Maria Yudina was among the small number of Soviet artists whose audacious dissent against Stalin went unpunished. She was able to frankly confront Stalin thanks to his sincere appreciation of her gifts. For all his monstrous cruelty, Stalin was an enthusiastic art lover who had his personal favorites among the large population of Soviet talent, and he seemed to have pretty good taste.
The story behind Yudina’s legendary recording of Mozart’s A Major Piano Concerto K.488 bears repeating, because it demonstrates her fearless confrontation with evil. This 1943 performance can be found on truecrypt’s YouTube channel:
The great Russian 20th century composer Dimitri Shostakovitch said in his memoirs that living under Soviet rule was like living in an insane asylum. To illustrate the point he told the following story about his friend and classmate in the conservatory, the piano virtuoso Maria Yudina.
One Sunday afternoon during the war Yudina was the featured soloist in a live broadcast over Radio Moscow of Mozart’s piano concerto No. 23. It just so happened that Stalin was listening to the broadcast that afternoon and was most favorably impressed. The following day he phoned Radio Moscow and “requested” that they send him the recording of the Mozart piano concerto with Yudina they had just played. Of course, having been a live performance, no such recording existed, but nobody at Radio Moscow was going to risk Stalin’s wrath by telling him that. So, they frantically summoned the entire Radio Moscow Symphony Orchestra, the conductor and Yudina to an emergency recording session that night.
“It was already after 10 p. m. before everyone showed up, and the original conductor was so nervous about making a “mistake” and incurring Stalin’s ire that he could not beat time effectively. After several false starts, he was sent home and another conductor was summoned in his place. The second conductor arrived so drunk that he kept conducting sections of movements out of sequence.
After about 20 minutes of this, the orchestra members rebelled, put down their instruments and refused to play for him. He was sent home.
To everyone’s great relief, the third conductor summoned knew the score perfectly by memory. It was well after 1:30 AM when he arrived and was informed of his mission. He took off his coat, walked to the podium, rapped his baton on it and declared: “Alors, Mozart!” and proceeded to whip the musicians through the entire concerto in a single take! The tape was replayed, everyone nodded their assent, and a single disc was pressed and sent to Stalin.
About two weeks later Yudina received a note from Stalin himself congratulating her on a marvelous performance and expressing how much he approved of her interpretation of Mozart. Enclosed with the note was a personal check from Stalin to Yudina for 20,000 rubles!
Now, Yudina was a devout (some would say fanatical) Russian Orthodox Catholic who did not allow the official ban on religion in Soviet Russia to deter her for a single second from practicing and promoting her beliefs. Indeed, her public tweaking and avid annoying of the authorities in this matter had earned her the reputation of being one of Russia’s foremost “gifted eccentrics.” Good Christian lady that she was, she sent Stalin a thank-you letter which went something like this:
“Dear Josef Vissairyonovich,
“I wish to thank you for your most generous gift and express to you how much it touched my heart. I will continue to pray for you and your soul every day and every night for the rest of my life. Please remember that God’s love for you is as infinite as His mercy, and if you but confess and repent He will forgive your many sins against our homeland and our countrymen.
“Once again, I wish to thank you for your gift. I have donated it in its entirety to the church which I regularly attend.
Maria V. Yudina”
When this letter arrived at Stalin’s dacha it was opened and read by Stalin’s secretary, who promptly informed Moscow’s police chief of its contents. The police chief, in turn, passed it along to Beria, the head of the KGB. Together, all three of them showed it to Stalin, scrutinizing the leader’s face for the slightest sign of disapproval, which would have meant that Yudina was to “disappear.” Stalin read the letter, and without so much as arching an eyebrow, crumpled it and tossed it in the trash.
As the Russian author Gogol once said: “In an insane society, the sane person must convince his keepers that he is more insane than they.”
On March 5, 1953, Stalin died in his bed. Spinning on his record player was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, performed by Maria Yudina. (Thanks to truecrypt for posting the story and Yudina’s performance)