Censoring Pyotr Ilyich

Censoring Pyotr Ilyich

On the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the House-Museum of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in Klin (celebrated in 1994) the museum inaugurated a periodical which presents new materials on the life and work of Tchaikovsky. In addition to many revealing documents regarding his personality, the museum continues the search for new documents on different aspects of his life and work. Of late, Tchaikovsky’s choir arrangement Vesna (Spring) was discovered—it had been thought lost for good. The piece was written for a three-voice women’s choir, to the lyrics of an unknown author.

Researchers also continue to find new private letters. Three letters he wrote were found by the Chairman of the Tchaikovsky Society in Germany. Another letter was found in Japan in a major private collection and was given to the museum by the producer of that country’s state TV company. Another letter, dated in 1891 during his tour in America, was also found.

Other uncensored letters published in the museum’s almanac represent a hitherto unheard of degree of glasnost in Russian science on Tchaikovsky. There are ample details and confessions about his homosexual impulses, the difficulties he had in living a “normal” heterosexual life with his wife.

In the only official, full published collection of the composer’s correspondence, as many as 248 of Tchaikovsky’s letters were subject to different cuttings. One letter—to his brother Anatoly on July 11, 1877—was totally omitted. These cuttings were made by different generations of editors and the taboo themes often varied. But one taboo subject— his homosexuality—held for all generations of editors.

The most substantial censoring of his letters for publication were actually done by his brothers, Modest and Anatoly, long before the Soviet censors ever got hold of them, as our article by Richard Taruskin indicates. Many biographers accused Modest Tchaikovsky of excessive censorship, but since Modest was also a homosexual, and had his own secrets to hide (but which were copiously detailed in his posthumously published memoir), it could arguably be said that he was rather more lenient than one might have expected. Anatoly had a less open attitude towards Pyotr’s sexual predilections. He was actually in favor of destroying all documents that “blemished” Pyotr Ilyich. In a letter to his twin brother Modest, written shortly after the death of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Anatoly wrote: “With regards to Klin, I want no one except for you or me to touch the papers or letters he left, before those which could somehow compromise his memory are destroyed.”

Another of Tchaikovsky’s brothers, Ippolit, went so far as to invent a “memoir” (published in 1925) about Pyotr Ilyich’s wedding (which was in truth a disastrous affair the composer cooked up for still unclear reasons), so as to present a “morally impeccable” picture of Tchaikovsky. As Anatoly wrote Modest, “It would be very sad if the wedding and whatever ensued couldn’t be explained properly, as this affair presents many cases for tarnishing his sainthood.”

Other prudish editors, following the “spirit of the times,” even went so far as to delete passages from letters referring to every mention of a hug or a kiss, even if they were perfectly natural forms of expression of brotherly or familial affection. Likewise, mention of brother Anatoly or servant Alexei’s venereal diseases were excised.


In other editions, political correctness won out over historical correctness: thus the deletion of Tchaikovsky’s extensive use of the derogatory “zhidy” [slang for “yids” or “kikes”] in his descriptions of the Jewish villages near Kamenka and Verbovka, where he visited his sister. In a pre-war edition, when Stalin was seeking rapprochement with Germany, Tchaikovsky’s derogatory comments toward Germans were cut out. Still other editors were shy to reprint the word “gadina” [“beast”], which Tchaikovsky used to describe his rather disturbed wife.

Nearly every edition of his published letters cut out the composer’s “mat” [“swear words”], often sacrificing displays of Tchaikovskian humor in the process. In a letter to brother Anatoly, Tchaikovsky vented his anger at Anton Rubinstein [the composer’s mentor at the conservatory and a lifelong critic of his work]: “If you can, tell Anton Rubinstein: ‘My brother asked me to relay to you that you are an S.O.B.’ ...” The angry letter, full of Russian mat ends with “If it were not for the criminal code ... I would go to Peterhof and set fire to his lousy dacha with pleasure.”

In one hilarious letter to his father, Tchaikovsky described a series of comic situations in which he found himself when he tried to cure a case of hemorrhoids. But, of course, the genius of Russian music, the “saint” of Anatoly’s wishing could not have suffered from such human diseases. So the funny episode, described by this shy composer with such self-deprecating humor, was chopped.


About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602