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The Rise, Fall and Rise of Mikhail Glinka

Author: Tamara Eidelman
Translation: Nora Seligman Favorov

May/June 2014
Page 19   ( 3 pages)

Summary: On the roller coaster biography of one of Russia's most famous composers.


In 1946, just one year after World War II ended, the director Leo Arnshtam came out with the film Glinka. Arnshtam – a respected man of culture and a subtle thinker – deserves credit for sensing the precise moment when the life of nineteenth-century composer Mikhail Glinka became permissible subject matter.

Before the war, the Soviet government had little use for Glinka. This is hardly surprising when you consider that his most famous opera was A Life for the Tsar, based on the legend of the peasant Ivan Susanin's ultimate sacrifice to save young Tsar Mikhail Romanov from Polish occupiers in the early seventeenth century. Hardly suitable entertainment for Soviet audiences in the 1930s.

Glinka was much beloved by artsy Silver Age types. His lyrical songs and magnificent operas were not exactly banned, but they were certainly not encouraged. By the late forties, the situation began to change. Clearly, the title had to go, but once the opera was renamed Ivan Susanin, its eponymous hero could be held up as a patriot, a folk hero, and a defender of the motherland. Allowing a man legendary for sacrificing his life for the tsar into the pantheon of national heroes definitely represented an expansion of Soviet orthodoxy, but by the late forties, the idea of standing up for the tsar had lost the negative connotations of the immediate post-revolutionary years. Suddenly, in the most varied spheres of life, the prerevolutionary past began to be “rehabilitated,” and even held up as a suitable object of nostalgia.

During the war, the term “officer” – banned during the Civil War as carrying the taint of tsarism – again began to be applied to Soviet commanders, who even had their shoulder boards restored (during the Civil War, a hint of a shoulder board was enough to put a warrior's life in peril). The Russian Orthodox Church, after years of being beaten down and brought to the brink of annihilation, was now given a patriarch. And at a banquet held to celebrate victory over Hitler, Stalin proposed a toast to “the Russian people” – not the Soviet people, the Russian people.

Of course the tsars of yore were still considered hateful exploiters of the working people (except, of course, for Stalin's favorites, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great), but the leadership of the Soviet Union suddenly started to bear a subtle resemblance to the long-gone autocracy. It abandoned its erstwhile internationalism, even banning singing of The International, and began to refer to the Russian people as the older brother of all other Soviet peoples. This shift allowed Mikhail Glinka to reemerge from the margins of the national consciousness.

But first poor Mikhail Ivanovich – a womanizing lover of gaiety and drink – had to be transformed into a somber genius, consumed by sorrow over Russia's fate, misunderstood by the hostile West, and brought to the point of tears by the strains of Russian folk songs, which inspired his famous pronouncement, “It is the people who write music; we simply arrange it.” Glinka was transformed into a quintessentially Russian composer, unsullied by the “pernicious influence of the West.” In the film, Glinka is deeply moved by Russian folk music, longs to return to his native land during a visit to Italy, and engages in a deep conversation about Russian culture with another icon, Pushkin.

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