October 15, 2022

Playing With Fire

Playing With Fire
Maria Yudina at piano, late 1920s or early 1930s. Collection of Yakov Nazarov.

The following is excerpted from Elizabeth Wilson’s new biography of Maria Yudina, Playing with Fire, by Elizabeth Wilson. Yudina was a pianist of uncommon talent and unshakeable character, rising to prominence at the height of Stalin’s dictatorship. The biography offers a fascinating look into not just Yudina’s remarkable life and character, but into the world of classical music during the Soviet era.

This extract has to do with a famous (apochryphal?) legend about Yudina and a particular interaction with Stalin, which is recounted below.

Yudina was viewed by many of her contemporaries as an eccentric or a Yurodivy – a Holy Fool. Naturally many legends grew up around her name. The story of her recording the Mozart A major piano concerto K.488 in one single night for Stalin is often the only thing people in the West know about Yudina, even if they have never heard her recordings. It has entered the popular imagination and has been taken up by filmmakers and writers. It appears in the opening scenes of Armando Iannucci’s film The Death of Stalin (2017). In France, an interesting (if not always accurate) book by Jean- Noël Benoit has the subtitle “The pianist who defied Stalin”. While in Italy, two books give prominence to the presumed relationship between Stalin and Yudina: Giovanna Parravicini’s biography Marija Judina: Più della musica, which emphasizes the religious aspect of her life, and a recently published novel, Complice la notte by Giuseppina Manin, belonging to the genre of fiction based on research. In all my years researching Yudina, I have yet to meet anybody who heard the story from Yudina’s own lips. Here I attempt to answer the million-dollar question: is it history or legend, fact or fiction?

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