Book Review of Music and Soviet Power by Marina Frolova-Walker and Jonathan Walker

Bolshoi Soviet Music and Soviet Power Walker The Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in Soviet regalia and with portaits of Communist leaders in 1943.

Marina Frolova-Walker and Jonathan Walker, Music and Soviet Power, 1917-1932. Boydell Press, Martlesham, UK, 2012. 432 pp., $24.95 electronic  ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 184383703X

Marina Frolova-Walker and Jonathan Walker’s Music and Soviet Power, 1917-1932, “trace[s] the transformation of pre-Revolutionary Russian music culture into Soviet music culture over the space of fifteen years”[1] focusing on how the music changed and adapted to the communist ideology of the new Soviet Union. It takes us through the tumultuous experimental period from the October Revolution, through the New Economic Policy, to the end of Stalin’s First Five Year Plan and the establishment of Socialist Realism as the dominant artistic mode of the Soviet Union. The authors argue that this story is deeply complex, involving many different organizations and actors vying for control of how music would be produced, taught, and consumed. Frolova-Walker is a Moscow-born Professor of Music History at the University of Cambridge as well as the Director of Studies in Music and a fellow at Clare College, Cambridge. A prominent scholar of Soviet and Russian music, she is particularly interested in understanding the way Russian music interacts with nationalism and Russian history.[2]

To show how the soviet socialist experiment dealt with a cultural artifact like music, and how music can be connected to ideology, Frolova quotes the ideological platform proposed by the 1924 Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM): “The goal of art is to modify the human psyche through the emotional, subconscious part of the human being. Every class imprints its art with its world-vision, its mores. Thus, by organizing consciousness in a particular way, art is a mighty weapon for disseminating the influence of a particular class.”[3]

In Music and Soviet Power, this quote comes as part of extended primary sources at the end of each chapter, with translations most often supplied by the authors. These excerpts, one of the best stylistic decisions made by Frolova-Walker and Walker, encapsulate a primary historiographical decision made by the authors to bring the reader closer into the archive. This is central to how the authors represent the political ideology of the actors within their history.

The book focuses on the history of the “music of Russian/Soviet ‘high culture,’” i.e., classical works, opera, ballet, etc,[4] which is often discussed in the field in acronym-heavy and top-down modes. Therefore, the authors make a conscious attempt to humanize this story, and thereby make it comprehensible. They stress that this subsection of Soviet music was chosen so they could use the best primary sources covering organizational actions and leaders’ thoughts on music, as expressed in political writing, music criticism, and journals.

Using both top-down and bottom-up perspectives, Frolova-Walker and Walker generally recognize individual agency, but prefer to focus on the actor’s wish for political power, as opposed to evaluating their ideology. This represents a blend of two common historiographical approaches within the revisionist school, as exemplified by Stephen Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain and Jochen Hellbeck’s Revolution on my Mind.[5]  Both texts prioritize social history, but focus on top-down structures and implicitly or explicitly deny the agency of individuals. A key distinction between Kotkin and Hellbeck is that the former’s concept of “speaking Bolshevik,” which assumes a performative or deceptive element to people’s claims to be communist, either to avoid punishment or gain respect, while the latter gives those claims some credence.[6] Put another way, Kotkin—according to Hellbeck, “deideologizes the behavior of [Magnitogorsk’s] inhabitants.[7] Frolova-Walker and Walker generally assume that the individual maintained agency and do not make assumptions of the sincerity of the actors they discuss.

The book is divided into three chronological sections: the years after the October Revolution and during the Russian Civil War from of 1917-1922; the years of the New Economic Policy (NEP),  a liberal compromise to ease the transition from capitalism while empowering the proletariat that lasted from 1922 and 1928; and the First Five-Year plan from 1928 to 1932, where Joseph Stalin broke from the NEP and moved more radically toward reshaping industry, culture, and society. The book is further broken into a series of chronological chapters on each year. At the end of each chapter are primary sources—sometimes accounting for the majority of a chapter’s pages— which support points made by the text, often written by figures mentioned by the authors in that chapter. Additionally, there are numerous musical reviews and criticisms from the years that a chapter focuses on, including on the writings of composers like Prokofiev and Myaskovsky. The chronological pacing of the chapters provides ample time for nuance although at times it sacrifices the overall sense of narrative that the book could have had.

The first section, Chapters 1-4, sets up the major players and portrays music between 1917 and 1922 as somewhat stagnant, as most Russian composers that had established significance before this time were either dead or had emigrated, and of those composers left in Russia, few were actively writing revolutionary music. We meet Anatoly Lunacharsky, the head of the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment, known as Narkompros[8] for short, from October 1917 to September of 1929, as a major figure in the book. The authors also introduce MUZO, Narkompros’ music section, with its attempts to put on concerts and keep theaters open, and Proletkult, an autonomous group of musicians and composers dedicated to creating proletarian music.

Much of this section focuses on contemporary discussions about opera’s extravagance and whether its pre-revolutionary status—one of clearly demarcated hierarchy both in terms of the education required to play the music and the differing quality and cost of seats in performance halls—was unchanged. During the famine and scarcity of 1919, tension brewed between the supportive stance that the opera was a place that provided entertainment and the counter argument that its musicians were struggling and supporting the theaters was too costly. We get a sense of some of the ways Lenin, Narkompros, and the Proletkult used Marxist language to discuss music: the Proletkult tasked itself with “killing the ‘musical body of capitalism’” by bolstering the already expanding “innate artistic and creativity of workers and peasants.”[9] We also learn of the state’s attempts at controlling music: Lenin disavowed Proletkult in 1920 and worked to strip it of power on the grounds that it “was invented for them by members of the intelligentsia that used to serve the old ruling class.”[10]

In the second section, chapters 5-11, we read of the stabler—and for musicians, more backwards-thinking—NEP period. Frolova-Walker and Walker share how many of the old intelligentsia found their way into positions of power within the state and conservatoire, but, perhaps despite this, state funding of music decreased in general. The fight for music to be commercially viable under the NEP led to debates on whether concert programs should be chosen primarily based on projected box office success, which would presumably ensure economic growth and public satisfaction.

Additionally, new groups attempting to control music publishing emerged. By 1922, Narkompros no longer had an official music section and

“the musical intelligentsia – the composers and critics of high-art music – were now emerging from hibernation. The NEP allowed them to act as themselves, as Europeans of culture and learning, unreconstructed intellectuals with many pre-Revolutionary habits.”[11]


The 1923 births of the Association of Contemporary Music (ASM) and Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM) provide the backdrop for the rest of this section. The ASM was created out of a circle of musicologists and composers from the conservatoire, many of whom held power before the revolution and had some interest in preserving pre-revolutionary music and musical styles. As an organization of established professionals, the ASM gained credibility and rose to be the primary force in music education and production. Meanwhile, the RAPM consisted of established members who tried to pressure the conservatoire to be less elitist. Under the NEP, the RAPM rarely came close to the influence of the ASM. Conflicts between the two were both ideological and political, as both sought power through control of criticism and publishing.

From 1925 to 1927, new European music entered the USSR and the ASM strove to make Soviet music more cosmopolitan. For the public, this meant a flourishing musical world of new material from composers like Prokofiev who had emigrated from Russia following the revolution and the French composer Darius Milhaud. This influx of new musical energy reinvigorated concert markets and also led to behind-the-scenes debates on what the basis of Soviet music should be; for instance, composer Alexander Davidenko—once a champion of European music innovation—became unhappy with Lunacharsky’s Soviet music culture which seemed more interested in keeping pace with Europe than developing a new foundation for Soviet music. The end of this section, focuses on Shostakovich’s 1927 second symphony To October and other works composed for the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. Frolova-Walker and Walker argue that music unified around the anniversary and end the chapter with a look towards the future: Stalinism and “harsher times” on the horizon.[12]

The section on Stalinism begins with Chapter 11 and the economic struggles that lead to the end of the NEP. We see the RAPM now rise to power, becoming the dominant voice in music publishing, with little resistance from the now-hollow ASM which, by 1929, had lost significant amounts of Narkompros funding and was unable to program more concerts. Frolova Walker and Walker present the standard discourse on 1929 as rarely given import because “there were no significant Party resolutions that had a direct bearing on musical life,” and the RAPM was unchallenged in this period.[13] However, Frolova-Walker and Walker also point out that the year was “the Great Turning Point,” as Soviet music moved towards the Stalinist era. They also take careful steps to show how the RAPM was in fact criticized by many independent and conservatoire-affiliated musicians and critics. The proletarian agenda of the RAPM prioritized military marches and worker’s songs: music with Soviet ideological themes. The RAPM did not prioritize the folk song, which was a music of the peasant class, seen as distinct from the proletariat. The authors draw connections to the NEP years, when the music critic Derzhanovsky wrote about the need for military Soviet music to appease the state—in some ways predicting Socialist Realism. Ultimately though, things would change for the RAPM, as letters from conservatoire professors and underwhelming music production eventually convinced Stalin that, despite the Marxist language it employed, the RAPM was ultimately causing music to stagnate by delegitimizing opera and the works of better trained composers.

At the end of the book, we see the rise of Socialist Realism, and the authors argue that “Musicians (…) expected a degree of artistic freedom” under Socialist Realism[14] and that it was a return to a more porous relationship between ideological supervision and artistic expression, relative to the much stricter anti-opera positions of the RAPM.[15] This is quite different from the more common argument about Socialist Realism that philosopher and scholar of Soviet-era art Boris Groys perhaps best describes: “the slogan of ‘socialist realism’ has been regarded by independent historiography (…) as merely a bugaboo used by the censorship to persecute and destroy ‘genuine art.’”[16]

Music and Soviet Power is dense, but it is not hard to read. Frolova-Walker and Walker do an excellent job in their goal of humanizing the story. They make each chapter readable and digestible without getting lost in the endless sea of officials, acronyms, and organizations. The extended primary sources at the end of each chapter help ground the arguments and empower the reader to develop deeper connections of their own.

However, the chapters do not have enough introductory or concluding perspectives to help build a narrative between each one. The stated goal of the book is to view the history as more personal and from the bottom up, influenced by many people with individual motivations. The authors discuss the need for engaging personal accounts when explaining how they chose to draw “most heavily from the more prolific diarists and correspondents whose archives are well preserved.”[17]  However, too few connections are made from year to year, making it hard to internalize many of the actors’ goals and how they changed over time. The authors even acknowledge this in their preface’s “brief overview.”[18]

This is analogous in some ways to the book’s historiographical approach. Using the writings of those within high music culture, publishing, or even the state, while trying to give a voice to the struggles of individual people, creates an inherent tension. The authors attempt to resolve this tension by focusing on the individual’s political aspirations, or sometimes those of the organization in the case of ASM or RAPM. In doing so, they thoroughly reject a totalitarian portrayal of individuals controlled mentally and physically by the state. However, there is little exploration of the potential genuineness of the ideologies shared by these political actors. The authors clearly reflect on this as a relevant historiographical question in the field, noting in the preface the ideologies of organizations like RAPM: “even when [the officials, organizations, critics, etc. in the story] play the game with cynicism, this was in the zealous pursuit of higher principles that they sincerely believed in (…) these were people who believed their programme (…) was morally right,” but they do not foreground that zealousness.[19]  All the actors used Marxist rhetoric—e.g. Derzhanovsky evaluating Myaskovsky’s status as a “revolutionary composer”—and the authors provide little commentary.[20] Additionally, the ideological disagreements between the RAPM and Lunacharsky and his Narkompros—which in part consisted of what role folk music had to play in the music of the proletariat—are quoted but are rarely analyzed by the authors. Instead, focus is kept on who wins power rather than interpreting the different versions of Marxism and music: “the struggle between ASM and RAPM was not simply an ideological disagreement, but was focused on the very concrete matter of who controlled the State Publishing House’s music section.”[21] This quotation does suggest that there is an ideological difference, but it also prioritizes the power struggle over evaluating the ideological difference, and as such it gets lost in the narrative of power changes.

While there are arguably benefits to the lack of commentary or analysis by the authors, within a field of history that is so full of narratives of Machiavellian power structure, it is easy to read this and leave with an impression of all actors being equally conniving. This friction between the cynical or pragmatic read and a read which believes in the ideological motivations represents the two aforementioned historiographical approaches of Kotkin and Hellbeck. These different schools likely could be blended better if a larger narrative was woven by scaffolding the chapters together more, allowing for a better sense of the agents’ changing motivations and ideologies over time. As it stands, the frameworks and consequently the political ramifications of the book are hard to parse at times. While the text is not intended to be a political tool, but rather a history of music, there are always politics present in historical work, particularly in one read by Westerners on the Soviet Union, hence my highlighting of the issue.

I think this book is absolutely a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the musical landscape of pre-Stalinist, post-revolutionary Soviet music. The chapters are vividly realized on their own and their sources are vastly useful readings. Unfortunately, the chapters do feel somewhat stand-alone; taken together, they are not necessarily greater than the sum of their parts. Presenting these chapters as somewhat isolated essays is a formal[22] choice which allows for a reflection on the interaction between form and historiography.

The book’s structure thus begs the question: does a history require a clear narrative with clear themes, particularly one on the Soviet Union? With so much of Soviet scholarship embroiled in the politics of the author, with different arguments being read not just as scholarly debate but as pro- or anti-communist, what does it mean for a work in the field of Soviet scholarship to not make a clear overarching argument about the state of the Soviet Union? Frolova-Walker and Walker’s formal choice sacrifices larger political ramifications, focusing on smaller, yearly stories. This sacrifice does matter because the field of history has larger consequences, but the form can be fruitful nevertheless. The organization of chapters without as much input from the authors, and available primary sources, seem all to work towards the ethos of letting an audience draw their own conclusions. In providing a snippet of the archive the reader is encouraged to step into the role of historian throughout Music and Soviet Power.



[1] Marina Frolova-Walker, Jonathan Walker, Music and Soviet Power, 1917-1932 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2012), xi.

[2] Prof Marina Frolova-Walker, Biography, (2021)

[3] Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, as quoted in Marina Frolova-Walker, Jonathan Walker, Music and Soviet Power, 1917-1932 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2012), 128.

[4] Frolova-Walker, Walker, x.

[5] Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995); Jochin Hellbeck, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[6] Kotkin, 198.

[7] Igal Haflin and Jochen Hellbeck, “Rethinking the Stalinist Subject: Stephen Kotkin’s ‘Magnetic Mountain’ and the State of Soviet Historical Studies, Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas Neue Folge, Bd. 44, H. 3 (1996): 457

[8] Narkompros is an abbreviation for Narodny Komissariat Prosveshcheniya, which translates to Peoples Commissariat for Enlightenment.  This organization was in charge of cultural and education policy in Soviet Russia. MUZO was its music section.

[9] Frolova-Walker and Walker, 15.

[10] Frolova-Walker and Walker, 43.

[11] Frolova-Walker and Walker, 73.

[12] Frolova-Walker and Walker, 187.

[13] Frolova-Walker and Walker, 217.

[14] Frolova-Walker and Walker, 323.

[15] Frolova-Walker and Walker, 322.

[16] Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond trans. Charles Rougle, Rev. ed. (London, England: Verso, 2011), 5.

[17] Frolova-Walker and Walker, xi.

[18] Frolova-Walker and Walker, xi.

[19] Frolova-Walker and Walker, xix.

[20] Frolova-Walker and Walker, 105.

[21] Frolova-Walker and Walker, 88.

[22] As in the form of the text, in the dichotomy of “content” and “form.”

About the Author

Vikram Perry

Vikram Perry, at the time of writing, was a senior at Oberlin College with a double major in History and Musical Studies. He focused on historiography and education and was invested in the blending of his two fields. After graduation, Perry hoped to work as a historian on a public history documentary in Lorain County, eventually followed by work in secondary education, teaching history, music, or both.

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