Monday, October 13, 2008

Dictators and Art

Josef Stalin, everyone's favorite Georgian, as a teenager studied in a seminary in order to become a priest. He was also busy writing romantic poetry, an image not usually associated with someone better known as a brutal dictator and a mass murderer. The following is from "Morning", published in Kvali, an intellectual magazine:

The pinkish bud has opened,
Rushing to the pale-blue violet
And, stirred by a light breeze,
The lily of the valley has bent over the grass.

The young Yoseb Dzughashvili was a rising star as a poet but then switched his focus to revolutionary Marxism. He still continued to write essays and prose, never letting a ghost writer touch his texts. A supporter of Maxim Gorki, Stalin was well educated in literature, in spite of a lack of formal university education. The fact that he wasn't of the same intellectual background made Leon Trotsky mistrust the Georgian. This feeling was obviously mutual as Trotsky quickly learned and later paid for it with his life in Mexico.

Adolf Hitler
, another bloody dictator, also wanted to be an artist, painting with water colors. His literary accomplishments didn't quite match Stalin's, but Uncle Adolf didn't need help with spelling when he wrote Mein Kampf during his time in prison. To Hitler's credit we must admit that his range of interest in the arts was quite extensive and included architecture and music. Every Richard Wagner lover must have a bit of Hitler in him or her as the composer's music was made the official sound of the Third Reich. Without that support Wagner's ever-so-long operas might have remained in the curiosity closet. Yes, the Nazi regime also had Richard Strauss, but his fame and position paled in comparison to the great Aryan hero. Hitler made sure that all of Josef Joachim's editions of Mozart and other composers also disappeared from the vast empire of the Reich. The father of serious violin playing was born and raised as a Christian but he had Jewish ancestry in his background. I have seen some quite amazing cadenzas replacing those of Joachim's for Mozart's violin concertos, published in Nazi Germany. The person put in charge of this editing was no other than Hans Joachim Moser, the son of Joachim's student and best friend Andreas Moser.

Vladimir Lenin didn't care for the arts. It is said that he visited a theater only a few times and even then because he had to. However, he was responsible for saving the Bolshoi Ballet. Not that Lenin loved ballet and the art form, but he understood what a tremendous propaganda asset he and the Communist Party had in the company. After his death, the same way of thinking continued in the Soviet Union, with an added twist. Whenever a high ranking party official was in the audience and fancied a particular ballerina, there was a little wink after the performance and the young lady with long legs knew what her duties were. When the German army was closing in on Moscow, the entire Bolshoi was put on a big river boat and off they sailed to safety on the Moskva and Volga rivers.

I haven't read enough about another henchman, Mao Zedong, to know of his connection to the arts. However, with the Communist revolution anything Western became a sin against the system. This of course reached its climax during the Cultural Revolution which was orchestrated in part by Mao's last wife Jian Qing. For example, a splendid Chinese pianist of international statute whom I heard in my childhood, related by marriage to Menuhin, committed suicide after his fingers were systematically broken by the Red Guards, with well-aimed hammer blows. A bizarre historical fact is that Beijing had a functioning symphony orchestra during this madness, obviously for the same reason the Soviet Union had its Bolshoi: propaganda. The musicians even wore tails, the only ones in China, when everyone else had to dress in their grey uniforms. Anything is acceptable in the name of a good show.

Not every budding artist can become a powerful political leader but many try to reach a position of dictatorship in their little world. As a rule of thumb, the less talented such a person is, the greater the urge to be in charge. Of course this is true as well in other fields than the arts. Incompetent people become our leaders while the capable and smart ones hide in the background. The propaganda machinery works hard to make these individuals look like something special, be it a politician or a musician. Usually truth is of no value and can't be seen from the jungle of lies. History will eventually tell us the true state of affairs, but by then it is too late. A little miserable newspaper reporter or critic in the media with a soul of a scorpion can pretend to run a town's public opinion, to the benefit of others like him, his soul brothers and sisters. With this help a truly inferior baton wielder or "soloist" can broadcast that he/she is in high demand and sought after worldwide. Cucamonga is not London or even Liverpool, but to these people it is the center of the world and they like to make the townspeople believe just that.

Yes, Stalin and Hitler have had many secret admirers who have wanted to emulate them, living among us. Destroying other people's lives is fun after all, isn't it? What separates the wannabe dictators from the real ones? It seems like the successful ones were much better orators and could actually write coherent sentences, without the help of others. One thing these little monsters have in common with the big ones: they all expect their protégés to be available to fulfill their fantasies, just like the Bolshoi ballerinas did. Perhaps the willing ones see this as the only way to be promoted, be it a dancer, writer, musician, or just an intern. Wink, wink.

"Ghost of Stalin writing" collage by Ilkka Talvi