Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story— How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War
(Harper Collins, 2016)
Consider the recent Rio Olympics. Among the many ephemeral think pieces you read during the Games, you probably came across one or two discussing the rivalry between American swimmer Lilly King and her Russian competitor Yulia Efimova. Efimova had previously been found guilty of doping twice, but was nonetheless allowed to participate in the Olympics. Having won a women’s 100m breaststroke semi-final, Efimova wagged her index finger in the air to indicate her position. Lilly King echoed the gesture when she won her semi-final. King then proceeded to win gold. She was very outspoken in her criticism of Efimova’s use of performance-enhancing drugs. Efimova responded to King’s comments by saying, “I always thought the Cold War was long in the past. Why start it again, by using sport?”
Efimova’s comments are disingenuous: the Olympics have always been a stage for international politics. Why else would countries make concerted efforts to increase their medal count, as Great Britain and China have done? Why else would Russia engage in a massive doping program? Athletes occupy a dual role: they are themselves and their abilities, but they are also representatives of greater ideas. A victory is both an indication of an individual’s skill and also, somehow, a sign of a country’s strength.
Of course, sports are not the only domain where these nationalistic urges reveal themselves. The story of David and Goliath comes to mind. In the Bible, Goliath, champion of the Philistines, challenges a representative of the Israelites to a one-on-one fight that will decide the outcome of their nations’ conflict. David and Goliath thus act as single-combat warriors—a role Tom Wolfe also identified in the astronauts who were part of the space race. “The men chosen for this historic mission,” Wolfe writes in his 1979 book The Right Stuff, “took on the archaic mantles of the single-combat warriors of a long-since-forgotten time. They would not be going into space to do actual combat [...] But they were entering into a deadly duel in the heavens, in any event.” The same analogy applies to athletes and to Eurovision contestants, surprisingly. And it was also the case with Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn, Jr.’s victory in the Soviet Union’s inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition, held in 1958.
Cliburn, a pianist and the subject of Nigel Cliff’s latest biography, Moscow Nights, incarnated this dual role of individual and national symbol in two countries for decades of the Cold War. Indeed, it is precisely the concatenation of person and historical moment that makes Cliburn a worthwhile subject for Cliff: it is only the ongoing ideological conflict that gave Cliburn’s career and life historical significance. As such, Cliff tightly interweaves his biography with more than forty years of U.S.-Soviet relations, from Khrushchev’s spirited UN performance to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Throughout this period, a succession of Soviet premiers, and American presidents deployed Cliburn as a diplomatic tool to indicate a willingness to cooperate. His massive commercial success—his competition-winning program was recorded and sold more than a million copies, and his concerts drew stadium-sized crowds—his repeated invitations to the White House by presidents (he played for every president from Truman to Obama), and the blind eye the Soviet Union leadership turned to his homosexuality were all functions of his symbolic utility for both powers and for their people.
Born in Louisiana, Cliburn was raised in Texas and arrived in Moscow at age twenty-three to compete in the piano section of the competition at the height of the Cold War. Cliff devotes a sizable share of the book to the story of the competition as the turning point in Cliburn’s life and begins by setting up the contest’s historical context. By 1958, the two superpowers had already engaged in one proxy war in Korea; the USSR had launched the Sputnik satellite, symbolically crushing American pretensions at technological supremacy; and the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had also loudly announced the development of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Nonetheless, Khrushchev was also ushering in a period of thaw, both in relation to the West and within the USSR. Following Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev had seized power, denounced the personality cult that had surrounded his predecessor, acknowledged the repressions Stalin had ordered, and freed millions of political prisoners from gulags. This loosening presaged further liberties. In 1957, in another gesture of openness, Moscow was host to the sixth World Festival of Youth and Students, a musical and sports showcase and competition attended by 34,000 people from more than 130 countries. The Soviet leadership intended for the festival to be a demonstration of communist values. Instead, Cliff writes, “Many Soviet youths appeared drawn to the West by disaffection as much as by positive attraction.” They exhibited “apathy toward Communist ideals and [...] cynicism about the achievements of socialism.” For the Soviet leadership, the festival was a manifestation of a now-famous Russian expression uttered by ’90s Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Responding to a different government failure, Chernomyrdin said, “We wanted the best, but it turned out like always.”
The solution proposed to remedy the problem was an international music competition, as it would enable the government to maintain its ostensible openness while demonstrating Soviet superiority, which seemed inevitable given the success of musicians such as Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, and David Oistrakh. But they didn’t foresee Cliburn. His performance was an unqualified, unprecedented success. From certain judges, he received the highest possible marks in the first two rounds of the competition, and his performances were sold out. His final performance earned him an eight-minute standing ovation, including the jury itself. Still, the outcome was not a foregone conclusion. The jury consulted with the culture minister, who asked Khrushchev directly if Cliburn was allowed to win. As Cliff points out, Khrushchev’s decision was as much a matter of politics as of merit. Granting an American victory legitimated the competition as something other than a propaganda exercise and was, indirectly, a show of strength.
This union of individual and national symbol also characterized the relationship between Cliburn and the adoring Russian public. On one hand, the pianist’s interpretations of Russian composers like Piotr Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Dmitry Kabalevsky revealed a deep understanding of the Russian soul. Cliff writes, “Where did an American get to divine the subtleties of their spirit, the inmost essence of their sacred, scarred culture?” For the first time, a vast swath of the Soviet population was exposed to an American and he in no way conformed to popular Soviet conceptualizations of the West; he was not, as Cliff describes the typical American caricature, a “boorish materialist [...] exploited by rapacious Wall Street monopolists.” Instead, as Cliff writes describing the Soviet public’s sentiments, Cliburn was “just like us.” Cliburn encountered Russians firsthand, not as representatives of communism. In Moscow in 1958, he confided to a Time magazine reporter: “These are my people. I guess I’ve always had a Russian heart.” Indeed, the encounter between Cliburn and the Soviet public counterbalanced what writer Rebecca Sacks has called “the annihilation of the individual into a theoretical framework,” a phrase she uses to name one of the consequences of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, but which is equally apt in discussing the Cold War.
At the same time, though Soviet audiences appreciated Cliburn’s performances and his obvious respect for and love of Russian musical tradition, he also acted as a bellwether; his victory was a sign of possibility. His popularity was also an expression of a desire for freedom, at the very least the freedom of unpredictability. (That said, his very public affection for Russia earned him criticism from Americans, too. One woman wrote to the head of Juilliard stating, “It is a pity to see an artist embroiled in politics [...] when he accepts the patronage of people [...] who have stunned the civilized world with their unabating and wholesale criminal acts.”)
The story of the competition occupies a substantial portion of Cliff’s book. He attempts to inject it with suspense—the wife of the Russian competitor who foresees trouble ahead, for example—but, though clearly extensively researched, the narrative is not particularly dynamic. Part of the challenge is that describing an auditory experience is very difficult: reading the book practically mandates that you listen to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Another issue is that Cliff uses cliché word combinations—“exquisite beauty,” “it was the brightest of times, it was the darkest of times,” “exquisitely painful excitement,” “heartbreakingly beautiful.” At other times, his characterizations are formulaic: Cliburn, his Juilliard piano teacher Rosina Lhévinne, and Khrushchev are all described as having one trait, yet also its opposite, as if it were a revelation that people are complex, contradictory, incoherent beings. Lhévinne is both “a cuddly matriarch” and a “master manipulator;” Cliburn is “a model of piety with a rebellious streak.”
The book’s real problem, though, is that it covers major historical events, creating the unenviable task of somehow shedding new (narrative) light on very well-known stories. Furthermore, as a biography, it discusses a man whom I came to understand as a series of adjectives: certainly modest—“I’m not a success,” he said at a press conference upon his return in 1958, “I’m just a sensation”—devoted and deeply in love with music, gracious with his fans, nervous, profligate, generous, social. But a more complete idea of the man eludes me. At one point, Cliff quotes an interview where Cliburn remarks that “the greatest possible success would be to be utterly alone without feeling the need to talk to anyone.” This sentiment, coming from a man who liked to keep his guests up until the early morning and talk on the phone for hours on end, begs for more information and analysis: what pushed Cliburn to be hyper-social? At another point, Cliff writes about how “in reality, Van was funnier and naughtier than he appeared,” but offers no examples. Cliburn repeated the same program many times, playing the same songs for changing heads of state, essentially reliving a moment that happened very early in his life. Did that ever feel hollow to him? Of course, Cliff can only work with the material he had, but some added dimension is missing from the narrative. The portrait feels superficial, but perhaps that is because Cliburn’s depth lay in his music. Ultimately, a 1958 video (easily searchable on YouTube) of Cliburn playing “Moscow Nights,” the hit song that won the Youth Festival in 1957, for a Soviet audience, communicates much more succinctly the enormity of the feeling of connection and possibility of that first International Tchaikovsky Competition. Watch it—it will help bridge the chasm.