Russian State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow, where the Stalin Prize Committee transcripts are held

The voices of the artistic elite of Stalin’s Soviet Union, among them Dmitri Shostakovich, are being heard afresh in a new comprehensive study of a unique collection of transcripts.

The year is 1940 and a team of stenographers are recording every word spoken by an illustrious gathering of the Soviet Union’s most influential musicians, composers, artists, actors and writers. The event is the annual gathering of Joseph Stalin’s Prize Committee for the arts. As the stenographers preserve verbatim the conversations around them, they unknowingly create what will become a gem of musical history.

Stalin’s Soviet Union was a time not only of political persecution and repression but also of artistic censorship. But how far did the artists, musicians, writers and composers of the time accept Stalin’s dictates?

The transcripts of the Stalin Prize Committee – which have astonishingly lain largely unexamined on the shelves of Moscow archives for over half a century – offer the first chance to look at the situation as it really was.

“It feels like time travel,” said Dr Marina Frolova-Walker from the Faculty of Music, who has begun a two-year study of the archive funded by the Leverhulme Trust. “When I began to read the transcripts, their voices lifted off the page. It was as if I was sitting in their meetings listening to the debates as they happened.”

Eyes on the Stalin Prize

The dozens of volumes of transcripts cover the annual meetings held between 1940 and 1954, when up to 50 of the main players in the cultural world of Stalin’s Soviet Union would meet to discuss the nominations over a two-week period. Meanwhile, a separate committee would do the same for advances in science, technology and medicine.

Their remit was to decide whose achievements should be honoured through the Stalin Prize – an honour so great in terms of recognition and remuneration that when one person was awarded the prize only to have it retracted he tragically committed suicide.

“What the transcripts offer is access to how the elite circle made their crucial decisions and how they balanced merit with the ideological constraints of socialist realism,” explained Dr Frolova-Walker. “The Committee would make their recommendations but the list would be at the mercy of Stalin’s prerogative to overrule. It will be fascinating to compare the final recommendations with what happened after the list reached Stalin.”

“Because the meetings lay in a grey area between private and public discourse,” she added, “the members felt safe despite the regime, possibly because they were protected by their professions and their institutions. As a result, they are remarkably candid and at times outspoken.”

New perspectives

As she works her way through the archive, she is coming across instances that breathe new life into contemporary understanding of the Soviet musical world. “At one point a debate rages as to whether composer Dmitri Shostakovich should receive a Prize, given that his music challenged even the Committee members in how far it broke the mould. One member describes the atmosphere as being as intense as a nuclear laboratory.” Shostakovich was himself a Committee member and, in the transcripts, ceaselessly champions the work of his students, talented people who tended not to conform.

Dr Frolova-Walker hopes to discover lost pieces of Soviet music that did not win the recognition they might have deserved, as a consequence of Stalin’s tendency to overrule. “This is a dream opportunity for me, allowing me to combine my experience as a musicologist with the skills I have amassed in my work with historical documents from the Soviet period.”

Her detective work in putting together a coherent picture from the documentary raw material will provide the first true insider’s perspective on the workings of the Soviet musical world.

For more information, please contact Dr Marina Frolova-Walker  ( at the Faculty of Music.

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