I share this with Joseph Stalin: a great appreciation for the musical genius of Maria Yudina. And I share this with Maria: a deep loathing of Stalin.
Maria never made a secret of her disgust and hatred of the Soviet regime. She let Stalin know, at great personal peril. He preserved her life and kept her safe because of her enormous talent (also she was never really a threat to his power).
Maria, who died in 1970, remains underappreciated to this day. No one has ever played Bach and Mozart the way she did, with all the enormous power, ferocity, and dramatic flair we associate with Russian arts culture. Her performances cared nothing for “originalism” or “authenticity”; she was interested in drawing out the drama in light of her understanding of the world.
The Death of Stalin
So I was absolutely delighted at the opening sequence of the strangely brilliant new film The Death of Stalin. Maria is playing a live radio broadcast of a Mozart piano concerto. Stalin hears it on the radio and orders that a recording of it be delivered to his apartment. There is no recording. Maria is told to play it again but she refuses pending a huge payment. She gets it. Once the record is made, she slips a truth-telling note in the sleeve of the record, accusing him of great crimes and the ruination of Russia. When the dictator reads it, he laughs uproariously but then has a brain hemorrhage.
The story might be apocryphal but it is true enough and the film captures her spirit well. It also brilliantly shows the wild jockeying for power that follows Stalin’s death, with fantastic portrayals of all the important figures from this period: Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrently Beria, Vyacheslav Molotov, Andrey Andreyev, Georgy Zhukov. It also serves as an excellent guide to what actually happened in those strange months that led to Beria’s execution and the rise of Khrushchev to become General Secretary.
There is enough real history here to justly calling this film nonfiction. For example, it is rather obvious that Stalin’s inner circle was thrilled to hear that the great man would soon kick the bucket. They waited a full day before calling a doctor because they had to meet in committee to make a decision. Plus there was another problem (again drawn from real life): Stalin had already ordered the death of nearly every competent doctor in Moscow so there wasn’t anyone to treat him.
Another big event portrayed in the film was the funeral, which drew mourners from all over Russia, who were promptly shot as they left the trains and tried to make their way to the city center. It was this incident that prompted the gradual process of de-Stalinization that lasted many decades, culminating finally in the collapse of the Soviet regime itself and the loss of its vast empire of control.
But what’s really remarkable is that the film is set as a dark comedy. How can one do that? Stalin’s regime was guilty of mass murder of the worst sort, and not one person in his political orbit lacked dark blood stains on their hands. How can you make a comedy about this? You certainly have to obscure the horror going on and the film has been criticized for doing this. However, I will say this: a realistic presentation would be impossible to watch. Turning this to comedy actually makes it possible to discover this strange history in a way that doesn’t completely repulse us.
For this reason, the film is hugely important if only to draw attention to this terrible history, and perhaps get a new generation interested in the truth about Soviet communism. It created a blood path, dictatorship, poverty, and fantastic amounts of human suffering. It’s remarkable that anyone could, following this experience, proclaim an attachment to socialism given that this was the most spectacular experience in history that took place under the rubric of the ideas of Marxism.
The world is still in denial. Russia is too: this film was banned by Putin.
Ethics and Institutions
There is more here, however, than just a portrayal of the events. It’s a portrayal of the darkest side of human nature. In the jockeying for power, acting on the ethics of right and wrong are out of the question. Everything is a lie. It is all about survival because it is pretty clear to all the players that they must either land on the winning side or be killed. Words mean nothing. Promises mean nothing. Right and wrong are slogans used to attack enemies. Malfeasance is a given. Words are propaganda and nothing more.
Now, you could watch all this come down and observe that these are all very bad people doing bad things. The question, however, might be turned around: what would you do under these conditions? Maybe you would be heroic and guarantee your martyrdom. Many people in history have taken this heroic route. But not even the most rigorous traditions of morality and spiritually have required heroism. Most stop short of mandating that in favor of merely not doing evil.
The story underscores a terrifying truth. Almost anyone is capable of ghastly evil under institutional conditions that forestall any good options. This truth is well illustrated in the case of a struggle for the control of government. There can only be one real winner and you have to figure out who it is in order to stay on the right side of the killing machine. Government is particularly adept at creating this win/lose scenario because government is not based on the idea of gains from trade or expanding wealth. It is a fixed pie and power is a zero-sum game.
The Dark Heart
Live long enough and you discover that this problem, and the ruthlessness it inspires in the human heart, is not limited to the Soviet government or other totalitarian systems. Power brings out the worst in everyone and drives normal human concern for right and wrong into the shadows. It can appear in any institutional setting in which winners take all.
If you see this around you enough – the way that envy puts a target on the forehead of the successful, the way friendship and loyalty evaporate in the face of palpable threats to position and power, the cravenness of the human personality when faced with the prospect of material deprivation, the shocking lacking of concern that people can demonstrate for high ideals in practice, regardless of what they otherwise preach – and you can develop a pretty dark outlook on life. Anyone can be a practitioner of betrayal and evil; anyone can be a victim.
At the same time, the preservation of civilization is bound up with a culture of respect for truth, human rights, the hope for justice, and the good of all. It’s not just under Soviet communism where these ideals are inviscerated. They can disappear without notice even in seemingly civilized settings: church, business, family, and friendship networks.
It’s an appalling realization to discover just how ephemeral the notion of morality truly is in practice. Your best friend could be secretly conspiring to destroy you; the recipients of your benefaction will knife you if conditions are right; your successes could be the very occasion of your undoing in the face of jealousy and envy; a person’s ambition unchecked by principle can lead to grotesque injustice against you. You cannot really know the true character of anyone who has never been put to the test: what evil are you willing to practice in order to maintain your living standard or save your life?
Let’s return to the brilliant Maria Yudina. She focussed on personal and artistic excellence. She never compromised. She fought Stalin at every step with profound courage and tenacity. She suffered enormously but kept her dignity. She left an amazing artistic legacy. Somehow she got through the worst of times, stayed alive, and thrived.
Maria’s life shows us that not even the worst institutions can crush a soul that is indefatigably dedicated to truth and integrity as first principles.