34. The Execution of Stepan Razin op.119
Poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1964
Music composed by Dmitry Shostakovich, 1964
Available on the CD The Execution of Stepan Razin; October; Five Fragments (Naxos, China 2006)



In Moscow, the white-walled capital,
a thief runs with a poppy-seed loaf down the street.
He is not afraid of being lynched today.
There isn’t time for loaves…
They are bringing Stenka Razin!
The tsar is milking a little bottle of malmsey,
before the Swedish mirror,
he squeezes a pimple,
and tries on an emerald seal ring–
and into the square…
They are bringing Stenka Razin!
Like a little barrel
following a fat barrel
a baby boyar rolls along after his mother,
gnawing a bar of toffee with his baby teeth.
Today is a holiday!
They are bringing Stenka Razin!
A merchant shoves his way in,
flatulent with peas.
Two buffoons come rushing at a gallop.
Drunkard-rogues come mincing…
They are bringing Stenka Razin!!
Old men, scabs all over them,
hardly alive,
thick cords round their necks,
mumbling something,
dodder along…
They are bringing Stenka Razin!
And shameless girls also,
jumping up tipsy from their sleeping mats,
with cucumber smeared over their faces,
come trotting up–
with an itch in their thighs…
They are bringing Stenka Razin!
And with screams from wives of the Royal Guard*
amid spitting from all sides
on a ramshackle cart
comes sailing
in a white shirt.
He is silent,
all covered with the spit of the mob,
he does not wipe it away,
only grins wryly,
smiles at himself:
‘Stenka, Stenka,
you are like a branch
that has lost its leaves.
How you wanted to enter Moscow!
And here you are entering Moscow now…
All right then,
after all, it’s a free show.
Good people,
you always spit
at those
who wish you well.
I so much wished you well
on the shores of Persia,
and then again
when flying
down the Volga on a boat!
What had I known?
Somebody’s eyes,
a sabre,
a sail,
and the saddle…
I wasn’t much of a scholar…
Perhaps this was what let me down?
The tsar’s scribe beat me deliberately across the teeth,
Decided to go against the people, did you?
You’ll find out about against!’
I held my own, without lowering my eyes.
I spat my answer with my blood:
‘Against the boyars–
Against the people–
I do not renounce myself,
I have chosen my own fate myself.
Before you,
the people, I repent,
but not for what
the tsar’s scribe wanted.
My head is to blame.
I can see,
sentencing myself:
I was halfway
against things,
when I ought to have gone
to the very end.
it is not in this I have sinned, my people,
for hanging boyars from the towers.
I have sinned in my own eyes in this,
that I hanged too few of them.
I have sinned in this,
that in a world of evil
I was a good idiot.
I sinned in this,
that being an enemy of serfdom
I was something of a serf myself.
I sinned in this,
that I thought of doing battle
for a good tsar.
There are no good tsars,
you are perishing for nothing!’
Bells boomed over Moscow.
They are leading Stenka
to the place of execution.
In front of Stenka
in the rising wind
the leather apron of the headsman is flapping,
and in his hands
above the crowd
is a blue ax,
blue as the Volga.
And streaming, silvery,
along the blade
boats fly,
like seagulls in the morning…
And over the snouts,
pig faces,
and ugly mugs
of tax collectors
and money changers,
like light through the fog,
Distance and space was in those faces,
and in their eyes,
morosely independent,
as if in smaller, secret Volgas
Stenka’s boats were sailing.
It’s worth bearing it all without a tear,
to be on the rack and wheel of execution,
if sooner or later
on the face of the faceless ones…
And calmly
(obviously he hadn’t lived for nothing)
Stenka laid his head down on the block,
settled his chin in the chopped-out hollow
and with the back of his head gave the order:
‘Strike, ax…’
The head started rolling,
burning in its blood,
and hoarsely the head spoke:
‘Not for nothing…’
And along the ax there were no longer ships–
but little streams,
little streams…
Why, good folk, are you standing, not celebrating?
Caps into sky–and dance!
But the Red Square is frozen stiff,
the halberds are scarcely swaying.
Even the buffoons have fallen silent.
Amid the deadly silence
fleas jumped over
from peasants’ jackets
onto women’s robes.
The square had understood something.
The square took off their caps,
and the bells
struck three times
seething with rage.
But heavy from its bloody forelock
the head was still rocking,
From the blood-wet place of execution,
where the poor were,
the head threw looks about
like anonymous letters…
the poor trembling priest ran up,
wanting to close Stenka’s eyelids.
But straining,
frightful as a beast,
the pupils pushed away his hand.
On the tsar’s head,
chilled by those devilish eyes,
the Cap of Monomakh** began to tremble,
and, savagely,
not hiding anything of his triumph,
Stenka’s head
burst out laughing
at the tsar!

* Royal Guard (Streltsy): Military corps in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries instituted by Ivan the Terrible that enjoyed special privileges.
** Cap of Monomakh: The bejewelled fur cap worn only by the tsar, traced back to the Kievan Prince Vladimir Monomakh (1113-1125).

- The Execution of Stenka Razin (1964), by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Translated by Tina Tupikina-Glaessner, Geoffrey Dutton, and Igor Mezhakoff-Koriakin (revised)

Source: http://lightning.prohosting.com/~zhenka/054.html

On Shostakovich and Stenka Razin, Mosaic hero of 17th Century Russia

Leaders of seventeenth century Russian peasant revolts turn up in the strangest places.

We first came across Stepan (aka Stenka) Razin in virtual space, on a website called Christianity and Hitler, run by Joe Keysor, and dedicated to answering, ‘from the point of view of belief in the Old and New Testaments as the literal word of God’, five questions -‘Why did Hitler express respect for the churches and promise to support them? Do Hitler’s references to God connect him to Christianity? Why have Christians persecuted Jews? Is the bible in any way to blame for National Socialism? Why didn’t the German Christians help the Jews? Why did they support Hitler?’ Razin’s appearance on Keysor’s site was by way of a brief account attributed to an unnamed seventeenth century Russian whom Keysor quotes from Paul Avrich’s book Russian Rebels 1600-1800 (Schocken Books, 1972). Avrich sketches out for us something of the harsh world Razin lived in, his appeal and how he was perceived (by the peasant class and the historian), his deeds, the language used to turn Razin into a folkloric figure of Mosaic heroism – and the need, via such language, for a figure that could, figuratively speaking, move or at least mediate between heaven and earth on the peasants behalf:

‘All the ingredients for a mass upheaval – bondage, bureaucratic despotism, spiritual crisis – had steadily accumulated. All, that is to say, save one: the appearance of a charismatic leader to rally the people to his banner.’ (P.59); ‘[...] By all accounts he was a born leader, a Cossack of striking personality and appearance, endowed with charismatic powers to influence the behaviour of others [...] He had an instinctive understanding of simple men, and his ability to incarnate the popular ideal of the deliverer was unsurpassed by any other rebel leader. At some point in his life he evidently conceived a hatred for men of privilege and authority [...] he accurately gauged the mood of the lower classes.’ (P.68); ‘[...] His dramatic success on the Caspian surely strengthened his self-confidence and sense of power, as did the aura of invincibility that now surrounded him.’ (P.57); ‘[:..] They saw in Stenka a man of more than merely human qualities, a messiah sent by Providence to lead them to the promised Land. [...] the popular desire for a redeemer was too strong to be easily dissipated.’ (P.94).

Between these bare bones we add this from The Britannica Concise Encyclopaedia at http://www.britannica.com: ‘(born c. 1630, Zimoveyskaya-na-Donu, Russia — died June 16, 1671, Moscow) Russian Cossack rebel. Born in the prosperous Don Cossack area, he supported the runaway serfs from Poland and Russia who escaped into the region to find land. In 1667 he led a band of newcomers to establish an outpost on the upper Don River. They raided Russian and Persian settlements on the Caspian Sea (1667 – 70), acquiring great fame and wealth. He then led his Cossack anarchists on a campaign into the Volga River region, where he was joined by disaffected peasants. After seizing Tsaritsyn (now Volgograd), Astrakhan, and Saratov, his force of 20,000 undisciplined rebels was defeated by the Russian army at Simbirsk. Razin was captured, tortured, and executed. He became a popular Russian folk hero and was immortalised in songs and legends.’

To put Razin in context, here is some information from Peter Kolchin, Henry Clay Reed Professor of History at the University of Delaware, and author of Unfree Labour: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom. The insurgency led by Razin was the second of four armed conflicts that arose at fifty-year intervals, and always at times of national turmoil. Kolchin writes: ‘In each case economic hardship and social dislocation combined with heavy government commitment of resources to make the setting for internal disruption ideal.’ Kolchin explains that the revolt Razin led came after thirteen years of war against Poland, huge tax rises to pay for the war, and government conscription of peasant labourers to build St. Petersburg in the north and military fortification in the south. Kolchin describes the rebellions as ‘part uprising, part civil wars’. They involved peasants, serfs, townsmen, nomadic Cossacks, and pretty much anyone whose relation to the land was dominated by the landlords and their allies and associates.

Kolchin also gives us a sense of the scale of these revolts; ‘Even using the briefest possible periodisation, the average duration of the peasant wars was a year […] with each encompassing an area that ultimately included much of Russia. These were not brief, localised outbreaks easily put down but massive challenges involving hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of participants.’

During the Pugachev rebellion of 1774, three million peasants living in an area six hundred thousand square kilometres centred along the Volga River went on what sounds like a modern day riot, with looting, smashing, burning and killing, only on a much larger scale. ‘The peasant wars’, Kolchin writes, ‘were thus expressions of struggle between borderland and centre, outs and ins, haves and have nots. Originating as frontier skirmishes, they developed into full scale class warfare.’ The wars were about land – the liquidation of the serf system. But they were also about the protection of the ‘true’ Tsarist monarchy – they owned the land and had been deposed and replaced by a false monarchy – whose interests the landowners served and to who each rebel leader, Razin included, was loyal to the death.

‘The peasant wars’, Kolchin writes, ‘were closely linked to two phenomena of seventeenth and eighteenth century Russia: the existence of numerous pretenders to the throne and an abundance of legends among the populace of ‘a returning deliverer’ who would overthrow the usurping monarch, punish its evil noble supporters, and restore the Tsar to his rightful position.’ The Stepan Razin of Yevtushenko’s poem, having occupied the role of the ‘returning deliverer’, and realising, much too late, the irreconcilable nature of the compromise involved in defending the peasants and serving the monarchy, in defending the oppressed and pledging allegiance to the oppressor – pays for his error with his life.

About the monarchy, we should add that Razin lived under the rule of the Romanov dynasty, which came to power in 1613 and reigned over Russia for just over three hundred years. It would take a socialist revolution, led by the Bolsheviks, to force the abdication of the last Tsar in 1918.

But why did Shostakovich compose a piece of music about Razin – what did Shostakovich see in him? Reviewing the Naxos recording of The Execution of Stepan Razin in 2006, Guardian critic Andrew Clements says ‘Shostakovich is characteristically ambiguous about whether his target is the iniquities of Tsarist Russia or of a regime much closer to his own time.’ Louis Blois’ review of the 1996 Melodiya recording of The Execution - its first since 1964, gives us the sense that Shostakovich was doing both, that he was using Russia’s past to comment on its present, writing of the Melodiya release that ‘from a political standpoint, it is not hard to see why to this day there has emerged only one Russian recording of Stepan Razin. The cantata dates from 1964 and is the second of two Shostakovich works that embrace the politically loaded verses of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. In the 13th Symphony of the previous year, Yevtushenko’s verses were used as explicit criticisms of the Soviet government, raising issues of anti-Semitism, living conditions, and oppression surrounding artists and ordinary citizens. In Stepan Razin, the story of the 17th century folk hero and revolutionary is used to dramatise another hardship all too familiar to the composer, the fate that often befalls those who seek freedom under the oppressive rule of tyrants. Like the 13th Symphony, the authorities sought to hinder its première, and its one-time, thus nominal, appearance in the Melodiya catalogue is an understandable fact of the then prevailing regime.

We should add to this that like Shostakovich, Yevgeny Yevtushenko was as vocal a critic of Stalin, particularly Stalin’s anti-Semitism, as it was possible to be under Soviet Communism. Babii Yar, Yevtushenko’s most well known poem, was also the subject Shostakovich’s Third Symphony. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Yevtushenko on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s programme, Writers and Company with Eleanor Wachtell, taped in 1995, and transcribed by J.P.Niven.

‘EW: The composer Shostakovich used Babii Yar for his 13th symphony. He was inspired by it. What did he tell you about it?

YY: He just called me once, I didn’t know him. And my mother took phone, and she hooked it, she said look, someone probably making bad jokes, he called, he named himself Shostakovich. But was second call, and so she understood what he [unintelligible] My mother first thought it was him and he was incredibly polite, and he said, Dear, –in very old-fashioned style, –Dear Yevgeny Aleksandrovich, I read not long ago your great poem Babii Yar. Could you give me your kind permission to com-…create some music for it. Yes, I explain, of course, why you ask. Of course, I’ll be happy. So…Thank you for your kindness, my dear Yevgeny Aleksandrovich. Can you come over, because the music is ready. [Laughter] And I– it was unforgettable, the first performance of Babii Yar when Shostakovich did it with piano– was orchestra, was soloist, was choir, was everything. Unfortunately, I didn’t tape it. But when he was playing it this time he was crying.

EW: The first public performance of Shostakovich’s 13th symphony was also very…a fraught event, because it occurred just after Khrushchev had launched a virulent attack against artists, which you had protested.

YY: Yeah, I was only writer who protested against Khrushchev’s remarks about the abstract art. When Khrushchev…but you know one thing, afterwards I discovered when we opened KGB archives, that it was not Central Committee initiative to criticize Babii Yar. Was one man, a radio journalist. His name was Matukovsky. He wrote letter to Central Committee after performance of Babii Yar in the city of Minsk, Byelorussia. And letter was very strange, he full of paranoia. Ahh…he was saying in this letter that 13th symphony provoking new splashes of anti Semitism in Russia. Terrible, you know, that’s paranoia, you know. And they picked up this idea. And they began to accuse me and Shostakovich that we are, we are provoking public disturbances in Russia.

In his 1998 essay Witnesses for the Defence – Testimonies concerning Shostakovich’s attitudes to the Soviet regime, Ian MacDonald, author of The New Shostakovich (Northeastern, 1990), addressed the question of Shostakovich’s complicity with Stalinism with a body of evidence which strongly suggests that ‘far from helplessly immersed in the unhappy aspects of his ‘troubled times’, Shostakovich was bitterly critical of those responsible for Russia’s woes and that therefore his music is as satirical as it is tragic […].’

MacDonald proceeds to bury this perception of a complicit Shostakovich: ‘The largest single collection of individual testimony to who Shostakovich was and what he did is that edited by Elizabeth Wilson in ‘ Shostakovich: A Life Remembered’ (Faber & Faber, 1994). Wilson offers 81 individual ‘witnesses’, of which around two-thirds constitute statements taken from existing books and articles, the rest being derived from interviews conducted by her or written contributions elicited by her during 1988-90. Of these 81 witnesses, 36 offer one or more statements showing that Shostakovich was disaffected with the Soviet regime in ways ranging from distaste to open hatred. Of the remaining witnesses, 42 may be classified as neutral on this question in that their comments contain no explicit or implicit political content, although most are complimentary about Shostakovich’s character and motives – dependable indicators in a totalitarian environment.

Moreover, the testimonies of many of the ‘neutral’ witnesses also strongly suggest, without giving specific positive evidence, that Shostakovich held the Soviet regime in low esteem (e.g., the testimony of Lyubov’ Rudneva, pp. 248-55). Only 3 witnesses make statements remotely susceptible to the interpretation that Shostakovich ever, at any time, had any sympathy with communism – and one of these has elsewhere made emphatic statements to the opposite effect. All in all, a fair-minded person would conclude from ‘Shostakovich: A Life Remembered’ alone that the composer was seriously disaffected with communism; indeed one reviewer of Wilson’s book, Terry Teachout, wrote thus: ‘Testimony or no Testimony, it is no longer possible to regard Shostakovich as a faithful servant of the Communist party. ‘Shostakovich: A Life Remembered’ leaves no doubt whatsoever that he hated Stalin, hated Communism, hated the apparatchiki and the nomenklatura, and that much of his music was in some meaningful sense intended to convey this hatred.’




Interview with Yevgeny Yevtushenko on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s program, Writers and Company with Eleanor Wachtell. Taped in 1995, and transcribed by J.P.Niven

Unfree Labour: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom, by Peter Kolchin. Published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987

Shostakovich: The Execution of Stepan Razin; October; Five Fragments, Austin/ Seattle SO and Chorale/ Schwar (Naxos). Reviewed by Andrew Clements, The Guardian, Friday 2 June 2006

Witnesses for the Defence – Testimonies concerning Shostakovich’s attitudes to the Soviet regime, by Ian MacDonald, for the Southern University of Illinois website Music Under Soviet Rule http://www.siue.edu/~aho/musov/witness/wit.html

The Execution of Stepan Razin, op. 119, Louis Blois http://www.dschjournal.com/reviews/reviews14.htm#razin



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