The cellist Rostropovich, whose support for Soviet dissidents had led to his exile in the United States in the 1970s, returned to the Soviet Union as the Communist regime was crumbling. Wielding a Kalashnikov, he stood with protesters who had rallied around Boris Yeltsin in defiance of Communist hardliners trying to take power in the August 1991 coup.
Other musicians have been much less willing participants when it comes to politics, doing their best to avoid the political fray. This was particularly true when the risks were greater, as they were in Soviet times, when even a discordant note or a suggestive motif could bring accusations of deviating from the political line.
The composer Shostakovich received a scathing critique of his experimentalism in 1936, infamously titled ‘‘Muddle Instead of Music’’ and published in the Soviet Union’s most important newspaper. With the Stalinist purges moving at full throttle, Shostakovich backed away from some of his more avant-garde music, taking more care to adhere to the political line.
But Shostakovich, like his contemporary Sergei Prokofiev, was also protected by his status. Great musicians of the Soviet period became a source of patriotism and a means of challenging the West’s dominance. Despite the heavy weight of Stalinist repression, Shostakovich and Prokofiev created some of the most cherished, experimental and at times critical music of the 20th century.
After Stalin’s death, many of Shostakovich’s and Prokofiev’s compositions that were interpreted as anti-fascist during the dictator’s life were recast as artistic protests against the Stalinist terror.
Nikitin believes in the examples set by Prokofiev and Shostakovich — great artists who were among the few people who could attempt to oppose, even if only through their music, the existing regime.
‘‘The government and state officials, including the president, should be grateful to these artists, that they give them the opportunity to experience this kind of art, and in this way to make life in our country richer,’’ he said.
In Soviet times, cinema also was under strict government censorship. When Stalin was in power, he decided personally which films could be shown and which were to be stashed ‘‘on the shelf.’’ Despite this, the Soviet era is remembered as the height of Russian filmmaking, from the early experimentalism of Sergei Eisenstein to the charming, Oscar-winning ‘‘Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears.’’
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, things changed drastically for the film industry. A style called ‘‘chernukha,’’ or blackness, became the vogue among many Russian filmmakers, who made dark and violent movies showing contemporary life as a bleak moral vacuum. Others, like director Nikita Mikhailkov, took a different tack by producing upbeat, patriotic films, attracting generous funding in the process.