.: И.Репин 1880-91

The historical incident that the painting–and the text of Apollinaire’s poem, which was abridged and put into Russian for the Shostakovich work–was the refusal of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to submit to Turkish rule in 1676. This is that text:

Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan!

O sultan, Turkish devil and damned devil’s kith and kin, secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight are you, that can’t slay a hedgehog with your naked arse? The devil excretes, and your army eats. You will not, you son of a bitch, make subjects of Christian sons; we’ve no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle with thee, fuck your mother.

You Babylonian scullion, Macedonian wheelwright, brewer of Jerusalem, goat-fucker of Alexandria, swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, Armenian pig, Podolian thief, catamite of Tartary, hangman of Kamyanets, and fool of all the world and underworld, an idiot before God, grandson of the Serpent, and the crick in our dick. Pig’s snout, mare’s arse, slaughterhouse cur, unchristened brow, screw your own mother!

Shostakovich, of course, was Russian, one whose relationship with the Soviet government was complex, but I think the word “fraught” describes fairly well. Living through the terror of one denunciation in the midst of Stalin’s mid-30s purges and then a second one in 1948, in the early days of the increasingly-paranoid last five years of Stalin’s life–and still managing to survive mostly by writing film scores for Stalinist dreck while at the same time keeping some of his most personal works “in the desk drawer”–not to be played until after Stalin’s death–all of that resulted in a man who somehow learned to walk the line of government acquiescence publicly while privately excoriating Soviet leadership. This was a man who, having joined the Communist Party (under duress), then wrote his Symphony no. 13, which dared, in its choice of texts, to criticize and parody the Soviet Union, and to get it premiered despite multiple attempts at sabotage. But he was also criticized for not speaking out against the treatment of dissidents in the 60s, for being willing to sign anything to keep officials off his back (although it seems as if Soviet officials didn’t even really need his actual signature in these things). He never left the Soviet Union, and in the West, that was seen as a moral failing. It was all black-and-white: You were either a dissident, or you were a lackey and loyal Communist.

I mention this because, particularly after his death, Shostakovich’s complex situation has emerged in better clarity. While I don’t buy the “he was always a dissident” view promulgated by the defenders of the so-called memoirs put together by Volkov and published in 1979, what has emerged is a portrait of someone who found a way, somehow, to be able to write the music he wanted to, and particularly in later life, to criticize the government in a coded way, particularly via the texts chosen for vocal and choral works. And there was also the biggest “desk drawer” work of all, the famous Antiformalist Rayok, an absolutely scathing parodic musical that evolved over a number of years later in Shostakovich’s life. Only his closest friends knew about it, and apparently it was performed privately amongst these friends for years. It’s absolutely crystal clear in this work what he thought of his government.

Right now we’re hearing about various Russian musicians and artists making statements for or against Putin’s war. Most prominently, conductor Valery Gergiev, an outspoken supporter of Putin, has had concerts cancelled on him and possible directing jobs revoked because of this support. And deservedly so in his case; this is a man who had been in much demand in the West as a guest conductor; a wealthy man who has enjoyed the freedom of travel outside of Russia that enjoying such wealth can offer. Other conductors of Russian heritage with strong ties to the West (such as the Berlin Phil’s Kirill Petrenko) have come out in opposition to the war. And at least a few musicians actually in Russia have also done so. But make no mistake: Even 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, it has once again become dangerous to publicly oppose the government in Russia. Those who have stepped forward to do so should be praised–but we should also realize that there are likely many more who are finding private ways to express their opposition. They may or may not be lacking in courage. Many of them have families who might be threatened, or might be LGBTQ+ people forced underground and under constant scrutiny, or simply know that that their economic livelihood is dependent on an oligarchical kleptocracy. They keep their heads down and try to simply live until tomorrow.

In other news, Shostakovich embroidery no. 14 is progressing. I know from another portrait from this series that his shirt is actually pink, but the shadows in the source photo make it look mostly blue–until you look closely and see the flashes of the pink. Depicting this in thread is challenging, but I think I’m getting the hang of it.

It has also been a tough few days on the work front. After a rather harrowing meeting with my manager, I’ve been pouring a lot of work into trying to get a project plan together for one of my projects that will satisfy everyone. I think I see a path forward on this, but it’s been a substantial amount of work and I’ve been battling feelings of inadequacy (even as I’m putting together a draft plan for a second project that I’m getting to run from inception that should be absolutely outstanding). The one thing that I know from past experience is that sometimes I need something like this to help me find clarity.

It’s also my birthday week. I have a massage booked on Friday, and a dinner with friends on Saturday. We’ve also been planning some trips –Ottawa in March, the Montreal and Quebec City trip in May, and the just-me weekend in New York in June; fingers crossed that they all get to happen.

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