By Charlie Taylor
Playing with Fire: The Story of Maria Yudina,
Pianist in Stalins Russia
Elizabeth Wilson, Yale University Press, 2022
The dictator’s ‘thick fingers are bulky and fat like worms’ writes Russian poet Osip Mandelstam in his 1933 satire, ‘The Stalin Epigram’. ‘Every killing for him is a delight, / And Ossetian torso wide’. Read aloud to a few chosen friends, it brims with Mandelstam’s shared fear of the repression against Russian intellectuals in the 1930s. In the poem the Georgian dictator appears to be moving in the shadows, hanging over every word.
Even before the 1930s, Russian intellectuals occupied a tenuous cultural space: as outsiders to the political elites they could potentially function as subversives, but as representatives of the Russian mainstream they stood in for a vague but powerful public imagination of national culture. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin considered them ‘a secular priesthood, devoted to the spread of a specific attitude to life, something like a gospel’. Alternatingly dissident, mainstream and fearful, this was a group with a lot to answer for via their art’s relationship to politics and, in turn, their personal affiliations with the state. How far could the act of making art under Stalin be interpreted as a form of complicity, before it was undermined as subversion?
Elizabeth Wilson’s latest biography, Playing with Fire: The Story of Maria Yudina, Pianist in Stalin’s Russia, seeks to demystify a true outsider, a devoutly Orthodox pianist and intellectual, who struggled to reconcile her status as both a critic of and an accessory to the Soviet regime. Born Maria Veniaminovna Yudina in 1899, she had an early gift for music, and from the age of seven took a 100 kilometre round-trip journey from her hometown in Nevel to her piano lessons in the Vitebesk district. By the age of 13 her progress was so remarkable that she left her hometown to train under the infamous pianist Anna Yesipova at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. It was in St Petersburg where she would solidify her position as a promising young pianist. ‘I only know one way to God: through art,’ she writes a few years later in her diary from 1916, certain of her life’s purpose at the age of just 17. ‘Music, that is my vocation.’
Within the year, Yudina was rushing around St Petersburg in support of the February revolutionaries in their fight against the Tsar. The year was 1917, and Yudina was 18 years old. Between attending piano lessons and lectures, Yudina collected census information and learned how to use a loaded rifle, in the hopes of assisting the cause in any way she could. But a chance meeting with her professor, Alexander Tcherepnin, abruptly eclipsed her revolutionary zeal: ‘I was overcome by confusion,’ she wrote of the encounter, ‘suddenly Weber’s overtures, Shubert and Mozart’s symphonies swept through my mind’. Her commitment to music, she realised, was greater than her commitment to politics. Following the July Days, which saw Kerensky’s liberal government instigate a crack-down on radical subversion in Petrograd and Moscow, Yudina left the conservatoire and moved back home to Nevel.
The uneasy political situation between revolutions prompted an exodus from the Russian cities. The arrival of philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin and his Circle to Nevel provided a link to her previous intellectual life. Yudina began attending the Circle’s meetings, and read widely on Russian symbolism and German philosophy. Increasingly drawn to Berdyaev’s idea of an artist as a co-creator with God, by mid-1919 she had converted completely to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Yudina’s musical ambitions and religious conviction came to form a key part of her dissent against the Soviet regime. The strictly ascetic principles by which she lived her private life contrasted strikingly with her musical repertoire, which celebrated the Baroque and early Romantics like Beethoven and Bach. This paradox is what often struck observers upon first meeting her. The legendary writer Boris Pasternak, who would later become a close friend, saw her as borderline monastically plain but nonetheless ‘mystically inclined’. Shostakovich, her classmate at the Conservatoire, described her playing as intensely spiritual, as ‘though she were giving a sermon’: her rendition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations was like ‘a series of illustrations to the Holy Bible’.
As the 1920s continued and civil war broke out, Yudina was unsure whether to stay in Russia. Returning to the now re-named Leningrad, Yudina devoted more energy than ever to music as her hostile relationship to the regime grew. Yudina took inspiration from the city itself ‘enfolded in quiet, rustling autumn mist, as the half-empty ships silently glided by’. She practised relentlessly for six to seven hours a day as she expanded her repertoire to include Brahms, Mussorgsky, Chopin and Rachmaninov. The intensity of her technical skill, musical passion and religious fervor captivated audiences. To witness her perform ‘in all her being, her facial expressions, her eyes shining in exaltation’ astonished the composer Yuri Tyulin. Yet the Bolsheviks’ atheism pushed her towards subversive religious groups. At Bakhtin’s invitation, Yudina joined the clandestine religious group Voskreseniye (‘resurrection’ or ‘Sunday’), a small left-leaning sect that objected to the Bolshevik atheism. Given the recent schism between pro- and anti-Bolshevik Orthodox clergy, this was a particularly radical position to take. These political circumstances placed Yudina in a precarious position. Although she wrote to her former teacher Nikolayev about ‘a definite decision to go abroad for a long period,’ she never, in fact, left Leningrad.
By 1929, intellectuals began to feel seriously threatened under the new government. By the mid-1930s, Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s spokesman on cultural affairs, denounced writers like Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak and Mikhail Zoschenko as opposed to the aims of the state. In 1930, administrators informed Yudina that her religious beliefs were incompatible with her University position. As the pressure became increasingly high-profile, she refused to back down: ‘I have no intention of changing my beliefs in any way’. Two days before her dismissal, she performed a striking rendition of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor with the Leningrad Philharmonic, its long funeral march prophesying the Soviet Union’s tragic destiny. Yudina’s faith had cost her post, but never did she sacrifice her art itself for politics.
One of the most infamous myths about Yudina’s dissent was her ‘suicide letter’ to Stalin, depicted in the opening scene of Iannucci’s film The Death of Stalin (2017). After hearing Yudina perform on a Radio Moscow broadcast, Stalin demanded a recording for himself. Having failed to make one, the committee ordered the orchestra to reassemble and replay the concert that very night. They mailed the rushed recording straight to Stalin’s dacha, and the Premier himself is rumoured to have sent Yudina 20,000Ᵽ in thanks. She wrote to him in response: ‘I thank you, Iosif Vissarionivich for your aid. I pray for you day and night and ask the lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country.’ She finished the letter, informing him that she would donate the money to her local church.
As enticing as it is, the story is false, as Wilson’s biography reminds us. The legend, first appeared in the highly disputed Testimony (1979), which claims to have collected the dictated memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, but whose source notes have reportedly been ‘lost’. But when Wilson interviewed the pianist’s friends and relatives, none of them had heard of this occurrence from Yudina, nor had Shostakovich’s widow, Irina Antonovna, heard of it from her husband. Moreover, Yudina’s dramatic volte-face to the dictator – her vow to give the money to a church – cannot have happened: the pianist had stopped attending worship two years prior, due to the schism within the Orthodox church.
Yudina’s political dissent remained more subtle than the Mozart myth implies. In private, she wrote of her inability to comprehend why her contemporaries ‘still believe in the nonsense and phantom of revolution’, while in public she assisted the Soviet Union’s propaganda machine during the Great Patriotic war by playing concerts during the siege of Leningrad. Following the winter of 1942, Yudina travelled to the city to play music for the demoralised civilians. Soviet forces maintained a bombardment along the German lines, protecting Yudina and the Radio Orchestra from air-raids whilst they performed Shostakovich’s seventh symphony. ‘People suffer from cold and hunger – and Yudina plays!’ wrote Lyubov Shaporina, in her Leningrad diaries. On Yudina’s second visit to the city she broadcast words of solidarity with the millions under siege: ‘there is no frontline and no rear-guard, no dividing lines between the military and the civilian, between primary and secondary things’. Throughout the war Yudina travelled repeatedly to the front giving concerts on an upright with the front panels unscrewed.
In Playing with Fire, Wilson avoids defining her subject strictly as a dissident; instead, she describes Yudina as holding a diverse range of loyalties, which paradoxically shifted over time. In Wilson’s account, almost everyone in the regime is trapped in these double-binds; from dissident outcast to wartime propagandist, Yudina’s struggle to artistically survive under Stalin’s repression might be easily read as political surrender. However, Wilson lets the narrative do the talking for her: the end of the war changing little for Yudina, who returned back to the intellectual periphery following the post-war clampdown. Although Wilson debunks several of the myths surrounding the pianist, Yudina appears to take on a sense of unreality in the anecdotes Wilson provides. At every turn her incredible drive to perform music and to take on the state and those around her is foregrounded – in the process a truly sympathetic picture remains distant and in the background.
If anything, Yudina was constantly trying to escape the Soviet Union through music, contrary to Wilson’s characterisation of her as disparate, isolated and apolitical. Yudina increasingly isolated herself, living out a semi-monastic existence, which was itself a kind of radical politics. ‘I haven’t read the newspapers for months,’ she wrote after the war. ‘One has to create a kind of aristocratic isolation around oneself, that is the only way to exist.’ Yudina re-emerged to participate in the debates that took place following the First-All Union Congress of Composers in April 1948, but her critique was about playing music on her own terms rather than formally debating these changes. The crack-down on formalist music radically altered the repertoire Yudina could play. Despite being denigrated as a ‘performer-formalist’, her continued performances of banned works like Prokofiev’s Eighth Piano Sonata and Shostakovich’s Second, testify to the strength of her aesthetic beliefs over the pressures of politics.
The closest Wilson comes to characterizing Yudina as a dissident is in outlining the development of her relationship with the writer Boris Pasternak. After hearing the opening sketches of Doctor Zhivago in her flat on Beovaya Street, Yudina marvelled at the ‘commensurate rightness of each word’. Amidst the furore against Pasternak’s novel which described the events of the 1917 Revolution, Yudina continued to recite his poetry after encores and concerts. As a result, she was banned from performing for five years.
Yudina’s story shows how opposition to a repressive regime can take on forms that defy the traditional narratives of a political dissident. Through her varied commitments to her faith and her art, Yudina exercises a kind of radical self-determination, in her refusal against all odds to be silenced. As forces began to amass to censor or remove those who deviated from a centrally imposed line, Yudina’s commitment to art was a radical act. The image of her silently practising in a friend’s flat at the peak of her estrangement from the Soviet mainstream remains itself an image of opposition – and of inner freedom
CHARLIE TAYLOR reads History at Christ Church. He passionately hates Brideshead Revisited.
Artwork by Alice Penrose