sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

January 16, 2011

Moral and Other Failures

Filed under: society — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:17 pm

Dan Mitchell asks, “Does Using the Soviet hammer and sickle in an ad mean the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is morally bankrupt?”  He explains:

I went to the website of a local radio station last night to check the weather forecast and was somewhat startled to see an advertisement for a performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. But what shocked me wasn’t the music, but rather the use of the Soviet hammer and sickle, which represents a regime that murdered nearly 62 million people between 1917 and 1987.

The banner is still there, by the way:

This McDonald’s juxtaposition is classic.

Questions of this sort animate many conservatives and libertarians, myself including.  Here is how I answer it.

First, there is the general issue of Communist iconography.  We have a gut reaction to the swastika: we know that displays of swastikas are wrong, that it stands for the ultimate evil.  But if Communists committed horrible atrocities, then Communist symbols should be treated in a similar manner.  If victims of Nazism shudder at the sign of swastika, then the victims of Communism… that’s when the analogy starts to break down.

The history of Nazism is short and murderous. It went from a madman’s terrible plan, concocted in the 1920s, to the blood-drenched world war, culminating in the Holocaust.  Soviet Communism has a different trajectory.  It was inaugurated in series uprisings, progressed to a civil war (1917-1923), in which both sides committed horrible atrocities.  After a short lull in the 1920s, Stalin assumed power and unleashed his reign of terror.  He fought World War Two without much regard for human life, including that of his own soldiers.  Another round of terror followed the war.  But after Stalin died the Soviet regime scaled down the Gulags.  Don’t get me wrong, it was still a totalitarian regime based on fear, it just went a little… sclerotic?

If you read this blog, you probably know that I grew up in the Soviet Union and  came of age during perestroika.  People of my generation were surrounded by hammer and sickles, patriotic songs and all sorts of propaganda imaginable.  We laughed at it, we knew that the iconography was used by evil people to achieve evil ends, but by then propaganda was no longer working, and the decrepit regime was about to collapse.  I have a letter of appreciation from a local youth center with a kind of Soviet Baroque heading.  I’m not sure why this letter made it across the Atlantic, but it did.  It never fails to elicit good laughs at family reunions.  My refusenik uncle is always especially keen to poke fun at it.  I can’t imagine anybody having a similar reaction to swastikas.

I was awarded for participation in “socially useful” labor in preparation for a New Year celebration.  I recall I was in a puppet theater.

Americans probably have stronger reaction to hammer and sickles than Russians.  I have to say, though, that too many Russians are nostalgic for Stalin’s regime, a truly disgusting phenomena.  (There are also National Bolshevik low-lifes, by the way.)  And yet, many moral, normal Russians don’t blink a eye at Soviet iconography.  I’m not saying that it’s wrong to react to Communist symbols strongly, just that it’s not always wrong to not react to it at all.  I guess it depends on the circumstances.

So what about the Shostakovich’s 5th?  I’m not a musicologist, but a quick wiki check reveals that it was composed in 1937, at the height of the Stalinist terror, when Shostakovich found himself in the cross-hairs, and a number of his friends were murdered.  The Symphony contained segments reminiscent of a panikhida, Russian Orthodox requiem, and the audience understood it to be an expression of the country’s grief.  People cried during performances.  A picture of a Gulag would be more appropriate for an ad.

Forced labor at a Soviet concentration camp.

It boggles my mind that the designers chose to use the symbol of the oppressor to present a work reflecting the experience of Stalinist terror to the American audience.  I’m trying to think of excuses.  Did they copy the design that went with a Soviet edition of the music?  In this case, the graphic artists don’t know how to poke around the Internet to get a little background.  The illustration certainly looks like a moral failure on their part.  Is it also a failure of imagination?  Which one is a bigger crime in their eyes?

P.S.  The Symphony is performed by a Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein.  Interesting.



  1. Absolutely fascinating, Missy Sandbox. “socially useful labor.”


    If I had run into that banner on my own, I don’t think I would have even given it a second thought. But then I’m terribly thick and insensitive.

    Whether it’s the hammer-and-sickle, or the swastika, or that eeeeeeevil ol’ rebel flag, if it is being displayed for historical purposes, and not to say “this is my political belief!” then it is okay by me.

    Comment by nooneofanyimport — January 17, 2011 @ 1:42 pm

  2. “Socially useful labor” is an absolutely irresistible Soviet expression… especially when used in the context of New Year celebration.

    Comment by edgeofthesandbox — January 17, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

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