Thursday, April 10, 2014

Schnittke's rejection letter to the Lenin Prize Committee

In 1990, Russia was changing fast. The single-party system of communism was giving way to a multi-party system. Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika were proving the undoing of the Soviet Union - its dissolution was less than a year away.

From composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998), one of the most unique Russian composers since Shostakovich, we get an interesting glimpse into the change in attitude sweeping into Russia - emboldened, cautiously optimistic, and at last free to speak one's mind.
Composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998)
image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
In the following letter to the Lenin Prize Committee, Schnittke gives his faith-based reasoning for rejecting the Soviet Union's most prestigious musical prize (This would have been the equivalent of rejecting the Pulitzer Prize!). His thoughtful argument presupposes the idea, all too easily forgotten in our permissive time, that religious voices deserve representation and recognition. As a convert to Christianity from the early 1980s, Schnittke here performs the verbal equivalent of toppling Lenin from the pedestals on which he was so literally and ubiquitously exalted in the Soviet Union.

A word on the cult of Lenin: while in Russia last summer, I was researching Karelian folk music at an archive in Petrozavodsk. I came across a so-called 'folk song' about Lenin in an anthology, and asked the archivist about it. She told me that that sort of thing was essential for getting such anthologies published during Soviet times. "In school they would make us cry about Lenin," she told me, "The way they would talk about his life, his struggles and early death would manipulate us young children into tears." Marx famously wrote that " the opiate of the masses." But his Soviet disciples clearly had no qualms about creating an atheist 'state religion' around its leaders, borrowing elements of ritual, liturgy, hagiography, iconography and veneration of relics (including most famously the preserved body of Lenin on Red Square)!

Perhaps no wonder then, that Schnittke would bring down the hammer so hard against Lenin. In our own time of complex political intrigue, this letter is a reminder of the power in a principled stand of faith against demagoguery. With increasing fire throughout, Schnittke works up to an outright denunciation of the former 'world of officialdom' in which 'almost everything good was rejected.' While standing up for those (such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich) who had previously received the prize under Soviet duress, Schnittke makes a strong case for discontinuing the use of Lenin's name for the award. I don't know what effect his letter had on the committee, other than the fact that Schnittke was indeed not awarded the prize as per his request (the only arts awards that year were posthumous, including movie director Andrei Tarkovsky), and that 1990 was the last year the prize was awarded. His full letter is quoted below.

Ukrainian protesters destroying a Lenin Statue Dec. 8, 2013
image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Schnittke's letter to the Lenin Prize Committee (1990) 

The introduction of a multiparty system in our country has completely changed material and spiritual reality. From uniformity and centralization of values to real mutability and flexibility is a giant leap. Thus from day to day the function of everything has changed, and this also applies to historical figures. Whereas in former times they served to sum up history and peoples, acting as symbols of an epoch, nowadays they are losing this generalizing role. Their role in history is no longer one of centralization, but a concrete and historical one. No longer are they symbols–once again they have become real people.
Until recently the figure of Lenin still had a generalizing historical role. He was a man who undoubtedly had the strongest possible influence on the twentieth century and the history of our country, and was therefore its symbol in the long period of centralism, irrespective of one's personal attitude toward him. But today, in a pluralist climate of opinion, he is losing this generalizing role and needs more precise evaluation, more especially in the personal judgement of each one of us. It is thus impossible to approve the retention of the name of a man who, in spite of his enormous importance, expressed the interests of but one party, albeit the most authoritative, in the official title of an important state prize, one intended to express the complete and varied picture of our present reality.
1958 Soviet postage stamp celebrating the Lenin Prize
image courtesy Wikimedia Commons 
I can see no possibility of my accepting this prize, were it awarded to me, if only because I am a man of faith, while Lenin was an atheist. For more than seventy years, and still recently, we looked upon the figure of Lenin as the expression of the centralism of the time–but today we look upon this figure in the context of the whole historical reality with all its contradictions. In the conditions which, although they have only just arisen, are new in principle, the former function of Lenin's name–which until recently was the absolute and undisputed symbol of the age–becomes untenable, and his name regains its true role in history as that of the leader of a proletarian revolution in the early twentieth century. This role is diametrically opposed to the real historical significance of Grigor Narekatsi, the Armenian monk and thinker who lived a thousand years ago and who in his Book of Sorrow expressed purely Christian ideas.* For me to accept the prize in these circumstances (not a month ago, but at this actual moment!) would be to compromise my principles, both in relation to the role of a twentieth-century communist leader and to that of a tenth-century Christian philosopher.
I am very grateful to the Lenin Prize Committee for retaining me as a candidate for a prize. I regard this as in the highest degree an expression of trust and goodwill. All the more so because it has been the highest award for a whole group of figures of our time whose greatness and supremacy are indisputable. 
But that time was different; it left one with no choice in the matter: in the world of officialdom almost everything good was rejected, and, when this proved impossible, it was distorted. So let anyone nowadays dare cast a stone at Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Karaev, Oistrakh, Mravinsky, Gilels, Richter, Rostropovich, Rozhdestvensky, and other Lenin Prize winners (this is just to speak of music)–let them dare nowadays, when to each one of us it also seems "easy and pleasant to tell the truth" (much easier than it was to keep silent twenty or thirty years ago, with destructive effects on one's heart, blood pressure, nerves, life...)!
I trust that I shall be understood and not blamed for asking that my name be removed from the list of candidates.
Alfred Schnittke

[Russian text published in Besedy s Al'fredom Shnitke, compiled and edited by A.V. Ivashkin (Moscow: Kul'tura, 1994), p.233. Quoted from A Schnittke Reader, edited by Alexander Ivashkin, 41-42. Translated by John Goodliffe. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2002.]

*Schnittke had previously set text from the Book of Sorrow in 1985's Concerto for Mixed Chorus, and had an obvious fondness and sympathy for Narekatsi's text–which is essentially the prayer of a composer that his songs will heal listeners. It is hands-down my favorite Schnittke composition and a postmodern Christian masterpiece. Videos of all four movements with the score can be found here, here, here, and here. Don't miss out on the last movement: the beautiful resolution to the whole work and a powerful prayer for inspiration ending with pealing 'amens' with the choir split into over sixteen voices. 

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