At the height of the Stalinist Terror, over half a million people were shot and another seven million despatched to the Gulag in just over a year's time. Conservative estimates place the Gulag population at between nine and 15 million. The apparent motives for the Terror were three-fold. The first was to stop independent thought so Stalin could hold onto power. The second was to stock a plentiful slave-labor force. The third was to smash conventional social relations and effectively place everyone in a form of solitary confinement. Next came brainwashing through propaganda, to replace personal feelings with communal ones; this process was interrupted by World War II but resumed after its close, reaching its zenith around 1950. The goal was to produce a population of human robots programmed to love only the state. Nadezhda Mandelstam remembered,
"We were capable of coming to work with a smile on our face after a night in which our home had been searched or a member of the family arrested. It was essential to smile—if you didn't, it meant you were afraid or discontented. This nobody could afford to admit—if you were afraid, then you must have a bad conscience. The mask was taken off only at home; and then not always—even from your children you had to conceal how horror-struck you were; otherwise, God save you, they might let something slip in school."
It was people in this society of masks who filed smiling into Philharmonic Hall in Leningrad to hear Shostakovksh's Fifth Symphony for the first time. It was people in this society of masks who broke down and wept during the largo.
It is impossible for us to imagine the cruel and bitter repression that these people endured, though Shostakovich's symphony powerfully evokes the experience of living in Stalin's police state. That Shostakovich was even able to compose a symphony in such an age, when both his career and life were staked closely to the success of his symphony with Soviet authorities, is a testament to the power of art and the human spirit.