Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson is the kind of history writing that teachers dream about it. It's factually accurate, for westerners covers a little known period of history, is passionately written and filled with riveting prose. Simply put, this is the book you have to read if you want to understand modern Russia.
Have I persuaded you yet?
I was fairly surprised that Anderson would be the one to write a book like Symphony as it is straight up history and built around an adult protagonist (composer Dmitri Shostakovich). Anderson is a great writer, but still, for all that he has written historical fiction in the past, this title does not give him the room to manufacture drama. He had to follow the story exactly where it took him and let it tell itself as events occurred. As a Russian story set first in the time of the last tsar and then under Lenin and Stalin, there is a lot of politics and some of the pages are far less gripping than others. But Anderson is patient and smart and so exceedingly skilled that he makes the machinations of the Soviet state in the Russian breadbasket during the 1920s read as incredibly exciting.
I don't know how he does it, I just know that he does and you have got to read this book.
Dmitri Shostakovich was one of Russia's great twentieth century composers and his symphony for Leningrad, written when the city was under siege from Germany during WWII, had a powerful impact on the world. (The Siege of Leningrad lasted two and half years and was the longest siege in history.) But Anderson goes far beyond the story of Shostakovich and that particular symphony; he gives readers an indepth look at Russian history from the February and October revolutions of 1917, to the rise to power of Vladimir Lenin, the later rise to power of Josef Stalin and the devastation of dramatically bad policies in the 1920s and 1930s which caused the deaths of millions of Russians, the destruction of the Russian economy and almost the end of the Russian military.
It's everything you ever wanted - and needed - to know about modern Russian history through the lens of one amazing Russian man.
The text is peppered with photos and excerpts from the diaries and letters of various Russian citizens, from activists to poets, writers and Shostakovich's fellow composers and musicians. Everyone contributes something to telling this story and they give it the sort of gravitas and power that it demands. Readers will walk away from Symphony not only know vastly more about Russia, but more importantly, about the Russian people themselves.
M.T. Anderson has created a modern masterpiece with Symphony for the City of the Dead. It should be read by anyone over the age of 13 who has an interest in Russia, WWII or history in general. Adults will get as much from this book as teenagers and really everyone - everyone - should read it. This is a life changing book and I can not stress enough how really and truly good it is. Bravo, Mr. Anderson, Bravo!