My mum has a lot to do with my passion for Russia. When I was 9, she took me and my sister on the Trans-Siberian, from Beijing to Paris via Moscow, and I was dazzled by the beauty of the Baikhal Lake, the kindness of Russian people to us kids, and the local little girls' bows in their hair... When I was 12, mum gave me a copy of Anna Karenina... A few years later, she allowed me to discover Dmitri Shostakovich's extraordinary, humorous yet harrowing string quartets. I took a keen interest in Shostakovitch: his chamber music especially, but also his life.
He was both celebrated by the Soviet regime as a national treasure, but, as a forward-thinking composer, he also lived in fear for instance when Stalin banned some of his works, like the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District - a masterpiece. I am enthralled by Solomon Volkov's Shostakovich and Stalin, a fab book with a great cover, which retraces this most unique relationship between a ruthless dictator and a musical genius.
Ironically, Stalin wanted to be a poet in his youth, when he published lyrical poems in his native Georgia. This is one of the many little-known facts I learnt in Simon Montefiore's fascinating Young Stalin. He went on to persecute many of the artists pictured hereunder, such as the great poet Ossip Mandelstam and one of my favorite writers, Mikhail Bulgakov.
If you're new to Shostakovich's music, you can start with the luminous Piano Quintet or merely the Piano Trio's dancing Allegretto, then move on to the lyrical, haunting String Quartets 7 and 8. iTunes offers great deals on some excellent recordings.