Cover image for Music for the Revolution: Musicians and Power in Early Soviet Russia By Amy Nelson

Music for the Revolution

Musicians and Power in Early Soviet Russia

Amy Nelson


$40.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03106-4

346 pages
6" × 9"
20 b&w illustrations

Music for the Revolution

Musicians and Power in Early Soviet Russia

Amy Nelson

Music for the Revolution is a gripping account of one of the great cultural struggles in early Soviet Russia. Written by a professional historian and trained musician, the book offers a grand synthesis marked by great erudition, superb research, and fair-minded judgment.”


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Winner of the 2005 Heldt Award given by the Association for Women in Slavic Studies of the AAASS as the Best book by a woman in any area of Slavic/East European/Eurasian studies

Mention twentieth-century Russian music, and the names of three "giants"—Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitrii Shostakovich—immediately come to mind. Yet during the turbulent decade following the Bolshevik Revolution, Stravinsky and Prokofiev lived abroad and Shostakovich was just finishing his conservatory training. While the fame of these great musicians is widely recognized, little is known about the creative challenges and political struggles that engrossed musicians in Soviet Russia during the crucial years after 1917. Music for the Revolution examines musicians’ responses to Soviet power and reveals the conditions under which a distinctively Soviet musical culture emerged in the early thirties.

Given the dramatic repression of intellectual freedom and creativity in Stalinist Russia, the twenties often seem to be merely a prelude to Totalitarianism in artistic life. Yet this was the decade in which the creative intelligentsia defined its relationship with the Soviet regime and the aesthetic foundations for socialist realism were laid down. In their efforts to deal with the political challenges of the Revolution, musicians grappled with an array of issues affecting musical education, professional identity, and the administration of musical life, as well as the embrace of certain creative platforms and the rejection of others. Nelson shows how debates about these issues unfolded in the context of broader concerns about artistic modernism and elitism, as well as the more expansive goals and censorial authority of Soviet authorities.

Music for the Revolution shows how the musical community helped shape the musical culture of Stalinism and extends the interpretive frameworks of Soviet culture presented in recent scholarship to an area of artistic creativity often overlooked by historians. It should be broadly important to those interested in Soviet history, the cultural roots of Stalinism, Russian and Soviet music, and the place of music and the arts in revolutionary change.

Music for the Revolution is a gripping account of one of the great cultural struggles in early Soviet Russia. Written by a professional historian and trained musician, the book offers a grand synthesis marked by great erudition, superb research, and fair-minded judgment.”
“This unusual and fascinating book was written by an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech who is also a trained musician. Thoroughly documented, with 940 footnotes, the volume truly represents a labor of love.”
“Nelson has done a remarkable job of untangling the chaotic institutional, social, and musical terrain associated with what we have long considered a brief but fertile period of radical experimentation, virulent polemics, and lost opportunities in Soviet musical history. . . . One of the book’s strengths is the detailed explanations and typologies that it provides of the diversity of early Soviet musical life. . . . Nelson marshals extensive data from archives, memoirs, and a thorough reading of the press to support her contentions, and her fresh perspective illuminates several intriguing processes, including the importance of informal networks.”
Music for the Revolution: Musicians and Power in Early Soviet Russia deserves a wide readership. It can be strongly recommended not only to those interested in Soviet musical history but as well to anyone with an interest in the history, culture, and politics of the Soviet Union in general.”
“Not only for the specialists in music, this thorough and well-researched volume should be of interest to scholars interested in Soviet history, Russian and Soviet music, and cultural politics.”
Music for the Revolution makes an important contribution to the historical scholarship on the early Soviet period. It should find a wide readership among scholars and students interested in these subjects as well as those investigating the dynamics of Soviet development in the 1920s in general.”
“Amy Nelson’s important monograph tackles the Soviet musical establishment head-on and is an innovative model of sustained analytical engagement with music as a historical source.”

Amy Nelson is Associate Professor of History at Virginia Tech.


List of Illustrations

List of Musical Examples

Preface and Acknowledgments


1. Bread, Art, and Soviet Power: Musicians in Revolution and Civil War

2. The Peculiarities of the Soviet Modern: NEP Culture and the Promotion of “Contemporary” Music

3. The Three Faces of the Musical Left

4. Of “Cast-Off Barroom Garbage” and “Bold Revolutionary Songs”: The Problem of Popular Music, 1923–1926

5. Politics and Patronage: State Agencies and the Development of Cultural Policy During NEP

6. “Training Future Cadres”: Modernization and the Limits of Reform at the Moscow Conservatory

7. The Music of 1927: Commemorating the Tenth Anniversary of the Revolution and the Centennial of Beethoven’s Death

8. Cultural Revolution



Works Cited



In 1918 Vladimir Lenin offered the writer Maxim Gorky a chilling assessment of the need for violent revolution by paying homage to the power of classical music:

I know nothing which is greater than the Appassionata; I would like to listen to it every day. It is marvelous, superhuman music. I always think with pride—perhaps it is naïve of me—what marvelous things human beings can do! . . . But I can’t listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid nice things, and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell. And now you mustn’t stroke anyone’s head—you might get your hand bitten off. You have to hit them on the head, without any mercy, although our ideal is not to use force against anyone. H’m, h’m, our duty is infernally hard!

While this oft-cited quotation provides ample illustration of Lenin’s ruthlessness and willingness to use any means to achieve his party’s revolutionary ends, it also illuminates the complexities of the subject of this book. Lenin’s fear that Beethoven might temper the militancy of the professional revolutionary reflected his regard for the powerful emotional impact of music as well as his appreciation of the sublime beauty of a piano sonata, and, by extension, his regard for the legacy of “bourgeois culture.” These attitudes would heavily influence the fate of music and musicians in the early Soviet period—in part because they were shared (if not always acknowledged) by musicians and revolutionaries alike. Also telling is the way Lenin juxtaposes the power of music—a force he finds compelling but ineffable—and revolutionary violence, the potential of which he grasps perfectly. Both kinds of power were instrumental in the early Soviet period, although the coercive dimensions of Soviet Communism have received far more attention than the ways in which both musicians and Bolsheviks sought to exploit the emotional impact of music.

By examining the first fifteen years of Soviet rule through the prism of music and the activities of musicians, this book offers a perspective on the contours and fate of the Bolshevik revolution that highlights the complexities of the interactions between musicians, politicians, and ideologies. Certainly Lenin’s Party-state was very willing to “hit them on the head,” and scholars have rightly emphasized the role of repression and censorship in all areas of Soviet artistic and intellectual life. But the development of musical life after 1917 was more complicated than simply a “taming of the arts.”

The development of a distinctly “Soviet” musical culture in the twenties and early thirties was guided in many ways by the imperative for cultural transformation that was implicit in the Bolsheviks’ political revolution. For as a complement to political and economic restructuring the Bolsheviks also embraced a “civilizing mission” intended to nurture new, socialist attitudes and habits as well as cultural forms that would have broad appeal and reflect the new way of life. As in other areas of artistic endeavor, many attempts to fashion a “socialist” musical culture involved efforts to overcome the divide between elite and popular cultures either by democratizing the “high culture” of the prerevolutionary era or by cultivating new forms of artistic expression. In fact, this study shows how reformers’ underlying assumptions and their interactions with their audiences largely determined the fate of these projects.

Although the Bolsheviks consistently displayed their willingness to achieve political and economic objectives with force, persuasion and the accommodation of popular preferences were critical in the battle for the people’s hearts and minds, a battle that Lenin and his followers knew they must win if the revolution was to succeed. Accommodation and concession proved to be especially important where music was concerned because of the peculiar qualities of musical creativity. Like writers and artists, musicians such as Dmitrii Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev indeed felt the Party’s interventions in cultural life and the ravages of censorship. But as recent studies of film, theater, architecture, youth culture, and religion have shown, there were often major contradictions between the Party’s conception of policy and its implementation. The responses of musicians (and their audiences) to the project of formulating a “new” musical culture were extraordinarily complex. Exploring the collaborative means by which musical life developed in the early Soviet period reveals the extent to which Soviet culture represented an amalgam of sometimes divergent, but often overlapping, agendas.

The unique qualities of music and musical creativity would be critically important in determining the future of musical life after 1917. Lenin’s awe for music’s appeal to the emotions and his conviction that this influence could not be countered rationally, but neutralized only with silence, points both to the power of musical expression and to the difficulties of identifying the “content” of music—as opposed to, say, that of literature and the visual arts. It was widely recognized that music did mean something; however, its abstract, nonrepresentational character made that meaning extraordinarily difficult to pin down. In a time when the ideological implications of all artistic forms were subject to fierce debate and intense scrutiny, efforts to identify and create appropriate “music for the revolution” constantly ran up against the intractable difficulties of specifying its content. Musicians, then, were presented with unique challenges and choices.

Music’s “abstractness” also meant that it received much less attention (and intervention) from the authorities than areas of artistic endeavor in which political messages were more transparent. While Lenin called film “our most important art,” and Stalin would designate writers as “engineers of the human soul,” musicians were often castigated for their “backwardness.” Throughout the twenties, Party officials and other cultural militants lamented that music and musical life seemed only superficially changed by the revolution. But the low political priority the Party assigned to music also meant that musicians had considerable latitude in regulating their affairs. Their claims to expertise and authority in matters concerning their art were respected in much the same way that the Party respected scientists’ assertions that only they could understand and regulate their research agendas. This combination of official neglect and respect for professional expertise meant that musicians were more successful than other artistic groups in promoting their own aesthetic platforms and regulating cultural production and consumption. Although most of them would deny it, musicians themselves assumed a prominent role in the “Sovietization” of musical life.

While the early Soviet musical community displayed considerable aesthetic and political diversity, the challenge of building a new musical culture worked itself out at the hands of musicians who shared assumptions about the nature of musical creativity, the elevating potential of art, and the place of popular culture. In the many issues that dominated musical life in the twenties—from debates about the objectives of conservatory training to efforts to change the musical sensibilities of Russia’s masses and campaigns to promote modern music and secure the legacy of the classical tradition—prerevolutionary concerns and dynamics played a prominent role. As Lenin’s musings to Gorky suggest, 1917 was a radical turning point defined by violence, destruction, and visions of a brave new world. But prerevolutionary cultural traditions, creative elites, and political dynamics had a profound impact on that new world order.

The dawn of the twentieth century found the Russian autocracy among the most politically antiquated regimes in Europe. Tsar Nicholas II—a devoted family man with little interest in the craft of governing—ruled from an exaggerated but sincere sense of duty to God, country, and the office for which he had been destined by birth. Though he promoted the economic modernization that would ensure Russia’s position as a great European power, the last tsar rejected initiatives from his advisors and subjects that would have diluted his autocratic authority, calling them “senseless dreams.” State-sponsored industrialization programs in the late nineteenth century, however, stimulated urbanization and the emergence of an industrial working class. Although Russian workers retained economic and familial ties to peasant village communities and the Russian countryside, they also supported the same kinds of socialist and other radical political ideologies embraced by workers in the West. With urban and economic development also came social diversification, as the ranks of professionals and other “middling” orders increased. In the face of the incremental but steady evolution of Russia’s public sphere, the tsar held steadfastly to his suspicion of any form of independent civic organization—which only highlighted the obsolescence of the autocracy and the extent to which the country’s political system stood ever more at odds with the aspirations and interests of its society.

The social challenges and political tensions of late Imperial Russia extended to cultural and artistic expression as well. At the turn of the century, the Russian school of music composition—embodied in the works of the “Mighty Five” (Mily Balakirev, Aleksandr Borodin, César Cui, Modest Musorgsky, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov) and Peter Tchaikovsky (1840–93), Russia’s first professional composer of international repute—confronted new influences from the West, particularly the radical modernism of Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg and the musical impressionism of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. Although guardians of specifically “Russian” traditions held the majority of conservatory posts, and were most prominently represented by the aging Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908) in St. Petersburg and by Sergei Taneev (1865–1915) in Moscow, the orbit of impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s World of Art (mir iskusstva) circle attracted musicians interested in current trends from the West. In both St. Petersburg and Moscow, “Evenings of Contemporary Music” introduced Russians to modern music from the West and to the compositions of Russia’s own radicals, Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953) and Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971).

In poetry and literature, religious and metaphysical perspectives marked the brilliant creativity of what became known as the Silver Age, while iconoclasm and rebellion fueled a stunning burst of innovation in painting and other visual arts. Composers such as Nikolai Roslavets (1881–1944) and Arthur Lourié (Lur’e, 1892–1966) heeded the futurist summons to defy artistic conventions and mock the sensibilities of traditional audiences. At the same time, Alexander Scriabin (1871–1915), a visionary egomaniac entranced by the occult, composed music he hoped would realize the symbolists’ hopes for an art that would not only transform the world, but transcend it. Many painters and poets appropriated musical terms such as “sonata” and “symphony” to describe compositions that were fluid, synthetic, or inscrutably abstract, yet the avant-garde in music was less iconoclastic than in these other arts.

Due in part, perhaps, to the relative conservatism of Russian art music at the turn of the century, Russia’s educated classes remained staunchly devoted to the elite creativity cultivated in the conservatories and concert halls. At the same time, popular music reflected the increasing complexity of Russia’s modernizing society and economy, incorporating foreign as well as indigenous influences. The emergence of short, rhymed ditties called chastushki accompanied the growth of working-class neighborhoods in the empire’s cities, as did the development of other song genres popular among peddlers, migrant workers, and criminals. The spread of the phonograph and inexpensive sheet music facilitated the dissemination of the “gypsy genre” (tsyganshchina), a kind of melodramatic, often frankly sensual song distantly related to both a more elite old Russian sentimental song called the salon romance and the authentic songs of gypsies. The proliferation of cafes, restaurants, and variety theaters provided additional venues for musical entertainment, as did the arrival of movie houses, where pianists or small instrumental ensembles offered live accompaniment for silent films.

A craze for new Western dance music initially infected Russia’s social elite, who found ragtime, the cakewalk, and the fox-trot liberating alternatives to the formality of ballroom dancing and its traditional music. The new dance mania also meshed with challenges to convention and traditional values: women and youth embraced the rebelliousness and sensuality of the music and the dance. Passion for the erotic and exotic peaked with the arrival of the tango, whose hypnotic, stylized movements prompted scandal and public debate, and were easily adapted to tragic and even criminal narratives in “Apache” dances and “Tangos of Death.”

Traditional peasant culture and music provided inspiration for new kinds of urban entertainment, just as they informed the work of Russia’s musical classicists such as Rimsky-Korsakov and modernists such as Stravinsky. Capitalizing on sentimental stereotypes of the peasantry, national pride, and nostalgia for an idealized, bucolic past, Vasilii Andreev’s (1861–1918) huge balalaika “orchestra” performed lush harmonizations of folk songs and classics for attentive urban audiences, while Mitrofan Piatnitsky’s (1864–1927) song and dance ensemble featured more authentic renditions of traditional songs and epic poems (byliny) as well as laments by actual peasant singers.

If the diversity and vibrancy of Russia’s musical life were fueled by the interests and aspirations of a rapidly changing society, they also reflected the growing tensions between that society and a regime intent on avoiding political reform. These tensions burst into the open in 1905, as the autocracy struggled to manage a humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. Mounting pressure from both an increasingly coherent liberal movement and worker-supported revolutionary groups culminated in revolution after troops guarding the Winter Palace gunned down unarmed demonstrators on what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Faced with widespread rebellion in the countryside, debilitating strikes in the cities, and liberal professionals’ demands for civil and religious liberties, Nicholas II drafted the “October Manifesto” that provided Russia with a rudimentary, if severely circumscribed, constitutional order. Although the tsar retained his designation as autocrat, the establishment of a national legislative body and the nominal commitment to a rule of law served temporarily to appease liberal and other moderate reformers, thus dividing the forces of the revolutionary movement. For the next decade, Russian constitutionalism relied on a tenuous alliance between the crown and conservative elements in parliament, while the tsar’s advisors attempted to deal with economic stagnation and political radicalism in the countryside by repressing rebels and promoting reforms designed to transform the communally-oriented peasantry into freeholding farmers. Naked force also kept the aspirations of the labor movement in check, although repression only enhanced the appeal of insurrectionary political parties—such as the Bolsheviks—to workers.

As would be true later, in the Soviet period, musicians did not take a particularly active role in politics during these chaotic years. Indeed, most felt that the transcendent nature of their creative work divorced them from the political realm. Yet many identified with the reform agenda of the liberal movement, and conservatory professors who chafed under the heavy-handed administration of the Imperial Russian Musical Society lobbied with increasing vehemence for more institutional and professional autonomy. Faculty at both the Moscow and St. Petersburg conservatories signed open letters denouncing the Bloody Sunday massacre and calling for basic democratic reforms and an easing of censorship. Rimsky-Korsakov was dismissed from his post for endorsing the demands of striking students, and several of his colleagues resigned in protest. He returned only when the conservatories were granted limited autonomy and had chosen two of his star pupils, Aleksandr Glazunov (1865–1936) and Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (1859–1935), as their first elected directors. Steeped in the traditions of Russian classicism and respected by their peers, these men would guide the conservatories through turbulent years of war, revolution, and the transition to Soviet rule. Along with their students, such as Aleksandr Gol’denveizer (1875–1961) and Konstantin Igumnov (1873–1948), they made up the generational cohort that would shape the course of musical life in the twenties.

In the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution, many musicians devoted themselves to popular music education activities, the most significant of which was the People’s Conservatory organized by Sergei Taneev and other prominent Moscow musicians. Inspired by the model of the Free Music School of the 1860s, the People’s Conservatory offered courses in choral singing and elementary music theory to white-collar employees, factory workers, and university students. Like many popular educational initiatives that emerged in this period, the People’s Conservatory continued a long-standing tradition of the intelligentsia that called on the privileged to repay their debt to society by promoting the education and “enlightenment” (prosveshchenie) of the people (narod). This tradition, as well as distinctive Russian attitudes about the moral imperatives of art, dovetailed both with the reform agenda of the liberal movement, which considered education a vehicle for the democratization of society, and with the broader ethos of “culturalism,” a commitment to the cultural development and cultural unity of the nation. Although activists in the adult education movement condemned the inequities and oppression created by the political system, most did not consider venues such as the People’s Conservatory appropriate arenas for political agitation. Rather, they believed in the power of classical literature and music to improve the individual and transform society as a whole. This commitment to the transformative powers of art would persist across the revolutionary divide, informing a number of agendas affecting music.

The eve of World War I thus found Russian musical society and culture with expanding aesthetic horizons, and grappling with a number of issues that would remain prominent after 1917. These included the tension between advocates of progressive, internationally-oriented modernism and supporters of the classic traditions of the Russian school, as well as concerns about the commercialism, vulgarity, and increasing prominence of urban popular music. Intellectuals, religious officials, revolutionaries, and practitioners of classical music all lamented what they perceived as the degenerative influence of tsyganshchina—the “gypsy genre”—and jazz. Even the “folklorism” promoted by Andreev and Piatnitsky attracted criticism from purists who objected to the “corruption” of pristine folk music and from those who opposed efforts to romanticize the primitiveness of Russian peasant life. Some of these critical voices would be lost in the political upheaval of 1917, but others would find an opportunity to act on their objections in the name of creating a socialist culture. The revolution would also ensure that matters of professional and creative identity, particularly questions of academic freedom and the place of the artist in society, would mark the struggles of the early Soviet period.

Historians disagree about the long-term prospects for the survival and evolution of Russia’s constitutional order in the absence of a multinational armed conflict, but clearly World War I presented an already precariously balanced polity with staggering challenges. Although “war fever” initially minimized the tensions between state and society, the unity between tsar and people and patriotic support for the war quickly dissipated when what had been envisioned as a limited engagement on foreign territory became a struggle for national survival. The tsar’s personal authority eroded under the scandals precipitated by the dissolute Rasputin, whose ability to mitigate the hemophilia of the tsar’s son secured his position as advisor to the royal family. Nicholas’s decision to assume personal command over the floundering war effort and his steadfast reluctance to accept the counsel of well-intentioned economic and social leaders further undermined his tenuous claims to political leadership. Bread riots in the capital on February 23, 1917, ignited the first spark in a wave of strikes and civil protests that brought down the dynasty eight days later. For the next eight months the Provisional Government struggled to establish itself as a legitimate political authority, address long-standing social and economic grievances, and revive the stalled war effort. Failure on all of these fronts enabled the Bolsheviks to come to power in October 1917 on a deceptively simple platform of “bread, land, and peace.” Delivering on these promises after the October Revolution proved difficult, as Lenin’s government had to focus initially on extricating itself from the war, fending off counterrevolution, and consolidating its authority as the dictatorship of a proletariat not yet large or politically mature enough to govern itself. But behind the rhetoric of class struggle, building socialism, and redistributing wealth stood a vision of a new way of life that required cultural transformation of the broadest kind, a vision for a new consciousness shaped as much by education and technology as by political indoctrination.

Culture—in the anthropological sense as well as in the sense of artistic creativity and higher learning—would be central to this new way of life. But the Bolsheviks’ vision was complex and contested. After an initial period of confusion, the new regime’s attitudes toward the prerevolutionary intelligentsia developed along contradictory lines. They were marked, on the one hand, by the desire to control and eventually replace old elites; on the other, they were tempered by a need for the technical expertise necessary to run a vast uneducated country and an appreciation of the cultural capital represented by “specialists” such as scientists, engineers, and accountants, as well as artists, writers, and musicians. The pragmatism underpinning this tension reflected the magnitude of the larger cultural agenda, which called for the creation of a new “Soviet man.” Although they knew that this would take time, the Bolsheviks firmly believed that the liberating potential of the revolution would only be achieved with the evolution of a new level of consciousness that involved changes in everything from morality, hygiene, and forms of personal address to education, the use of technology, and new modes of artistic expression. Ultimately, music—and musicians—figured more prominently in various components of the revolutionary project than one might suspect.

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