Sex, Repression, Censorship and Lady Macbeth

Still from “Lady Macbeth.”

When I received word from a publicist that a new film titled Lady Macbeth based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella, Lady MacBeth of Mtsenk, would be opening on July 14th, it motivated me to attend a press screening and to dig a bit deeper into the controversy unleashed by Shostakovich’s 1934 opera adaptation of the same work. I also discovered that Andrzej Wajda had made a film based on Leskov’s novella and since I have written about Wajda for CounterPunch and plan to write some more, it seemed worth my while to see his version, which fortunately is online with English subtitles. For those who want to delve into the tangled history of all this, you can also read Leskov’s novella and see a film production of Shostakovich’s opera that was banned in the Soviet Union for decades. In its entirety, the Lady Macbeth saga ties together sex, politics and art in a most provocative manner and will leave you marveling over how this lurid tale that was originally published in Dostoyevsky’s magazine could have such staying power.

Although not so nearly as well known as other Russian novelists of the 19th century, Leskov was held in high esteem by Tolstoy and Chekhov. In a useful entry on Leskov, Wikipedia notes that although he was angry over social conditions in Czarist Russia, he thought that education rather than agrarian revolution was necessary. His debut novel No Way Out was a dark satire on a feckless socialist whose comrades were amoral crooks using political agitation for personal gain. The Russian social democratic press was outraged over the work and wrote articles charging the author with being a police agent. Eventually some of the more enlightened intellectuals of the left revised their opinion, especially Maxim Gorky who saw him primarily as a social critic.

You can make your own judgement about Leskov’s politics by reading Lady Macbeth of Mstensk here. Despite the reference to Macbeth, the villainous duo are lowly figures having little to do with Shakespeare’s treatment of the royal co-conspirators. Katerina is the wife of a merchant in the countryside 200 miles from Moscow, who is bored and depressed by her isolated existence after the fashion of any number of female literary characters of the 19th century such as Madame Bovary. Katerina was literally bought from her impoverished parents by her husband Zinovy and kept like a caged bird. He and his father-in-law Boris looked down on her because she had more in common socially with the serfs that worked on their estate. If they were free to use the whip on the farmhands, their preferred treatment toward Katerina was the verbal lashing.

Into her life comes Sergei, a hired hand who has a reputation of being a “ladies man”. In short order, the two start an adulterous affair. When presented by the obstacles her husband and father-in-law, the couple remove them by murder. If Shakespeare’s tragedy was about political power at the highest levels of Scottish society, Leskov’s tale is about killing done on behalf of the need to satisfy Sergei and Katrina’s lust. If you’ve read James Cain novels that were adapted into some memorable film noirs, Leskov’s novella will strike you as a forerunner to The Postman Rings Twice or Mildred Pierce.

Despite the lurid character of Leskov’s novel, his prose has an understated quality that serves to make the unfolding action all the more gripping:

In the evening, Boris Timofeich ate a bit of buckwheat kasha with mushrooms and got heartburn; then suddenly there was pain in the pit of his stomach; he was seized with terrible vomiting, and towards morning he died, just as the rats died in his storehouses, Katerina Lvovna having always prepared a special food for them with her own hands, using a dangerous white powder entrusted to her keeping.

Later on, when Katerina’s husband Zinovy confronts her and Sergei over their affair, they make quick work of him just as was the case with his father. Once again, Leskov’s adopts an icily distant tone that reinforces his portrait of the two protagonists as remorseless in their drive to keep a liaison alive:

Katerina Lvovna, pale, almost breathless, stood over her husband and her lover; in her right hand was a heavy metal candlestick, which she held by the upper end, the heavy part down. A thin trickle of crimson blood ran down Zinovy Borisych’s temple and cheek.

“A priest,” Zinovy Borisych moaned dully, throwing his head back with loathing as far as he could from Sergei, who was sitting on him. “To confess,” he uttered still more indistinctly, trembling and looking from the corner of his eye at the warm blood thickening under his hair.

“You’ll be all right like this,” Katerina Lvovna whispered.

What would attract the revolutionary-minded composer Dmitri Shostakovich to what might be mistaken for pulp fiction?

He saw Katerina as a woman who opposed the deeply patriarchal conditions of Czarist society, even if her rebellion had an atavistic quality. In the same way that Flaubert—no progressive—sympathized with Madame Bovary, Leskov tried to put his trapped wife into context as should be clear from the opening paragraphs of his first chapter:

Katerina Lvovna was not born a beauty, but she was a woman of very pleasing appearance. She was only twenty-three years old; not tall, but shapely, with a neck as if carved from marble, rounded shoulders, a firm bosom, a fine, straight little nose, lively black eyes, a high and white brow, and very black, almost blue-black hair. She was from Tuskar in Kursk province and was given in marriage to our merchant Izmailov, not out of love or any sort of attraction, but just so, because Izmailov sent a matchmaker to propose, and she was a poor girl and could not choose her suitors.

Born in 1906, Shostakovich was old enough to have seen Czarist society before it was wiped off the face of the earth. For him, Katerina was both villainous and heroic. Her defiance of Czarist and Russian Orthodox social norms was sufficient in and of itself to serve as a deeply flawed but heroic figure. He saw his opera as the first installment in an ambitious treatment of Russian women that would be on the scale of Wagner’s Ring cycle. He stated in an interview:

I want to write a Soviet “Ring Of The Nibelung”. This will be the first operatic tetralogy about women, of which Lady Macbeth will be the Rheingold. This will be followed by an opera written about the heroine of the Narodnik movement… Then a woman of our century; and finally I will create our Soviet heroine, who will combine in her character the qualities of the women of today and tomorrow–from Larissa Reisner [a Bolshevik leader] to women working on the Dnieper Hydroelectric Dam. This theme is the leitmotif of my daily thought….

It was Shostakovich’s misfortune to be imbued with the values of the avant-garde of the 1920s just as was the case with the persecuted Polish artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski–the subject of Andrzej Wajda’s Afterimage that I reviewed for CounterPunch last month. Shostakovich wanted to push the musical envelope, especially opera, and might have hoped that he was operating within the bounds of the possible in Soviet Russia. His first opera The Nose, which was based on a Gogol short story about a St. Petersburg official whose nose leaves his face and develops a life of its own, was denounced by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians in 1929 for its questionable subject matter and its atonality. This was before the USSR had quite reached the level of repression that would render Lady Macbeth a bridge too far.

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District premiered in 1934 and enjoyed great success initially. But in 1936, Joseph Stalin decided to check it out for himself. He didn’t like what he saw at all and stormed out during intermission. The next day Pravda wrote an attack on the opera using the ideology of the newly hegemonic Socialist Realism that saw the great composer’s work as decadent in the same way that Nazi Germany viewed Alban Berg’s Lulu. Like Shostakovich, Berg had the audacity to make a morally questionable woman the heroine of an opera, in his case a prostitute. Culturally, there was not much difference between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in 1934, especially in the way they viewed women.

It was not enough for the Soviet artistic establishment to condemn Shostakovich’s opera for its modernism. A second strike against the opera was its backhanded endorsement of a liberated woman. Yes, she was a murderer but she was also a prototypical feminist who got tired of being under her husband and father-in-law’s thumb.

If the 1920s were a period of artistic freedom, they were also noted for sexual freedom. The Communists abolished laws against homosexuality that were reenacted at exactly the same time that Socialist Realism became the virtual law of the land for artists. Stalin did not only hate the “formalism” of Shostakovich’s opera but its portrayal of a woman who defied bourgeois marriage in a way that resonated with the writings of Alexandra Kollontai who was well on the way to becoming an “unperson” herself.

Kollontai was an advocate of free love and predicted that under full communism the bourgeois family would disappear. As the USSR was moving rapidly toward full communism—at least according to Pravda—the status of women was moving backward toward the days when Leskov wrote his daring novella. And as happened so often under Stalin, restrictions on rights were justified using revolutionary rhetoric as Trotsky pointed out in The Revolution Betrayed:

Having revealed its inability to serve women who are compelled to resort to abortion with the necessary medical aid and sanitation, the state makes a sharp change of course, and takes the road of prohibition. And just as in other situations, the bureaucracy makes a virtue of necessity. One of the members of the highest Soviet court, Soltz, a specialist on matrimonial questions, bases the forthcoming prohibition of abortion on the fact that in a socialist society where there are no unemployed, etc., etc., a woman has no right to decline “the joys of motherhood.”

Worried about his future not only as an artist but as living human being, Shostakovich abandoned all traces of his early experimental works and retreated into a musical version of Socialist Realism with the crowd-pleasing 5th symphony subtitled as “A Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” The retreat from modernism also included a curiosity like Song of the Forests, with its celebration of reforestation after WWII–a worthy enough project but hardly up to the standards of early Shostakovich.

In the post-Stalinist thaw, it became possible for Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District to return from the artistic gulag but not completely. In 1966, the USSR produced a film titled Katerina Izmailova that incorporated most of the original but excluded the steamiest sex scenes. The composer worked on the adaptation and was happy to go along with the censors. Although it would have been worth my while to be able to compare the film with one based on the original libretto, the 1966 version is the only one with subtitles. As seen on Youtube, it should be sufficient to help you understand Stalin’s outrage, especially the torrid encounter between Katerina and Sergei at 28:00. This is Shostakovich at his best and enough of a taste of modern opera to entice you to see other daring works such as Alban Berg’s Lulu or Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

Available for free on Daily Motion, Andrzej Wajda’s Siberian Lady Macbeth was made in 1962 and hews closely to Shostakovich’s aesthetic as the director acknowledges. In addition to the open sexuality of the opera, the film incorporates a mise-en-scène that at least in my view demonstrates the influence of Sergei Eisenstein, especially Ivan the Terrible. The black-and-white scenes of Russian Orthodox rituals display the director’s growth as a director even if the film is not as widely recognized as one of his major works. The film can also be seen in a better print on Fandor, a one-shot deal on a trial subscription to a service I recommend on a permanent basis for those of you fed up with Netflix.

That being said, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Wajda regretted choices he made in this film, according to an interview  that is found on the wondrous Web of Stories website that also contains sessions with other notables such as Doris Lessing and Albert Maysles. Basically, Wajda feels that it would have been a better film if it was done as a series of flashbacks with Sergei and Katerina recounting their affair and their crimes along with other prisoners being sent along with them to Siberia for their political crimes. Considering how productively Wajda used flashbacks in Man of Iron, I imagine that it would have been a great film but trust me: you will find Siberian Lady Macbeth well worth your while. Second-tier Wajda will beat anything you can see in the local Cineplex by far.

Let me conclude with the brand-new reconfiguration of Leskov’s novella titled Lady Macbeth. This is a radical departure from the original that despite some serious flaws is still worth seeing. Director William Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch decided to relocate the story to Great Britain but maintaining the same year—1865. Instead of a backward farming village steeped in Czarist and Russian Orthodox tradition, their lovers–Katherine and Teddy—clash with Victorian-era Anglican repression.

Unlike past attempts at rendering Leskov’s novella, Oldroyd’s film is marked by scantier dialog. Tensions between the characters is conveyed less by their words than by the daggers their eyes shoot at each other. This is a film set in the moors, just like a Brontë sisters novel, and with the look and feel of a Masterpiece Theater costume drama. The best thing about the film in many ways is the design. Most of it takes place indoors and we find ourselves gaping at the austere interiors of a countryside house that must have felt like a prison to its Lady Macbeth.

Don’t read any further in this final paragraph since it will contain a major spoiler that I must reveal now in order to make my criticism hit home. In Leskov’s original tale, Katerina and Sergei are found guilty of murder and sent off to Siberia but this new film has Katherine convincing the police at the end that she had nothing to do with the death of her husband and father-in-law as they drag her lover off to prison. This effectively undermines Leskov’s entire purpose in writing the novella, which was to show the consequences of committing crimes in order to satisfy one’s sexual needs. Under the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, killers never went free. It was only after 1968 when the code was abandoned that filmmakers gained the freedom to show that crime sometimes paid. The press notes give no indication why Oldroyd and Birch made such a decision but at least they understood what drew Shostakovich to Leskov’s neglected masterpiece: “Women like Katherine traditionally suffer in silence, fade away, or commit suicide. But here we have a young protagonist who fights for her independence, decides her own fate in a bloodthirsty way.”

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.