How the Soviets tormented their greatest pianist

I have written in today’s Spectator about the sufferings of Emil Gilels and other artists under Soviet rule:

Every musician had dealings with the ‘organs of state’ and we have no way of knowing which of them weakened and succumbed. What endures in my mind is this vision of a closed room in which members of a piano trio, a string quartet or a symphony orchestra would look around and wonder, which of my friends is about to betray me? That is the ultimate epitaph of Soviet culture.

Read the full article here.

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  • “Gilels, I am told, never said a word about Richter, public or private.”
    This contradicts a persistent rumor: “Wait till you hear Richter” was supposedly Gilels’s humble reply to the lavish praise heaped up on him during his first tours in the west. Is the rumor incorrect?

  • Interestingly, the same suffocating atmosphere of suspicion, anxiety, intrigue, professional jealousy, infighting and party lines, and the continuous threat of being outcast and thrown onto the streets without any professional perspective, was created in a totally free Western society which paid generously for the development and maintainance of such context: The Netherlands, where the state paid millions to support the modern music establishment. This shows that the inborn, abject totalitarian urge which damaged Russia so strongly, is a universal possibility of abberation of the human species. And a communist, totalitarian society is not at all a precondition to have such totalitarian ideas put in practice.

    • I know you won’t believe it, but this is not about you and your problem at getting a grant from the Dutch government but about a great artist who suffered under a totalitarian regime.
      The fact that you try to make it about you is beyond pathetic and, in this particular case, quite repulsive.

  • Dear Norman, Thank you for your artcle, which certainly does throw some light on the often very difficult circumstances in which musicians, actors, artists had to operate in the USSR (and by extenstion, all Eastern-Bloc countries). It mustt have been terribly challenging for all – perhaps even especially those who were specifically ear-marked to inform; after all, there was no element of choice, they were being blackmailed. It would have taken a great deal of bravery to do otherwise.

    A the same time, it should be remembered that such situations were not only legion in the USSR; there was a great deal of similar activity in the USA throughout the McCarthy era and even beyond during Vietnam.

    If I could offer some mild counter to your article: I spent quite a deal of time in both the USSR and DDR as a student, and obviously as such I was shielded and given to witness very little; but what I do remember so vividly is that music-making (many, many rehearsals, lessons, concerts, often organised almost impromptu and at all hours of the day and night) was seen as a place of safety; it was almost as though the medium affered a refuge for all of the danger and worry which existed in daily life.

    Music was a kind of special lifeline in which all of those involved – both players and audience members – were able to take in great relief and comfort, almost to the point of music being an absolute essential of life – more important than the availability of food or a decent pair of shoes. I didn’t live through the wars, but I have heard so many who did speak about this, an example being those who survived the camps.

    I think there is surely a connection to be made in the sublime heights which Gilels reached in his art ( I could not agree with you more about the recordings of the Brahms concerti and the Grieg) and the refuge which his practising and performing offered him. I met him on two occasions and I found him to be warm, sincere and not unhappy, and naturally very careful and precise in his expression.

    I do find the continued comparisions with Richter to be rather superficial; I always found them to be two totally different artists in terms of temperament and specific approach, and I have certainly never felt the slightest need to compare one directly with the other, except to see and hear that they were both incandescently wonderful. Again, when I was in Russia, I never met any genuine Russian musician who would compare one -either for or against – the other. Surely too, it was generally accepted back then that Richter would not have even been given the leave to appear in the West if it hadn’t been for Gilels’ support, and, given that Richter was obviously such a free spirit/ potential liability, I can understand why. I am not sure where you have learned that Richter would visit the places you mention, though!

    • A very interesting contribution.

      One wonders whether first Western society has to become really, really bad, with economic depression, terrorism and community clashes everywhere, extreme-rightwing governments all over Europe and banking business and industries skimming everything much more than today, i.e. an utterly oppressive and frightening unpleasantness hard to bear, if THEN… classical music will experience a renaissance.

    • “It would have taken a great deal of bravery to do otherwise”
      Wise words, and applicable to those who worked/lived under the Nazi regime as well…sometimes forgotten with armchair hindsight. Some noble exceptions of course.

  • I would like to point out that while Leonid Kogan wasn’t generally well-liked as a human being, his association with KGB might be a malicious rumor. It is possible, of course, that he was forced to sign some kind of an agreement to cooperate when he was sent as a contestant to the Queen Elizabeth Competition. Consider his situation – in the late 1940s – early 50s, a terrible anti-Semitic campaign was instigated by the Soviet authorities. At the Moscow Conservatory, Jewish professors were harassed, demoted and many were dismissed. A virulently anti-Semitic professor of the Communist Part history (a mandatory subject) named Troshin was appointed with a specific purpose of failing as many Jewish applicants as possible. And Kogan, one of the greatest violinists of the XXth century, was not admitted to the Aspirantura (the Graduate Program) because Troshin gave him a low grade. After that, Kogan became depressed and was almost bed-ridden for months.
    It was only Stalin’s decision to send a delegation to the Queen Elizabeth competition (apparently, after receiving a telegram from Queen Elizabeth herself) that saved Kogan’s career. He was recommended by David Oistrakh and caused a sensation in Brussels.

    Another well-known story about Kogan was that in the 1970s he pleaded with the Soviet authorities to allow him to give a few more concerts in the West in order to be able to buy a new violin – apparently, his instrument was state-owned and unsatisfactory. There was an annual limit of 3 months or so for foreign tours, and, of course, virtually all the money earned by the artists was surrendered to the Soviet government. But despite Kogan’s position as the premier Soviet violinist (Oistrakh passed away in 1974), his was forced to shuttle from one bureaucrat’s office to another, and his request was ultimately denied in a humiliating manner.

    • These stories are so sickening. Such totalitarian systems are the revenge the mediocre and untermenschen exercise upon their betters. Marx was a gift of heaven for those people, however misunderstood and perverted.

  • I remember the conductor of a German orchestra once telling me of a concert he gave as the first on a tour by Mikhail Pletnev soon after he had won the Tchaikovsky Competition. A Gosconcert rep had handed him his schedule only on his departure from Moscow. At the first meeting to talk through the concerto, Pletnev had to ask which concerto he was to play! Gosconcert had forgotten to include the repertoire on the schedule.

    • I agree, the story is incorrect. Correct story was; at the first round of the Tchaikovsky Competition-1958 Richter gave zeros to all the contestants. Gilels, who was the Chairman of that Jury, asked Richter to behave as a Jury member, i.e. to give the points, not zeros.
      Neuhaus, who was also in a Jury, made instead of Richter Richter’s list with marks. Later on there was the legend about Richter who was the first who recognized Cliburn’s talent. But it wasn’t true at all.

  • I now suspect this was another deliberately damaging myth; but years ago I read that Kogan when touring refused to play before any orchestra whose musicians included a Russian Jewish émigré.

    • Definitely a myth. First, this would deny him an opportunity to perform with most of the leading western orchestras after 1975. Second, the authorities would not even ask him for such a boycott because they loved the money that they were getting from their touring musicians. Third, I have personally participated in his performances with at least one such orchestra that included several Jewish immigrants from Soviet Union.

  • “…Richter did exactly as he pleased, refusing to sign Kremlin manifestos and shaking off his KGB minders to go cruising boy bars in Paris and Berlin. He was a law unto himself …” – what do you think, why it became possible in the country, when homosexuality then was under criminal prosecution? Why this exception for Richter was made? Just think of it

  • And also I wouldn’t play a game around Gilels’ death. His last years Gilels suffered with severe diabetes, that’s why his hand were shaking and so on. But he played these last years even better than before, and it’s quite astonishing. I was at Gilels concrte in 1984 (I was 14 then) and remember that as if it would yesterday. One of the best concerts I have ever attended

  • Our moral vision is always at its eagle-eyed best the farther away the circumstances are. Closer to home, I look forward to a detailed study of the highly destructive effects being called before HUAC caused Aaron Copland, perhaps America’s greatest composer. He was never the same afterwards. We might also remember that anti-Semitism was a central part of HUAC:

    And over the objections of many SD commentators, we might consider the professional exclusion women faced in the Berlin Phil until 1983, and in the Czech and Vienna Phils until 1997. And the less overt forms of discrimination they faced and continue to face to this day, particularly in brass sections. Whether political, gendered, nationalistic, racist, or stylistic, chauvinism has no place in music.

    • The HUAC was an abomination and totally reprehensible, yet to compare this with the Soviets is facile. I don’t remember any American artists being marched away in the middle of the night to be either shot or exiled to the gulag. I don’t remember the American government dictating to composers the “style” of music that was acceptable and that all the music they composed should glorify the state and end with positive affirmation. The discrimination against women is still a major issue in some leading orchestras, but guess what, many leading American orchestras have virtually a 50:50 gender split (I think this very blog featured an article about this last year). So do get your facts right before coming on with you usual communist sympathy stance (you are not related to Jezza by any chance?). May I suggest a quick reading of Koestlers “Darkness at Noon” for a little edification about the “good old soviet regime.”

      • Communist sympathies? Ha! Red baiting and McCarthyism remain live and well — as expected in this forum. I did not state, nor imply an equivalence between HUAC and Soviet practices, which would be ridiculous. And I qualified orchestra membership by noting the problems in brass sections (especially trumpets and trombones,) etc., etc.

        Facts indeed.

        One theme deserves closer examination: the role of the US government in shaping the arts. This begins with the biases of our private funding system and includes activities such as HUAC. And even more interesting are the extensive activities of the CIA during the Cold War in shaping the arts world and its aesthetics through a front organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom. It is likely that the CIA’s massive, covert promotion of abstract expressionism significantly alter postwar art in the West. So I might too suggest some reading: “Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cold War” by Francis Stonor Saunders.


        But I know how much easier it is to look at the faults of others and not our own. Alas, I ask the readers to forgive me if I do not continue this parley. In general, the anonymous commentary here is simply too often too idiotic to bother with.

        • You have not addressed my fundamental point about how many American musicians were executed or sent to a gulag……….bit difficult one to get around this!
          The issue of female brass musicians is a valid one but it has been traditional for women to specialise in other instruments. There are exceptions however, as here in the North of England we have a long history of exceptional female brass musicians who played (and still do) in world class brass bands.
          I think the most telling statement you make in your last point is “It is likely that the CIA’s massive……….” Likelyhood is not facts or didn’t they teach you that at your erstwhile academic institution?

          • Dear Ellingtonia, I don’t agree with you that to compare the terrible injustices of the House Un-American Activities Committee (if I have got that awful title expanding the acroynm broadly correct) with that of Soviet repression is exactly facile -although it was a question of degree – but not by much. There were suicides, “supposed” suicides and all the terrible irreversible wrecking of so many artists’ careers.

            There was also the deliberate action of some people who, by denouncing their colleagues, did so in order to exonerate themselves, and this is in the same spirit as it was in the entire period of the USSR (and during Mao in the People’s Revolution). I think this was what Norman was referring to in the case of artists such as Gilels: they didn’t exactly disappear (as millions did), but they were forced into a situation whereby they either cooperated, or suffered the consequences.

            A much less well- known example, which I came across recently is that of the pianist Naum Shtarkman. This wonderful pianist was arrested and convicted under Article 121 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR (homosexuality), in 1958, shortly after he had been awarded the third prize at the first Tchiakovsky Competition. He was arrested in the Ukrainian city of Kharkova few hours before he was scheduled to perform at a factory, as a special performance. The incarceration was 8 years (I concede this may be seen as relatively short in comparision with others ) and it completely destroyed his concert career: for years after he was only permitted only to perform in remote provinces or in secondary concert halls. The arrest and imprisonment also seriously impeded his teaching activities after he was released: from 1969 he free-lanced unofficially at the Gnessin Music School, and it was as late as 1987 became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory, thus eventually experiencing some sort of rehabilitation.

            Now, that is not exactly the terror, deprivation and annihilation of the Gulags, but it is still terrible, and what is more, it was a daily fact of life that people lived through, and somehow survived.

            At the same time, in the USA, there were those who, in reflection, were able to view their blacklisting and the destruction of at least their careers with some equanimity, as it was the case with so many refugees from Europe during the early 20th century pogroms and during the period of National Socialism. I remember the film director Joseph Losey, who suffered complete professional assassination by HUAC and, on escape to Europe, began working again, initially by borrowing colleagues’ names. In an interview, he said something on the lines of (it’s not a direct quote):

            I could have stayed in Hollywood, betrayed myself and my friends, and lived in a big villa with a pool and six cars, and I would be dead. Instead, I took my own values and what was left of my professional integrity and survived to achieve my best work in Europe.

            That, I think, is the kind of reference Norman was making, to artists such as Gilels, who somehow found a way to continue to practice their art as a kind of sublimation – as a way of surviving – by retreating into a place where they could create and flourish, despite the terrible injustices of a system –Communist or otherwise – which sought to destroy them.

          • To Delphine:

            Great comment.

            I would like to add – probably entirely superfluously – that the totalitarian mindset transcends not only boundaries of nations, but also of genre: musical and architectural modernism demonstrating a similar urge to create a streamlined field of pure ideology with all possible deviations excluded or exterminated.

          • Thank you for your considered and erudite response to my posting, however I feel that you have not really addressed the issue. Yes Americans were badly treated at the time of the HUAC but none of them were “disappeared”, executed or exiled to a prison colony in the gulag. I agree that Losey was badly treated but he was FREE to leave the USA to seek employment abroad and some screen writers managed to get work, albeit working anonymously. Unlike Shostakovich who for years kept a suitcase packed ready if the NKVD came for him in the middle of the night.
            The comparison of the two regimes is one of perspective. The work of the HUAC became a national shame but at least in due course they were exposed for what they were. One can hardly say the same of the Soviets and indeed, we seem to be seeing the emergence of a similar regime under Putin. It is remarkable how many of his opponents have died in unusual circumstances.

          • Ellingtonia. Losey was FREE to leave, but Paul Robeson was not. His passport was confiscated, as was that of his wife, Essie. And so too were the passports of Howard Fast, Albert Kahn, Rockwell Kent, Charlotta Bass, Corliss Lamont, Reverend Richard Morford, et al. And in 1950 the McCarran Act was passed, in spite of Truman’s veto and vehement condemnation. Very American indeed, the movers of the Act considered protesters subversives and subversives as traitors. Thus was put in place a plan to create concentration camps into which to herd them in any time of national emergency. It was repealed in 1971, chiefly because of its violation of the First Amendment. Interesting, though, to think that Nixon might have used it at the height of the Vietnam furore. I don’t really need to mention that the Government is confiscating the passports of American citizens willy-nilly right now, and without explanation. None of those ‘punished’ have been accused to being terrorists or supporting terrorist organizations. As in Robeson’s case, the Government will not give an explanation, but it is, of course, simply that they immigrated from the Middle East, particularly Yemen. This is lawlessness, just as when the McCarran Act was passed and HUAC was wreaking havoc on people’s lives.

          • I don’t dispute any of the points you have made although I do remember Robeson touring Britain and Europe as well as appearing in the Soviet Union and espousing the communist ideology (not to mention asppearing in a number of films).
            My argument is that to compare the treatment of American citizens with those of the old Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc is insulting to those who were exiled to the gulag, jailed after show trials or at worst simply executed. Stalin starved millions to death in Ukraine, conducted pogroms against Jews and various ethnic groups and that a conservative estimate of the people he killed is around 20 million.
            As difficult as time were for American citizens, it pales in comparison with the suffering in the Soviet Union and its satellite states.
            I wondered how long it would take for you to introduce the Trump Bashing (and I am no supporter off his). As I understand it the President has put a veto on travel from certain countries which have been identified as breeding grounds for terrorists, a reasonable precaution I would have thought.
            You mention a proposal to herd people into concentration camps in America, how many were created, how many people were incarcerated and how many people died as a result of their imprisonment?

          • 1) My intent in my comment was to counter your point that Losey was “FREE” to leave the U.S. by mentioning that other Americans were not free to do so, as Soviet citizens also were not free to leave their country. 2) Your saying “although” you recall Robeson in Britain and Europe espousing Communist ideology as if this is a point in your position’s favour puts your position overall in a different light. I thought we might have been in agreement that espousing that creed was hardly unacceptable. As a youngster in London, my family home was opposite that of the local and perennial Communist candidate for Parliament. I doubt if even MI5 gave a damn, given a total Party membership of circa 25 000 in the U.K. 3) No camps were built to my knowledge after the Act was passed in 1950 (though there were, of course, the Japanese internment camps previously, during WWII). The point of the Act was to make legal the building and use of such in a state of ‘national emergency’, a rather amorphous term. That a provision in law was made for them by Congress is quite chilling enough for me. Suffice to say that I’m pleased the Act is not still lurking on the books as of 2017. 4) I do not think the treatment of Americans and Soviet Citizens can be equated, which is why I did not equate them. My response was intended only to clarify what treatment was meted out to Americans or potentially could have been. The U.S. was nowhere as bad as the Soviet Union re such matters, but I don’t wish to see its own sins understated.

  • “The first to win a competition abroad (Brussels, 1938”

    Strictly taken, Gilels wasn’t the first Soviet pianist to win a competition abroad; before him it was his fellow pianist Yakov Flier (also Jewish), who won in 1936 the Vienna international competition, while Gilels came in second. In 1938 in Brussels it was the other way around: Gilels first, Flier came in third.

    • Dear Hamletiana,

      Ah, thank you so much for your post and for remembering Jakob Flier – an extraordinarily wonderful musician and pianist of whom so many people will not know – come to think of it, how many there were; Zak, Oborin, Sofronitzki… and their legacy slowly would slowly begin to fade, were in not for those of us who can remind each other! My best wishes.

      • And also CDs and YouTube uploads on which we can hear their performances. Flier and Sofronitski are wonderful and should be listened to. I must look for Zak, and certainly there are many others. Maria Yudina leaps to mind. YouTube and the Naxos Music Library (circa 125 000 discs on about 800 labels) are prime places to look for them.

    • ..oh, I forgot to say that I read an interview with Richter from around 1983, and he was questioned about why he omitted certain works from his repertoire. His reply – disarming – was simply that if he had heard someone else play a work very well, he didn’t feel the need and he referred specifically to the beauty of Jakob Flier’s performances of the Rachmaninov Third concerto as an example. And forgive my typo – I think I should spell Sofronitzky with a y rhate rthan an i (I was told that in our alphabet, y is appropriate for Russian, i for Polish names!)

      • Another said story concerning two great and almost forgotten pianists – Yakov Zak and Yakov Flier. Both were professors at the Moscow Conservatory – Zak was the Dean of the Piano Faculty. Zak and Flier passed away under similar circumstances – when their respective students defected to the West (Yuri Egorov and Mikhail Rudy), both professors were summoned to the Ministry of Culture, where they were chastised and threatened with reprisals for their “pedagogical failure.” Later, they were subjected to a further humiliation at the general meeting of the faculty at the Conservatory, where many of their “friends and colleagues” took turns heaping insults on these distinguished musicians. Soon afterwards, Zak (in 1976) and Flier (in 1977) suffered a heat attack and died.

  • “Far be it from me to question the word of a pope, but how the hell would he know?”

    What arrogance form Lebrecht. How? Well, the Pope had far broader and deeper sources of information in these matters – especially regarding fellow Poles – than Lebrecht could ever dream of having, and he was a better judge of character.

    • Thank you for writing this comment, Dennis. You saved me the trouble of doing so. NL’s arrogance and name-dropping are becoming the stuff of legend.

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