23 August 2011

Dmitrii, Stalin, and the Diva: the cognitive dissonance of football and ballet

This site has elided musty old artefacts of Russian culture and football before, when we suggested the formal proximity of Andrei Arshavin and Joseph Brodsky. In a sense, though, such an elision is too easy: football and poetry are such distant cousins that they can be arranged together in pretty patterns without risk of friction. A more incestuous subject of comparison would be dance, the most athletically physical art form. How often have we heard players of a particular vintage described as ‘balletic’? When sport is played well enough, it seems to resemble dance. Dance is athletics’ nearest cousin in the canon of respectable art forms; and it is perhaps because of this intimacy that attempts to reconcile the two are more fraught than facile comparisons of strikers and sonneteers.

Those of you without a sense of purpose in your lives may have noticed two photographs at the bottom of Football in the GULag’s homepage. On the right is a collection of ‘raving sorts’ enjoying a football match in the Soviet Union (I imagine in Leningrad in the 1930s). Front-right, squinting through Bauhaus spectacles, is Dmitrii Shostakovich, coolly ardent football fan and self-conscious colossus of twentieth-century classical music.


That Shostakovich adored football is well documented; it was he who coined the phrase, ‘the ballet of the masses’. He would often take in two matches on Sunday afternoons, in support of the Dynamo and Zenit Leningrad teams of his hometown. His letters to his friend Isaak Glikman, which have been translated into English, furnish us with touching and trivial insights into his quirkily obsessive relationship to the game: quotations from matchday programmes, newspaper clippings, eulogies and curses for the fluctuating form of Dynamo/Zenit stalwarts. Glikman remembers how Shostakovich was coaxed into football by the artist (and professional boxing referee) Vladimir Lebedev; how, in contrast to Lebedev’s and his own ‘extraordinarily uninhibited’ matchday fashion, Dmitrii would sit through matches in a state of intensely quiet excitement; how he would procure a dacha for himself and Glikman in the provinces, only to abandon their rural idyll after a few days in order to return to Leningrad for a match; how, with his wife absent one weekend, Shostakovich invited the entire Zenit team to his apartment for dinner, and ended up playing his latest compositions on the piano for the increasingly drunk and accommodating players. There is a sense too in Glikman’s nostalgia of the proximity of football to dance. The football of Shostakovich’s reveries was characterised by ‘elegant and intricate movements and a special kind of football choreography: not for nothing was one of the Dynamo stars, Pyotr Dementiyev, affectionately known locally as ‘The Ballerina’.’ ‘In those days,’ Glikman ponders in a brilliantly succinct dismissal of all football since Hitler, ‘the actual process of play was very important’.[1] Yet despite this alignment of interests, the one formal conjoinment of his private passion to his professional art that Shostakovich realised in his long career – the 1930 ballet, The Golden Age (Zolotoi vek) – was a private and professional failure.

The Golden Age was the first of Shostakovich’s only three ballet scores, composed between 1930 and 1935 (followed by The Bolt (Bolt), 1931; The Limpid Stream (Svetlyi ruchei), 1935), all of which sunk into critical and popular anonymity – and Shostakovich’s own disfavour – as a result of the shifting Soviet cultural politics of the 1930s. All three were revived only after the composer’s death. The libretto, originally titled Dinamiada, the work of Aleksandr Ivanovskii, was the winning entry in an officially-sponsored competition aimed at promoting ‘Soviet ballet’; it called for ‘new forms of dance, such as acrobatics, gymnastics, et al.’.[2] The narrative concerns the travails of a football team of bright young things, who travel from the USSR to a composite bourgeois country referred to as ‘Faschland’ to take part in an industrial exhibition, the eponymous Golden Age. A frisky female native of Faschland falls for the strapping captain of the team, and attempts to seduce him, incurring the wrath of her boyfriend (named, succinctly, ‘Fascist’). The capitalist pigs in charge of the exhibition see their blossoming romance as an opportunity to stage some phoney ‘class harmony’, and advertise a forthcoming dance between the captain and his belle. The captain, his mind properly focused on the morality of labour and zonal marking, declines the invitation, and he and his team are promptly arrested on trumped up charges. ‘Fascist’ dons the Soviets’ uniform instead to act out the dance with Diva, only for the workers of Faschland to free their Soviet brethren and initiate a final ‘Dance of Solidarity’.

A long way from Bolton

Beyond the nerdy thrill of one of the century’s finest composers scoring for football, there is much to enjoy about The Golden Age in this original conception. This is the brash young Shostakovich of the deranged opera of Gogol’s The Nose and the cantankerous early symphonies; allowed to act the part of a 1920s avant-gardist by the relative creative and economic freedom of the New Economic Plan, alive to twitchings from Berlin and Paris. A tale of youthful and muscular class solidarity is enlivened by trappings of urban, bourgeois, and popular culture. Action takes place in a music hall; football is made dance; Diva seduces with a sultry foxtrot. Even the scene titles are fun: ‘Dance of the Black Man and 2 Soviet Football Players’; ‘A Rare Case of Mass Hysteria’; ‘The Touching Coalition of the Masses, Slightly Fradulent’; ‘Total Unveiling of the Conspiracy – The Bourgeoisie in Panic’. In the spirit of Kurt Weill in Weimar Germany, or Charles Ives in New York, the classical was being rejuvenated by streaks of city life and populist melody. The ballet’s production team embarked on an equally polystylistic crusade to keep pace with Ivanovskii’s and Shostakovich’s energy. The young choreographers, Vasilii Vainonen and Leonid Iakobson, undaunted by their first commission, included folk and popular dances, acrobatics, puppetry, boxing, and a satirical polka about the Geneva Peace Convention; designer Valentina Khodasevich created a set of dynamic, Constructivist angles and distinctly ‘civilian’ costumes. After its première at the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad on 26th October, 1930, the ballet enjoyed 19 showings throughout the 1930-31 season, was exported to Kiev and Odessa, and was scheduled for performance before the city Soviet; overall, a ‘noisy success’, by all accounts popular amongst its urban audiences. I have been unable to find any footage of this original production (for reasons outlined below), although the finale from this 1980s, perestroika-era revival does give a somewhat mollified sense of the appeal of the original.

That despite all this The Golden Age is little-known, we can put down to chronological misfortune. As the 1920s gave way to the 1930s, so a process of artistic centralisation and prescription spread through the Soviet Union.[3] ‘Bourgeois’, ‘formalist’, avant-garde works fell from favour as the First Five Year Plan, the Great Leap Forward to Socialism, and the Cultural Revolution that characterised (some would say caricatured) Stalin’s reign kicked in. A refined impulse towards formal traditionalism in the arts, an attempt to solidify claims of a grand Soviet culture by making that culture as stolid and granite as possible, did not bode well for a production such as Vainonen’s and Iakobson’s; the golden age of experimentation itself was grinding to a recriminatory halt. On the eve of the scheduled performance for the Leningrad Soviet, a piece by Iurii Brodersen in The Worker and Theatre journal began the backlash. ‘How could it happen that the ideology of the bourgeois music hall, that urbanist mongrel, that ideology so hostile to the Soviet theatre, how could it penetrate to the stage of the state theatre, and what is more, in such an excessive dose?’ he hollered.[4] The score and the staging proved too modern, too urban, erotic, athletic, and too involved for the new traditionalists. As the production was quietly withdrawn, the initial enthusiasm of the audience became lost in the historiography, until it was possible for later conservative revisionists to dismiss the ballet as an unfortunate symptom of its infected era. An example of ‘the measles of formalism’ that stymied Soviet ballet’s development, according to Leningradskaia Pravda in April 1936; ‘musical cacophony, piling up alien orchestral stunts… [that] have had an extremely negative effect on the genuinely Soviet, realistic ballet’,[5] noted a commentator in 1950. Perhaps the best blindside to Shostakovich’s 1920s bravado came in 1948, again in The Worker and Theatre: ‘the aesthetic taste of the Soviet audience proved to be better than that of Shostakovich, and his ballets flopped one after the other.’[6] Harsh words, yet Ivanovskii and his colleagues perhaps had fair warning, when the veteran opera singer Ivan Ershov happened upon rehearsals for the ballet, and was appalled. ‘What on earth are you doing?’ he asked Ivanovskii. ‘Surely you know that ballet is a fairy tale, a fiction?’


This rather distended exposition provides a case study of football colliding with politics and aesthetics in a pressurised sphere. But what does the case of The Golden Age allows us to say about football itself, and its cultural representation/transferral more generally? The entire narrative of the ballet and its treatment raises the question of representation, metaphor, inference.

 To begin with, the plot of the libretto is founded on the concept of ‘sports diplomacy’, a field that makes explicit the fact that sport has meaning beyond sport itself. Sports diplomacy in its many guises was a powerful tool for the Soviet Union, whether dressed up in its early, labour-international, Internationale knotted headscarf, or in its post-war, Olympian elite, Moscow 1980 suit jacket. This form of diplomacy is effective (if not efficient) because, being enacted metonymically through sport and not bluntly through politicians, it is necessarily ambivalent. Depending on whether the spectator at hand is a working man, an ambassador, or a coach, the cultural performance on show can be read as a ‘simple’ sporting match, or as a tussle between rival political systems, or as an opportunity to advance policy, or as valuable training. It creates and choreographs shades of cultural grey. The narrative of The Golden Age itself may be based upon successful footballing tours made by Soviet teams in the 1920s. Football was the first sport exploited in this manner; it was emblematic of the working class, and had since at least 1910 been the most popular sport in Russia. The first major tour of its kind, through Scandinavia, Germany, and Estonia in August 1923, had predictable divergent motivations. The nascent Bolshevik state needed to recommence trading with its neighbours, and hence required access to shipping in the Gulf of Finland. More vaguely, there was a desire amongst the elite for a cultural reconnection with Western Europe, which was at that time still seen as the cradle of future revolutions. Having blooted their way to victory after victory, the Russians returned home, their venture an ‘agitation success’ according to Pravda: the left-leaning Swedish newspaper Folkets Dagblad Politiken had sponsored the tour, and arranged for a match against factory workers in Göteborg on Labour Day that saw the Soviet flag raised to the strains of the ‘Internationale’. Yet those with the more liberal agenda of trade on their minds were also satisfied. Another Stockholm paper, Dagens Nyheter, welcomed back the Russians to the international circuit, decried any attempts at political point-scoring, commented on the briskness of the football, and advocated renewed commercial relations.[7] A successfully grey metonymy had been achieved.

Yet by definition, this greyness, this ambivalence of representation, cannot always be neatly appropriated by all sides. The Golden Age’s plot is one of totalised cultural metonymy: football = USSR vs. Capitalism. Yet the story of the ballet as an artefact is a more troubled one that sees one cultural form transfixed through another; it is football-as-ballet. This murkier metaphor raises the issue of conflicting strata of interpretation that can contribute greatly to an understanding of the cultural greys of a place like Stalinist Russia, and a composer like Dmitrii Shostakovich.

More than most Soviet artists, Shostakovich has been at the epicentre of a sometimes vituperative, often inane Cold War tug-of-war. Was this neurotic and difficult man a willing servant of the Soviet system, or did he harbour ill-concealed contempt for the country that he, after all, never abandoned, despite its frequent assaults against him and his output? Was his music abstract dissidence aimed at subverting his official lifestyle of commission, denunciation and self-criticism?[8] As Shostakovich is subsumed into the bipolarity of dissident hero/deluded apologist, so the metaphorical, representative nature of his work becomes superannuated with claim and counterclaim. In this trading of blows, the music is often forgotten, or else examined as a political mirror. Take, for instance, the Fifth Symphony (1937), a piece central to both sides of the orthodoxy-revisionism argument. Shostakovich’s first major work following a particularly harrowing wave of press criticism, the Fifth responded to the demands of the regime with more conventionally grandiose optimism, symphonic pomp, and a finale of blazing D-major fanfare. The revisionists argue that this triumphalism is overegged to the point of tipping into parody; the symphony is mechanistically rather than organically positive, a satiric response to the censors. Ian McDonald, one of the loudest cheerleaders for the dissident Shostakovich, gets rather carried away. He imagines one passage to stand for a political rally, and assigns theatrical roles (Stalin, his stooges, the fawning crowd) to different sections of the orchestra. For him, this is ‘representation of the most coarsely literal kind… a shocking intrusion of cartoon satire, the target of which can only be Stalin – an amazingly bold stroke’.[9]

Dmitrii: hipster glasses or death

This level of ludicrously involved exegesis negates the value of the art form in order that said art can become entirely representative of something else. In The Golden Age, the football of the young team represents not athletic achievement but Soviet society. This society is the best in the world, thus the team much triumph. Along the same rhetorical lines, the Western revisionist stance on Soviet art holds that Soviet society was a terrible mistake; a genius like Shostakovich cannot possibly have bought into such a mistake, and thus his music represents nothing but its satirical rejection. McDonald’s fantasy led musicologist Richard Taruskin to draw a distinction between ‘extrovert’ and ‘introvert’ exegesis. McDonald’s puppet theatre is wholly ‘extrovert’, in that it renders cultural artefact entirely relative to external context; for Taruskin, this needs to be combined with the ‘introversive semiotic’, the way in which the music is put together relative to its own constituent melodic, rhythmic, and thematic elements.[10] This distinction reveals, perhaps, just why The Golden Age was so problematic for its time and place: the two levels of exegesis were at odds. Ballet is usually extroversive, in that it is uncommon for it to feature meta-dance about ballet/dance itself.[11] Ballet dancers are magical swans and country lovers and so on, but rarely just dancers. In the case of Shostakovich’s football ballet, the extrovert dimension is of modern, urban, populist, erotic, and athletic subjects. But the introvert dimension of ballet in stolid, Stalinist Russia – the traditional rules of choreography, the received notions of grace, the sense of escapist thematicisation expressed by Ershov – was, as the press reactions above demonstrate, still very conservative. In other words, the extrovert was in conflict with the introvert: football versus ballet. In this sense, it was impossible to attempt what the young designers, choreographers, and composer did with The Golden Age. You couldn’t get away with it.[12]


Isaak Glikman, remembering afternoons with his close friend at Leningrad matches, notes that the composer

disliked bad temper, aggressive or foul play on the pitch. He loved it best when the game was open, honourable and chivalrous. He found intensely moving the selfless absorption [of the players]… What attracted Shostakovich to football, I believe, was an idealized vision of the game.[13]
There is an intriguing parallel here between Shostakovich’s idealisation and that of the sports diplomacy, both of which see football as a totalised representation of something else. But Dmitrii is being introvert, seeing actually-existing football as realisation of the beautiful, ‘selfless’ potential of its rules and sporting quirks. The state, on the other hand, is extrovert, and narcissistic. Football is Soviet society. There is plenty of evidence for the presumption of this metonymy. A short handbook on football in the USSR produced by the state publishing house in 1951 is explicit. ‘Every new record, every new victory for our sportsmen at international competitions, is above all a victory for socialist culture’; ‘a sense of the fatherland, a heightened idealism, and the scientific nature of our physical culture and a decisive influence on the formation of the Soviet school of football’.[14] Making football stand for something beyond itself is to exploit it, just as McDonald and others exploit Shostakovich to their political ends. The handbook goes on to make an interesting claim: that the ‘technical play of Soviet footballers is distinguished by its expediency’.[15] Soviet sports diplomacy, and its agent, the concept of ‘Soviet culture’, make a game into the foundations for advances in policy, or international bragging rights, thus depriving it of its internal semiotic coherence; the coherence that Shostakovich fell so in love with in the first place. There may, then, have been an irreconcilable difference between composer and Party after all, although not that envisaged by McDonald and co.: one which boiled down to the simple distinction in standing and perspective between fan and chairman.

In a letter to Glikman on 10th December 1957, Shostakovich lamented the death of the former striker Grigorii Fedotov. Glikman and Shostakovich never had much time, it seems, for the USSR national team, preferring their Leningrad and adopted Moscow club sides; after Yugoslavia beat the USSR 3-1 at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, the two men celebrated by getting drunk on Finnish champagne outside Komarovo train station. Commenting on the exploits of Fedotov, Shostakovich admits that the player never got the wider recognition he deserved, due apparently to his uneasiness faced with the political pressure that came with playing for the national team. Unlike those heroes of sporting labour, Shostakovich writes with some bitterness, ‘the only thing the late Fedotov did was score goals, an occupation well known to be apolitical.’

[1] Dmitri Shostakovich and Isaak Glikman, Story of a Friendship: The Letters of Dmitry Shostakovich to Isaak Glikman, trans. by Anita and Anthony Phillips (London: Faber, 2001), pp. xxvii-xxx.

[2] Manashir Yakubov, ‘The Golden Age: the true story of a première’, in David Fanning (ed.), Shostakovich Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 189-204 (p. 191).

[3] This distinction between the culture of the 1920s and that of the 1930s, as well as the relative merits of both, is one of the sharpest debates in Russian studies. Suffice to say that whilst I’ve gone with a clear-cut divide here, I do think the fact that the West has spent so long bemoaning the sterilisation of the 1920s avant-garde in Russia has more to do with their narcissism towards a culture that more closely resembled their own than with any great loyalty to experimentation. Having said that, a ballet about football is still wicked cool.

[4] Yakubov, p. 196.

[5] How about ‘realistic ballet’ for a contradiction in terms?

[6] Yakubov, pp. 191-2.

[7] Details of this tour and others are in Victor Peppard and James Riordan, Playing Politics: Soviet Sport Diplomacy to 1992 (London: JAI, 1993).

[8] The debate is too entrenched and too voluminous to go into here. Perhaps the most important and controversial document is Solomon Volkov’s Testimony, which purported to be the composer’s memoirs; it presented Shostakovich as fiercely anti-Soviet, and claimed that many of his works were veiled criticisms of the state. Testimony has been widely discredited. 

[9] In Richard Taruskin, ‘Public lies and unspeakable truth: interpreting Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony’, in Fanning, pp. 17-56 (p. 49).

[10] Ibid., p. 51.

[11] Although one of the most famous, and most Russian, ballets of twentieth century, Stravinskii’s Rite of Spring, is founded on this very concept. 

[12] There is a historical irony here, in that the world of physical culture and athleticism, or fizkul’tura, was to become more and more officially sanctioned through the 1930s. Indeed, fizkul’tura was one cultural arena where avant-garde experimentation was tolerated long after it had been expunged from music and literature. This may have been due to the symbiosis between fizkul’tura and the nascent artistic fields of photography and cinema, in which experimentation was more inevitable than elsewhere. Had Shostakovich written the score for a film about a Soviet football team, I suspect he wouldn’t have met such resistance.

[13] Glikman and Shostakovich, p. xxviii.

[14] V. V. Frolov, Futbol v SSSR (Spravochnik) (Moscow: GosIzdat ‘FizKul’tura i Sport’, 1951), pp. 122, 13.

[15] Ibid., p. 14. 

1 comment:

  1. this is very interesting, I did not know much about Stalin and his relation to the soccer. I as an online bookmaker can't use information like this for future games, but it was nice to read something different as I tend to read