Book Reviews 60 /

The Propaganda of Freedom: JFK, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and the Cultural Cold War
Joseph Horowitz
University of Illinois Press
222 pages
Hardback. $34.95
ISBN 978-0-252-04527-1
eBook. $14.95
ISBN 978-0-252-05479-2

In Shostakovich’s biography, Nicolas Nabokov generally plays a small if notable role in asking deliberately provocative questions at the notorious 1949 New York Peace Conference. But most accounts of the incident wrap up when Shostakovich catches the plane home, leaving the US journalist-apparatchik to whatever hand fate dealt him.

But, though Nabokov is a central figure in this book, it is not a biography, nor is it simply a study of Cold War cultural politics.1 Rather, Horowitz examines how America used culture as a propaganda tool, particularly in the Kennedy years and, with Nabokov as one its “heroes,” focusing on classical music. What comes through with great power is how Nabokov’s personal tastes impacted US views of Russian and Soviet music, and the sheer strangeness and fraught confusedness of the times.

Soviet aesthetic and cultural policies were inscrutable at the best of times, and reliable information was hard to come by. One need only think of the factual blunders that litter western writings from the period and the basic misunderstandings to which they lead. But Nabokov—Russian émigré composer, quadrilingual cosmopolitan, and cultural networker-par-excellence—was able to persuade his US masters that he had both the information and the understanding, and used that persuasiveness to great effect.

His ultimate masters were the CIA, working through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a covert body set up to fund numerous front organisations that supported arts and artists. Nabokov quickly became a central figure despite others’ suspicions that his CV was padded or that his aim was to gain greater benefits than those that might accrue to the CFF, the CIA or even the USA.

Why should the CIA be interested in artists, let alone go to the trouble of funding them through front organisations? For US propagandists, American acceptance of the avant-garde was a measure of the freedom that was denied Soviet artists, who were forced to toe the Party line. Hence the now well-known funding of abstract expressionist painters and the 1954 animated film Animal Farm—though by then the Red Scare meant the CIA distrusted American animators so it was made in the UK. From there, it was a short illogical jump to the specious idea that “artistic freedom” somehow equated to “artistic quality” and that “free artists” were a signifier of a “free (and therefore “better”) society. This view became a tentpole of US cultural propaganda, finding a highpoint in Kennedy’s “Camelot” where the President could, with a straight face, say, “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. In a free society, art is not a weapon, and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not ‘engineers of the human soul.’” Of course, a moment’s thought reveals that both great and poor art has been produced under both oppressive regimes and in the free world, and as Horowitz shows, Kennedy was not above using it in much the same way as the Soviets did.

Nabokov adulated Stravinsky (though the feeling was not mutual), perhaps seeing a fellow cosmopolitan Russian exile composer. This indirectly fed into his theories about Soviet music and Shostakovich, some unencumbered by fact and some mutually contradictory. Nevertheless, he became the primary source of information and opinion on Soviet music for the US government and security forces, to a degree driving their cultural-propaganda policies in that arena.

But Nabokov’s influence is puzzling. Reading some of his pronouncements, one is struck by how obviously shaky the foundations are, how he shamelessly sails through logical inconsistencies, and how he occasionally descends into something approaching gibberish. Could the CIA not see that? Perhaps they were blinded by what they wanted to believe, or perhaps they saw those faults but deemed it convenient to overlook them. When he said that Shostakovich’s early piano music “lacked completely the audacious experimental spirit,” did he even know opp. 12 and 13? And did the CIA know or even care? When he criticised Shostakovich’s banality and naïveté, taking it at face value, were they not tempted to look further? And when he argued that an artist should have the freedom to employ “irony and naïveté,” did they not notice the contradiction? It is hard to know, but despite his authoritative position they probably blocked him for a government post. Perhaps they wanted to curb his influence, or maybe he was too valuable where he was, whatever the truth of the “information” he was providing.

After 1949, Nabokov became a prominent curator, ostensibly promoting the “free artists” of which America approved. But the results were inconsistent beyond the regular exclusion of Shostakovich. In Paris; lots of Stravinsky and some mid-century French and Italians (Auric, Sauguet, and Casella), but little Second Viennese School or tonalists such as Sibelius or Rachmaninov. The most surprising absences were American mavericks like Ives, Ruggles, Cage, and Cowell—surely the very embodiment of a free society’s creativity, though he did promote Elliott Carter. Despite his aversion to Shostakovich, he hoped to mount Lady Macbeth—as an example of “suppressed” (and therefore good?) Soviet music, but the materials eluded him. A festival in Japan left him befuddled, as he had no understanding of Japanese culture and no way to synthesise it with Western ones.

Nabokov viewed art teleologically but, whatever view he had of his own place in musical history, admitted he was a composer in the Russian tradition of Tchaikovsky. Equally paradoxically, he thought Stravinsky’s experimentation was exciting and dynamic where Shostakovich’s was forced and artificial. That was when Nabokov was not hurling critical synonyms such as “old-fashioned” and “provincial.” Perhaps it was under Nabokov’s influence that when Kennedy extolled Russian culture, it was Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. This continuation of the 19th century idea of the hero-artist necessarily excludes contemporary Soviet art in any medium since an artist in hock to the state cannot be a hero. The only acceptable examples were oppressed (anti-Soviet and thus hero) artists such as Pasternak.

As Horowitz makes clear, all three men had to devise strategies of survival. For Stravinsky, that was to negotiate a place that embraced his serial exiles in various new homelands and his Russian heritage. This he did partly through his avowal of musical “objectivity” and a constantly changing style that was paralleled by frequent rewritings of the past with the help of amanuensis Robert Craft and others.

For Shostakovich, any exile was internal, both physically in that he did not defect and mentally in that being out of step with the regime was necessarily often a private issue so that, in their own way, Shostakovich’s public statements must be parsed as closely as Stravinsky’s. Unusually, Horowitz sees Shostakovich’s film career as the exemplar of this, linking New Babylon and King Lear, and from there throwing a more traditional line to Musorgsky and Boris Godunov and the idea of the yurodivy. For the seasoned Shostakovich-watcher it is not particularly new and it feels at that moment like Horowitz has not got behind the mask: “Shostakovich’s thick glasses gave nothing away.”

Nabokov’s assumed persona of a cosmopolitan sophisticate may have been just that; he did, after all, write Memoirs of a Russian Cosmopolitan.2 He drifted through various cultural jobs in the US and, most surprisingly, Moscow, without gaining the prize he really desired, the directorship of the new Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a bitter disappointment which he bore mostly privately. He continued to compose, notably the opera Love’s Labour’s Lost, to a libretto by The Rake’s Progress’ Auden and Kallmann, the general failure of which he took with the same public equanimity. He loved Russia, or at least his idea of it, and hated the Soviet Union, but how much did he really understand? When he reencountered Shostakovich, he took the composer’s lack of remonstration for 1949 as some sort of acceptance if not forgiveness.

All three men were, in their separate ways, exiles, struggling to cope with that status and to find a place in the world that would allow them to live in public and with themselves. Horowitz shines fascinating light on the various strategies they employed and the impacts that had on them and those around them.

Horowitz draws on a wide range of sources and is cautiously sympathetic to Testimony. He compares it to his own Conversations with Arrau, drawing on his certainty that another interlocutor would have produced a different impression of the pianist. Nevertheless, he is careful to differentiate Shostakovich and Volkov, quoting the latter as the author and restricting himself to those stories that are confirmed in other sources. There are occasional Americanisms; the Suez crisis is just one of a series of Cold War events and its critical importance in French and British politics is either overlooked or unmentioned. And an editing oversight in comparing symphonies by Shostakovich and Prokofiev gifts the latter a ninth.

There are two appendices. Nabokov’s “The Case of Dmitri Shostakovitch” [sic] from Harper’s Magazine (March 1943) shows how the seemingly intemperate quotations cannot be defended as being “out of context”: the whole thing is deeply antagonistic to the composer. Kennedy’s “Amherst Speech,” given on 26 October 1963 and written in collaboration with CFF leader Arthur Schlesinger Jr., lays out a vision of the role of the arts in society and is, depending on your outlook, either naïve or cynical. A couple of interesting asides are consigned to the footnotes where they easily warrant a place in the main text, and while the footnotes reveal the breadth of Horowitz’s research, the lack of a bibliography is slightly frustrating, making the myriad references less easily discoverable.

While some of the many biographies have touched on some permutation of the three men, Horowitz’s book is valuable in triangulating on the relationship between them and setting that in the context of Cold War cultural politics. While others have tackled different aspects more comprehensively, Horowitz’s is a valuable distillation.


  1. See Vincent Giroud’s Nicolas Nabokov: a Life in Freedom and Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). Frances Stonor Saunders’ Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta, 1999) was published in America in a slightly different edition as The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New York: The New Press, 2000). The book itself was subject to the same attitudes it examined: hailed on the left for anti-Americanism and derided on the right for anti-anti-communism.
  2. Bagazh: Memoirs of a Russian Cosmopolitan. New York: Atheneum, 1975.

John Leman Riley