Dialogue on the Threshold

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Saturday, 1 November 2008

Mariya Yudina

Mariya Veniaminova Yudina (1899-1970) was perhaps one of the greatest classical pianists of the twentieth century. She was openly critical of Stalin and, in spite of the climate of fear created by militant atheism and religious persecution, made no attempt to conceal her Christian faith, as a Jew who had converted to Orthodox Christianity. Although she was sacked from her teaching position at the Petrograd Conservatory in 1930, she escaped arrest during the Terror, unlike many of those from her intellectual circle who perished, including Pavel Florensky (1882-1937) and Osip Mandel'shtam (1891-1938). The reason she was spared is no doubt because Stalin himself was an admirer of Yudina's piano playing. (Likewise, it is known that Stalin, who took a personal interest in the arts, gave orders for Mandel'shtam to be "isolated, but preserved", until the poet's withering attack on the tyrant in his suicidal "kremlyovskiy gorets" epigram of November 1933 made his destruction inevitable). There are a number of versions of a story about how Stalin heard Yudina play Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 23 on radio one evening and demanded that a copy of the disk be brought to him the next morning, not realising that it had been a live performance. The following account is from Caterina Clark and Michael Holquist's biography of philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), who was a friend of Yudina:

"When Stalln heard Yudina playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 over the radio, he liked it so much that he telephoned the station and asked them to send over the record. This caused great consternation because the performance had been a live one and there was no record. It was decided to make him one on the spot. Yudina and an orchestra were summoned to the studios. The conductor was so nervous that he had to be replaced, but his replacement was no better, and only with a third conductor did they manage to make a record. Yudina was unruffled throughout. Stalin was so pleased with the record that he sent her a large sum of money. In her thank you note, she told Stalin that she had given the money to her church and then declared, 'I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive you for your great sins before the people and the country.' Everyone expected Yudina to be arrested forthwith, but Stalin, who perhaps had a weak spot for people of the church as a holdover from his seminary days, did not react. Her recording of the Mozart was reportedly found on the turntable in Stalin's dacha when he died."

(Mikhail Bakhtin. Caterina Clark and Michael Holquist. Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, 1984, p. 107)

I cannot agree with the assertion that Stalin may have had "a weak spot for the people of the church". It is more likely that he had a superstitious fear of the "yurodivyy", the holy fool, who, since St Prokopiy of Ustyug, Fool-for-Christ, has had such a long tradition in Orthodox Rus. Certainly, Yudina would fit the bill: she is described as wearing "an old raincoat of her father's, a beret, and tennis shoes" and as having no fixed abode. In spite of her impoverished circumstances, she donated Stalin's gift of money to the Church. Shostakovich maliciously called her a "religious hysteric". However, the strength of her religious faith made her utterly fearless, as is evident in the fact that she could dare to tell Stalin himself that she was praying for God to forgive his sins.

The recording of Mozart's Concerto no. 23 can be found here:


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