Shostakovich and the 1949 World Peace Congress

Since the early 1940s, the soviets tried to craft a strategy that would portray their nation as peaceful but other nations as aggressive. But it was only till 1949 when the Soviet Union plan came to fruition. The Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in 1949 was created to ease growing tension between the Soviet Union and the United States. By this time there was uncertainty between the two nations. So, one of the ways the Soviet Union could portray peace was to send its top cultural Soviet artist and top Soviet scientist. Amongst the six delegates that the Soviet Union sent was, Dmitri Shostakovich. Since Shostakovich was popular in both the United States and the Soviet Union, it would be logical to send someone with much fame to represent the Soviet Union. Shostakovich initially declined the offer made by the Foreign Affairs Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, to attend a forthcoming peace conference in New York. (Deery, 165).  But after declining to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stalin himself called Shostakovich.

“Shostakovich explained that performances of his symphonies were forbidden in the Soviet Union, but regularly played in the United States. The Americans would ask him to ask why this was so, and this would be ‘‘humiliating.’’ (Deery, 165). The reason why Shostakovich’s work was prohibited in the Soviet Union was because of Andrei Zhdanov. Unfortunately, Central Committee Secretary Andrei Zhdanov has decided that Soviet music is being threatened by “formalism,” a way of composing that is “fundamentally incorrect.” (Deery, 166) Ever since the Zhdanovshchina was enacted in 1946, it attacked similar artists like Shostakovich.  Zhdanov “was behind the August 1946 attack on the literary journals Zvezda and Leningrad, based in his home city, for publishing the allegedly anti-social works of the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko and the poet Anna Akhmatova( Zhdanov, 1950). It was an attack by implication on all such cultural leanings and led to an assault on “cosmopolitanism,” that left the cultural world in shambles” (Von Geldern, 1).

    Zhdanov has spoken very harshly about Shostakovich, who he calls a leading formalist. He says that Shostakovich’s music “…reminded him of ‘‘a dentist’s drill or a musical gas-wagon, the sort the Gestapo used’’ (Deery, 166).  Zhdanov described that all classical music such as that of Shostakovich was worthless and against what the Soviet people wanted.  After Shostakovich talked with Stalin it appeared that he had rescinded all the bans that were put in place to limit the performance of classical music that Shostakovich had written ( Zhdanov, 1950). “By the end of the day, the ban was lifted by Stalin’s personal instruction. Order No. 3197 declared the February 1948 repertoire ban (Order No. 17) ‘‘illegal’’ and directed the reprimand of Glavrepertkom (the Committee on the Arts under the aegis of the Council of Ministers of the USSR) for publishing an illegal order” (Deery,165). Since Stalin un-banned the classical pieces, Shostakovich then agreed to go to the U.S.

NYT March 24, 1949

 Meanwhile, in the United States, folks around the country were ecstatic that Shostakovich was attending the World Peace Conference. Shostakovich was considered a Folk Hero to Americans. “The widely publicized performances of his Seventh (“Leningrad”) symphony in 1942–43 made Shostakovich much more than a composer in the eyes of the Americans—he was almost a folk hero” (Rosenblatt, 81). Newspapers, such as the New York Times were announcing the arrival of Shostakovich. “On February 21, smack on the front page, the New York Times revealed that Dmitri Shostakovich, famous Russian composer, is headed for the United States. Dimitri is coming, together with four other Russians, to attend something innocently called the “Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace,” to be held March 25-27 at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria” (Congress of Intellectuals, 1949).

            So, on March 23, 1949, at 5 pm Shostakovich and the delegates arrived in New York with much publicity. Around 70 reporters from different news channels and news photographers wanted to talk to Shostakovich and one of them announced “Hey, Shosty, look this way! Wave your hat!’’ (Deery, 170). So, Shostakovich did nervously. Amid the fame there was also a lot of anti-Soviet sentiment. There were protests for both sides during this time, one stated that was more tolerant ‘‘Shostakovich, We Understand.’’ While another sign that was anti-Soviet said ‘‘Russians Breathe the Air of Freedom Here—Take it Home’’. (Deery, 171)

            The World Peace Conference lasted for three days. The first two days Shostakovich gave a speech and on the last day, he ended with what everyone wanted to see. Throughout the World Peace Conference Shostakovich was always the main speaker or the star of the show. On the first night in his first speech, Shostakovich told the attendees that he brought greetings from “the army of Soviet musicians” and he advocated unity among “progressive workers in the field of culture”.  In Shostakovich’s first speech he criticized “the new aspirants to world domination.” Since this was Soviet Propaganda, the new aspirants would be the United States. Shostakovich also spoke of an “army” of Soviet musicians, “fighters for peace,” the “struggle for progress” and the need to “compel the warmongers to retreat,” and so on. Although Shostakovich may be telling this to the United States, the Soviet Union during that time was also doing the same thing. Shostakovich himself said that “may our struggle for peace, life and human dignity, our struggle against war, death, and barbarism unites and strengthen our forces and serve the cause of the true rebirth and full flowering of the musical art of our times”. (Klefstad, 15).

            On the second day, Shostakovich started his speech by outlining the basis of Soviet thought on music. According to Lenin, it must be a “democratic art possessing great social force and required to educate the masses, to raise their cultural level, their conscience, and their creative power.”  Shostakovich next turned to racism, denouncing it and connecting it both to Hitler and colonialism. Shostakovich himself has worked with Jewish artists and said that there was a rise in anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union but yet still targets this to the United States.  Then Shostakovich approached the main purpose of his speech, to describe the difference between realism and formalism. Realism to Shostakovich was defined as “of and for the people, beautiful and transparent, while formalism was nihilistic” (Klefstad, 17).

After contradicting himself because of Soviet propaganda, since Shostakovich did not write the speeches, he forcibly said that “My music does not express anything realistic.” In the previous pages, I explained that Shostakovich had suffered through the Zhdanovshchina and was also fired from all his job positions. “Shostakovich had suffered humiliation in the form of an official pronouncement of “formalism” in his music, a ban on the performance of much of his music, and the loss of his teaching positions at the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories” (Klefstad, 17-18). On top of what he already said he remarked that such criticism came from “the demands of the people.” When in reality it was not because most people during that time praised and loved Shostakovich in the United States and the Soviet Union. This might have been very tragic for Shostakovich to do because his classical work was just released again from being banned in the Soviet Union. Towards the end of Shostakovich’s second speech, he called for all “young artists to join together in creating a progressive art with national culture and realism.” (Klefstad, 18). Shostakovich admitted that he failed the Soviet music policy because it was something that he was forced to say. “The American public understood that Shostakovich had ostensibly come to New York as a propagandist, to promote the official Soviet view. But they also had experienced the very human appeal of his music and wished for his artistic freedom” (Klefstad, 19).

On the Third day, Shostakovich closed the peace conference with his piano performance of the second movement of his Fifth Symphony at Madison Square Garden. Only through the Piano could Shostakovich reveal his true and sincere feelings. Shostakovich was a Soviet delegate, with speeches that were Soviet propaganda. Many Americans were skeptical that he was being honest while giving the speeches, but Shostakovich had to follow Soviet policy because he was obliged to do so as a Soviet delegate chosen by Stalin. Many also believed that he did not have any personal convictions with Soviet Communism (Klefstad, 21).

 He succeeded because he had to lie about his work as an artist himself. Stalin used and needed Shostakovich’s international reputation to give the Soviet Union respectability and prestige, especially when the Cold War was getting colder (Deery, 21). Shostakovich knew that his role was to be a mouthpiece for Soviet propaganda and in the later weeks he was booked again to give a speech in Europe. Ultimately, Shostakovich did Succeed in making the Soviet Union look more superior to the U.S “These few minutes of shared music did what no speech could: they cemented a bond between the American audience and the Soviet composer. His music is what gained him more attention at the conference than any other delegate, and this is what made him a sympathetic figure for Americans” (Klefstad, 21).


“Congress of ‘Intellectuals.’” America 80, no. 22 (March 5, 1949): 587.

Deery, Phillip. “Shostakovich, the Waldorf Conference and the Cold War.” American Communist History 11, no. 2 (August 2012): 161–80.

Laurel Fay. Shostakovich: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000

Rosenblatt, Alexander. “Red Insight: Socio-Tonal Battles of Dmitri Shostakovich.” Min-Ad: Israel Studies in Musicology Online 17 (January 2020): 77–92.

Klefstad, Terry . “Shostakovich and the Peace Conference.” Accessed March 15, 2021.

 Zhdanov, Andrei: Essays on Literature, Philosophy, and Music, New York: International Publishers, 1950