Do the Humanities Matter in Hard Times? A Russian Historian's Answer

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Mr. Moss is a professor of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008).

A recent New York Times article was titled "In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.”  Being primarily a Russian historian, I thought of the toughest Russian times, the German siege of Leningrad, which lasted from September 1941 to January 1944.  It led to the deaths, mainly from starvation, of a million or so Leningraders. Attempting to stay alive, people ate anything including rats, glue, and human body parts.

But the “tough times” the New York Times had in mind was our present economic crisis. It noted that university administrators, parents, students, and policy makers were questioning anew the “worth” in such a climate of the arts, history, languages, literature, philosophy, and religion. Such individuals sometimes ask, “What practical good are such disciplines?” “How will they help students get good jobs?”

Defenders of the humanities respond in different ways. Some answer the questions directly, indicating how the humanities can help in preparing for various careers. Others reply by saying a college education is about much more than just preparing you for a job or career. It should help prepare you to live a better life, to enjoy beauty more, to understand yourself, others, and the world better.
Reading accounts of Leningraders during the siege reinforces this point. One woman recalled that many people she knew—if they had the strength--read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which dealt with Napoleon’s invasion and the Russian response. She believed that reading it strengthened people’s resolve to get through their own terrible ordeal. 

Leningraders also listened to poets over Radio Leningrad. One man observed that the words of poet Olga Berggolts united and encouraged them to endure and overcome the Nazi onslaught. Actors appeared before soldiers and sailors at various locations in and around Leningrad. Even though the city’s Musical Comedy Theater building lacked heat, attendance increased after the siege began.

Galina Vishnevskaya, who became an opera star and wife of world-famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, recalled attending Peter Tchaikovsky's opera Queen of Spades. The emaciated musicians, singers, and audience inspired her to reflect that “man does not live by bread alone.” Another woman described in her diary an old man getting out his violin and playing a beautiful melody in a bomb-shelter as German bombs exploded outside.  She thought that the terror people had been feeling lost its grip, replaced by an “extraordinary sense of belonging.”

The most famous musical performance was that of native son Dmitri Shostakovich's Seventh (Leningrad) Symphony in August 1942. Before a mixed crowd--soldiers and civilians, emaciated and well-fed--the orchestra played in the city’s Philharmonic Hall, but the radio also carried the music to apartments and trenches.  When the symphony was over people stood and cried, and the conductor believed that at that moment Leningraders knew they would triumph “over the soulless Nazi war machine.”

Even before its debut in Leningrad, where the siege made it extremely difficult to stage, the symphony had been performed in various other cities. Realizing its performance in Allied countries could help strengthen his wartime alliances, Stalin helped get the score sent abroad.  It was ironic but true that the dictator who intermittently persecuted Shostakovich and so many other composers, writers, artists, and historians realized the great power of the humanities, including religion, and eased up ideological controls during the war.

After being radio broadcast by the NBC Orchestra in July 1942, the symphony was performed over 60 times in the USA and transmitted by almost 2,000 U.S. radio stations. A Time magazine cover featured Shostakovich. Poet, folk-song gatherer and performer, and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg wrote about the NBC debut. He thought that the millions who listened that July Sunday afternoon heard music that depicted the guns and killing of the Nazis, but also conveyed the heroism of the Russian people and their eventual triumph.

Although the USSR and the USA had very different systems, the struggle against Hitler had temporarily made them allies. The Seventh Symphony, though then viewed somewhat simplistically, helped increase U.S. sympathies for the besieged Soviet people. In hard times, when humans need sustenance for the spirit more than ever, it is not difficult to “justify” the humanities. Whether the “tough times” are personal, national, or international, this is true. Robert Kennedy realized this after his brother’s assassination, when he turned for consolation and understanding to the wisdom of Greek dramatists. Sandburg realized it when, during the Great Depression and World War II, he often referred to Lincoln’s example and encouraged President Franklin Roosevelt to do likewise. And the people of Leningrad realized it when they turned to literature and music to reinvigorate their spirits.

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