Timeline: The History of “The Nose”

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Gogol’s Russia

Gogol writes The Nose. At this time, autocratic tsars rule Russia, and much of the population works the land as serfs under a system where they are literally owned by other people. When he was nineteen, Gogol abandoned his provincial Ukrainian village for the capital city of St. Petersburg in pursuit of his literary ambitions. There, Gogol encountered a society that lived by the “Table of Ranks,” a document that detailed the standing of civil, military, and court positions, and determined the social status of those who held them. Rank was an absolute obsession that dictated everything from one’s style of dress to customs of speech, leading Gogol to wonder aloud, “Does not rank, money or a good marriage mean more to us today than love?” (Nick Worrall, Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev, 1982, p. 42)

In a religious fervor, having given away his possessions and burned manuscripts of the second and third parts of his unfinished trilogy Dead Souls, Gogol deliberately starves himself to death. His gravestone reads: “I shall laugh my bitter laugh.”

Revolutionary Russia

When 1917 begins, Russia is embroiled in World War I, ruled by a weak tsar, and riddled by widespread discontent that sparks strikes and mutinies. In what became known as the February Revolution, the country’s parliament seizes power and forces Tsar Nicholas II to give up his crown. But this weak parliamentary government, led by moderate socialists, is under threat from the city’s more radical “soviets”, or workers’ councils. By later in the year, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik party, who are allied with these soviets, gains popularity. In the October Revolution, they storm the Winter Palace, kick out the parliamentary government and assume control. Lenin becomes the new leader of the country. The Bolsheviks’ hold on power is by no means secure, however, and the country is thrust into a devastating three-year long civil war that leaves the perpetually pistol-toting Bolsheviks in a life-long state of paranoia.

The word “constructivist” is born to describe the work of a group of Russian avant-garde modernist artists. Most of them are young and hopeful at the time of the 1917 revolution. Constructivists hoped for their artwork, built on notions of abstraction, collage and rhythm to be useful and transformative in the world,. A group within the constructivists, known as “productivists” were especially committed to industry and the applied arts. They included Aleksander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, and their work spanned clothing, book, poster and furniture design, alongside more traditional media like painting and photography. Most of the decade of the 1920s is a vibrant period for constructivism, as these artists enjoy a degree of freedom and make artworks for the new Soviet state, such as Rodchenko’s famous agit-prop posters.

Stalin’s Era

Twenty-two year old Shostakovich completes his first opera, The Nose. This is the same year that Stalin rises to power as leader of the Bolshevik party. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin had shared power as part of a “troika” (“threesome”) with two other officials, but by 1928 he has consolidated power for himself as the single leader of the Soviet state. Stalin tightens the party’s grip over the country, and a new elite of party officials begins to solidify. This elite is called “the nomenklatura,” named after a list (somewhat reminiscent of the tsars’ old Table of Ranks) that outlined the party’s highest positions.

Shostakovich’s The Nose premieres to criticism from the Bolshevik party for its complex “modernist” style, which officials complain is unintelligible to the masses.

Stalin officially introduces the state policy of socialist realism in art, essentially outlawing modernist art. All artworks must now celebrate the state and educate the working class, to the disillusionment of many modernist artists and writers. The writer Zamyatin (Shostakovich’s collaborator on the libretto for The Nose) criticizes what he saw as the formulaic “boy-meets-tractor” artwork that resulted.

Stalin’s Great Terror begins in earnest. This paranoid and violent purging of both the party ranks and population at large aimed to eliminate perceived opposition to Stalin’s leadership. By some estimates, 1/8 of the population is either killed, imprisoned, deported, or sent to labor camps (“gulags”) during the Terror. Even many of Stalin’s own colleagues, including most of the figures who engineered the revolution and participated in the early years of the Soviet government, are executed. This is the same year that Shostakovich’s next opera receives a strong denunciation in the party newspaper under the headline: “Muddle instead of music.” Shostakovich is now under surveillance by Stalin’s secret police, but unlike many of his family and friends, he is lucky and avoids arrest. He never writes another opera.

Shostakovich’s friend and collaborator, Vsevolod Meyerhold, the internationally renowned modernist theater director and opponent of socialist realism, is executed by firing squad.

Having managed to survive another decade, in which he composed some patriotic and traditional-sounding works, Shostakovich is denounced again, as a part of government official Andrei Zhdanov’s broad cultural crackdown against “formalism.” This time he is blacklisted and loses his prestigious teaching positions.


Stalin dies and is succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev as Soviet leader. In the cultural “thaw” that follows, Shostakovich is once again celebrated as a Soviet hero and returns to teaching.

The Nose premiers in the United States with a performance by the Santa Fe Opera.

Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose, returns to the stage in Moscow after a decades-long absence. Shostakovich himself attends rehearsals and the performance.

Mikhail Gorbachev becomes leader of the Soviet Union and ushers in a number of reforms, known together as “glasnost” (“openness”), which encourage public participation, most notably through greater freedom of speech.

Russia Today

The Soviet Union collapses and Boris Yeltsin becomes the first president of the Russian Federation.

The Nose premieres at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre.

Opera Boston performs The Nose.

William Kentridge directs The Nose, for the first time, for The Metropolitan Opera in New York.

One Response to “Timeline: The History of “The Nose””

  1. KevinTran says:

    Nice post

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

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