Monday, April 27, 2009

More Agony than Ecstasy

I finished reading Simon Morrison's The People's Artist: Prokofiev's Soviet Years today. (Spending more time in medical waiting rooms has given me more time to read, even if it sometimes eats into my writing time!) It was not an easy read. The author tended to waver between chronological and topical organization, meaning that some items got repeated, while others were introduced out of chronological order. Furthermore, there were over 60 pages of notes. That kind of thoroughness never reads particularly quickly. Nevertheless, as Joseph Stalin becomes a more and more distant historical figure, I feel it becomes more and more necessary for us to appreciate the full force of the impact that he had on Russians trying to be creative artists under his rule. Indeed, when we consider some of the recent revivals of Stalin nostalgia in today's Russia, that kind of appreciation is absolutely vital. As Morrison tells the story, Sergei Prokofiev decided to return to Russia figuring that his career would advance more rapidly without having to contend with competition from the likes of Sergei Rachmaninoff and Igor Stravinsky. As a result, he ended up contending with a monstrous bureaucracy based on the ideological necessity of micromanaging his slightest effort. (There is a section in the final chapter entitled "Kutuzov's Three Measures," dealing with Prokofiev arguing about three measures in Part II of War and Peace, never produced in his lifetime, at a time when he was so close to death that his doctors tried to keep him from composing at all.)

We tend not to think about such abusive management practices in any context other than a comic strip like Dilbert or a situation comedy like Better off Ted. However, this kind of reality reminds me of a story I once heard at a conference. A researcher who was interested in Jung-style personality types decided to use the historical record to approximate the personality types of many of the famous leaders in history. That researcher then questioned a sample of managers in an effort to determine whether they shared any consensus on the personality type of the ideal CEO. It turns out that there was a consensus; and, when the researcher compared this consensus type against his database of "historical" personality types, he found that the leader with the best match to that consensus was Stalin. This anecdote made for a good laugh at the conference, but it was the kind of laugh that concealed a much darker truth. There are many ways to understand what life under Stalin was like. Those who prefer music to politics and history might find Morrison's account of Prokofiev in Soviet Russia to be an accessible path to that understanding.

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