A new production of The Nose, Shostakovich’s opera based on Gogol’s mesmerisingly surreal short story, was part of this season at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. A Tarkovsky retrospective was held in Shoreditch. Any moment now, I expect to get invited to a poetry slam riffing on Mayakovsky.
The Nose, one of Gogol’s Petersburg Tales, tells the story of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, who wakes up one morning and wants to look at a pimple that appeared on his nose the previous evening — “but to his extreme astonishment found that instead of a nose there was nothing but an absolutely flat surface . . . like a freshly cooked pancake!” He sets out to look for his nose in the streets, when a carriage stops nearby, “the doors flew open and out jumped a uniformed, stooping gentleman who dashed up the steps. The feeling of horror and amazement that gripped Kovalyov when he recognised his own nose defies description!”
Gogol wrote this story about a decade after moving in 1828 from a Ukrainian province to St Petersburg, a city that inspired much of his writing but which he first perceived to be a cheerless, eerie metropolis where “everything is crushed, everything is mired in idle, trivial pursuits”. Gogol became a lowly civil servant and began writing fiction. He turned to the theatre to expose issues in Russian society but the public failed to understand his play The Government Inspector, which contributed to his decision to move to Rome, declaring, “A prophet is without honour in his homeland.” There he wrote Dead Souls, much of which was banned in Russia.
Fast forward a century to 1927 when Shostakovich, only 20 years old, began to compose his first opera, based on The Nose. Both a revolutionary in the art world and a supporter of Stalin’s regime, he came of age at a time when cultural contacts with the West were still permitted. It was when Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin made an impression in Europe in 1925. Shostakovitch finished The Nose just before Stalin inaugurated the first Five Year Plan, and debates about contemporary opera in the Soviet Union became more charged.
In the 1980s when my parents, two young artists, were admitted to the prestigious Art Academy in Kharkov, they could only study classical art under the banner of propaganda art. My mother’s peers, who live and paint in post-Soviet countries today, are still far from free as a system of censorship is flourishing, fuelled by the Russian Orthodox Church. Artists are imprisoned and their art works destroyed, as during the exhibition of Vadim Sidur’s works in Moscow, one of many such examples. Despite the dubious alliances and censorship that haunted artists in the Soviet Union, some of their art lives and breathes in London today. But in Russia not much has changed, and artists continue to face a surreal reality.