While carousing through Boston this week I made time to read “Symphony of the City of the Dead,” a dual biography of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and Leningrad written by MT Anderson. Related–if you want to read the epic story of Leningrad’s founding as St. Petersburg, you can do no better than Robert K, Massie’s magisterial biography of Peter the Great, which I remember reading in a two-day nerd binge at college. Anyway, this means more Russian cocktails including the classic “St. Petersburg” cocktail, which uses straight vodka and an orange peal. I decided to sex/citrus it up a bit with orange vodka and by throwing orange slices in, which I thought made it look very appealing. This was good, just a nice, soft vodka drink with enough orange tint to make it interesting. A perfect before dinner drink or after a light lunch, I thought.
In recognition of St. Petersburg’s interlude as Leningrad, I made up a batch of “Leninade” using my homemade grenadine. I also made a few adjustments here, using orange vodka and cointreau instead of standard triple sec. This was really delicious — I’m hard pressed to think of anything I’ve made recently that would be better on a hot summer day. Bring out a tray full of these and you’ll be loved by friends who will enjoy the chilly citrus kick of which is finished off superbly with the carbonation. The sugar level is also perfectly even, enough to light your mouth up but not destroy the other ingredients. Deeelicious!
- 1.5 oz Stolichnaya orange vodka
- .5 oz Cointreau
- .75 oz lemon juice
- .5 oz Grenadine
- 2 dash orange bitters
- Top up with club soda
I found Symphony an interesting, very readable, but at times frustratingly light history of Shostakovich’s musical work and experience under Stalin and during WWII. While the centerpiece of the volume is the Nazi siege of Leningrad and Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, I thought Anderson’s history of the Soviet art world under communism the most interesting part. Here “Symphony” does an amazing job communicating the unrelenting tension and pressure of producing art while avoiding the fearsome prosecution of the party, which regularly sent “anti-social” artists to their deaths without explanation. This was the era of “socialist realism” which Stalin–who used the term and the imagined trespasses against it to justify the death of tens of thousands of artists–later jokingly admitted to have manufactured. Shostakovich’s trials during this period make for fascinating reading and justify the price of the book alone.
I found the treatment of Leningrad’s descent into starvation less compelling and disjointed as the narrative flips back confusingly to Shostakovich and other players. There’s also a few minor historical errors though out that bothered me as a military nerd, such as referring to B-17s as B-52s. However, Anderson recovers when he portrays the unique and multinational effort to disseminate the Seventh throughout the Allied world, providing an example of the enthusiastic, popular embrace of high culture that should make a modern reader nostalgic. All in all “Symphony” provides a solid look into one artists experience during one of the more horrific eras in human history.