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Pianist finds a body on his front steps

November 30, 2011 by Norman Lebrecht

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More from Andrei Gavrilov’s KGB memoirs:

The Book.English version.

I was on my way back home from Mosfilm studios one day. I looked and see a crowd of people standing by the front door of the flats. There was a dead body beside the steps. My first thought was – is it a coincidence? Or is it a sign for me from THEM? A body by the entrance is their language. Their poetry.

In the autumn of 1980 I had to spend a lot of time at the conservatoire as I needed to finish off all the loose ends that had accumulated over a number of years. If I was thrown out of the conservatoire, or if I completed successfully, I was still threatened with conscription into the army and deployment in Afghanistan. I understood that such a “clean” method of dealing with me was immensely attractive for Big Brother. I considered the option of post graduate study.

I met with two delightful, kind people in the conservatoire – the Head of the Department of Marxist-Leninist Philosophy, Konstantinov, and his faithful friend Kiselyov, lecturer in Dialectical Materialism. They were both genuine philosophers, perfectly aware of all the Soviet balderdash, and drank like fish. They both wanted to help me. In their own way – the Marxist way. They proposed my candidacy for elections to the Central Committee of the Komsomol! Just as the entire musical world was cheerfully trampling me underfoot, these, seemingly dyed-in-the-wool communists, were embarking on an unequal battle for my life!

The whole affair came to nought. Letters flew from activists to the district and city Party committees. They demanded that “Gavrilov’s disgraceful candidacy” be removed from the election. They got what they wanted. Karpov was elected to the Komsomol Central Committee. A few days later I found out their names. They were my old friends, male and female, dating back to our school days. My kind Marxists hid their heads in shame.

Thank God and Bach – I managed to pass all my exams without too much difficulty, and to be accepted for post graduate study. Soon the Minister of Defence signed a decree releasing two winners of the Tchaikovsky Competition from serving in the Red Army – Gavrilov and Pletnev.

In December I was called by a cultivated lady and invited to the KGB club to take part in a closed concert for the senior officers to celebrate their official “KGB Day”. She hinted that I might be able to use this invitation to turn my fate around through 180 degrees. I even believed her. Although I already knew by then the main, standard Russian wisdom, “Don’t believe, Don’t be scared, and Don’t ask for anything!”

I remember that first I drove Richter to his Beethoven concert, and then I went straight to the KGB club, a light blue mansion with plaster moulding in the lane just behind the main Lubyanka building. I would imagine that it still belongs to the glorious tribe of executioners of their own people, as it is a very handsome, expensive building. Anyone who wants to can check it out.

There is a buffet, with salad, brandy and caviar. My sweet lady, who is already in very advanced years but with delightful manners, smiles and waves at me in friendly greeting. Her grey hair has been neatly set, and dyed to look golden blonde. She has powder on her little face, a pretty petite nose, blue eyes, a little beret, a lively and intelligent face, long gloves up to her elbows and a beautiful blue dress with a print of white tea roses – she is a charming society lady!

I play my first programme. Applause. Everybody is happy. I chat to the officials. I am waiting for them to bring me something like a safe conduct paper, and to apologise for all the inconvenience caused. I am ready to forgive them all instantly and kiss them all. These things happen! Nobody presents me with any safe conduct papers. They feed me and pour me brandy, wholeheartedly.

The time comes for me to leave the party. I am on the point of looking at my benefactress – she holds out her little hands, glittering with tiny diamonds, in a helpless gesture and nods her head at me in encouragement, as though saying just have a little patience, your long awaited freedom is not far now. Stool pigeon.

I went home. It was a frosty December evening. It would soon be New Year. I should have been happy, but I wasn’t, I felt sick at heart. Once home, my metaphysical sickness materialised as something terrifying and real. I started to feel ill. Very ill. I felt dreadfully sick, my chest was being crushed until my ribs felt like they were about to crack, my heart one minute would stop and the next would leap out of my rib cage. I couldn’t stand, so I sat down. Then I couldn’t sit, and I fell onto the carpet in my room. I was suffocating. I crawled to the door of the balcony. I wanted to open it and breathe. I couldn’t.

Huge yellow stars were flashing and going out in my eyes, and it seemed that my blood was boiling and bubbling inside me, like champagne, and my breathing kept stopping. I tipped over on my side and lost consciousness. The last thoughts that flickered through my head were, “Aha, so this is what it’s like. It isn’t at all scary. It’s even nice. I feel so sorry for Mum.”

I came to my senses in the night. About three o’clock. I crawled to the telephone and called an ambulance. A melodious girlish voice sang down the receiver, “All right, we’re on our way, open the door you Dipso.”

Two beautiful saviours turned up in the form of girls in white coats. They were intending to pump the stomach of an alcoholic drowning in his own puke. They looked at my wealthy surroundings, at the paintings, the grand pianos, the gold records on the walls and grew quiet. They reported back to the station that it was a serious case and stayed with me through the night. Svetlana the doctor was a charming brunette, and Vika the nurse was a 19-year old blonde. Vika looked like Marilyn Munroe, only about 100 times prettier. The girls measured my blood pressure. 280 / 150. They injected me with magnesium.

“What’s the matter, pianist, a bit over-tired? Played too much? You need a rest! Otherwise you’ll end up playing yourself into an early grave. You mustn’t even walk. We’ll undress you, put you to bed and take some blood. You should really go to hospital, but we’ll treat you here, we’ll keep an eye on you, you lie here at home.

The next evening Vika came running to see me and said that my blood was “weird”. It was ordinary blood, although it had as much filth in it as a dustbin at a chemical plant – mercury, heavy metals and some other vile chemicals.

I told Vika everything that was on my mind. The sweet girl shook her head and burst into tears. She still came to see me for several years after that.


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