‘People in the West don’t understand nothing. Even the new Russian generation don’t understand anything at all. You don’t know, and it’s better you don’t.’ Maya Plisetskaya scrutinises me with her beautiful, kohl-rimmed, 88-year-old eyes, a gaze made wary in childhood, when her father was shot as an enemy of the Soviet people, her mother jailed, and her Jewish family broken by persecution.
‘Can anyone understand how if you took a single carrot from the collective farm, just one carrot, you could get ten years’ prison? Who could understand that?’ The Soviet Union’s most iconic, deathless ballerina shrugs, and slips back into the kitchen to renew the tea, the discreet wife to her husband, composer Rodion Shchedrin, who’s having his moment in the sun now that her career is finally, finally over.
Mind you, you never know with Plisetskaya. She last performed three years ago. There’s YouTube to prove it. She was still dancing the Dying Swan on pointe and in tutu until her seventies. Plisetskaya’s unquenchable vitality is symbolically inflated by her having been for so long one of the four supreme trophies in the Soviet display case — Shostakovich, Richter, Rostropovich, Plisetskaya, the prize units of world currency in the cultural Cold War, the most garlanded, the most suspected. Red-headed and athletically iconoclastic, Maya was the glory of the Bolshoi Ballet when it was gunned into service as the USSR’s global propaganda vehicle. First considered unexportable, because of her family connections, she suddenly became, in Khrushchev’s mercenary eyes, a pearl of great price. He spared no expense in putting the fear of God in her to stop her defecting.
‘Not long ago we saw this interview with this big KGB general,’ Shchedrin tells me, ‘and he said, “Oh yes, we put a microphone in Maya’s bed, so we knew everything.” Twenty-four hours a day, they knew everything. And we were just married! You see! It was not just words that they heard!’ Shchedrin twinkles, gnomically. His wife, a treasure to be guarded by nonsensical means. And I get a very Russian-male inference that KGB listeners enjoyed his performance too.
The pair finally moved West on the USSR’s collapse, to Munich. They’ve endured decades of pestering by westerners about why they didn’t emigrate earlier. Plisetskaya answered that with her fiery autobiography, I, Maya Plisetskaya, in 1994 (it’s a corking read). She lashed the system with furious invective, but wouldn’t give ‘them’ the satisfaction of being a defector. She loved her homeland — she felt an identity far beyond the absurdity of Soviet costuming. She described it as a matter of conscience not to let her family and husband down, by dragging them into easily imagined consequences.
I was visiting the couple ahead of the British premiere of Shchedrin’s latest opera, Levsha, under Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky at the Barbican next month. Gergiev, whose power in retailoring Russia’s image today cannot be underestimated, has been championing Shchedrin’s work as part of his interesting campaign to return Soviet achievements to a Russian narrative.
While Plisetskaya stood out by being ballsy and different, Shchedrin always eluded categorisation, and still does. He was a musical conservative rather than a radical, energetically supported by Leonard Bernstein and Lorin Maazel in the US, but largely famous over here as a composer of ballets for his wife, notably his rumbustiously percussive Carmen Suite (also used by Matthew Bourne and Mats Ek for Carmen ballets).
He was secretary of the Russian Composers’ Union (the pantheon of Moscow and Leningrad composers), yet not a Communist party member. In the USSR such labels were hugely significant, and could make or break careers. The Composers’ Union won a historically crucial battle in the late 1930s. The professional music establishment wrested control away from the proletarian ideologues, shielding Shostakovich, Prokofiev and the classical teaching tradition, and building up the composers into an elite workforce of thousands.
‘We were totally spoilt,’ says Shchedrin. ‘You went to the Union of Composers and you’d say, I want to go to the Composers’ House and create my new piano concerto. And there would be music paper, pens, ink, and once a week a cleaning lady came. If you wanted a bigger dacha, you could get one. This generation was terribly spoilt. And there was always interest among us in what we were writing. Shostakovich would phone, and say, please come, I’ve finished a new viola sonata or a new quartet — tell me what you think. Actually it was like the old musical culture of St Petersburg.’
While nothing is simple with Russians, we should agree that the Cold War narrative has too long dismissed some exceptional cultural achievements. Russian dancing, Russian music-making, Russian literary courage, exciting visual arts, complex drama and cinema, and a notable if erratic achievement in gender and educational equality — these existed before, within, in spite of and because of the terrorising politicisation of the smallest acts in life. Plisetskaya and her husband are keen readers of Nikolai Leskov, the 19th-century satirical writer, less known here than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, but according to them more perceptive of the raging contradictions that make up the ‘Russian character’, which they insist exists.
‘Maya thinks Stalin must have read Leskov’s “A Product of Nature”.’ In that story a lowly clerk cows a crowd of desperate peasants by simply wearing a belt with a big shiny buckle. ‘Leskov gave many prognoses of Russia’s future,’ says Shchedrin, whose Levsha is his second opera based on a Leskov story. Libretti were always the danger area in the USSR. In the rollercoaster switches of official Soviet policy about sex (free love in the Twenties, super-domesticity in the Thirties and Forties, cynical puritanism in the Fifties) the sort of murderous love-stories that Verdi and Donizetti delighted us with were potential minefields. Shostakovich’s clobbering by Stalin’s ideologues for his too sexy, too cynical Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (another Leskov story) forced composers towards the relative safety of instrumental music, and opera withered away.
The English should enjoy Levsha: we emerge as cleverer than the Russians. Levsha (meaning ‘Leftie’) is a natural genius, a left-handed (i.e. handicapped) peasant who takes a microscopic mechanical dancing flea made by England’s finest jewellers and puts infinitesimal shoes on it. The English hail his brilliance, but in Russia he dies as a peasant must, unwanted.
Shchedrin says picturesquely, ‘This is a tale with 25 bottoms.’ One bottom is Russia’s failure to recognise its geniuses. Another is England’s sophistication. Another, that the West are thieves of others’ talent. Another, that no one can trust a storyteller. Anyway, how the hell do you make an opera of it? I soon realise I’m in a maze of bottoms, and I’m not going to get to the bottom of any of them.
I ask Shchedrin whether the Soviet experiment should be considered an aberration in Russia’s history. No, he says. It is a natural result of the 25-bottomed Russian character. And what of western and Russian liberal fears about Putin today producing another one-party state? He withdraws. ‘I don’t speak about that. Stop it. I don’t want to comment.’ Both he and Plisetskaya have been copiously honoured by Putin, I presume from an anxiety to forget, rather than to remember. It’s just another bottom to contend with.
Levsha is performed by the Mariinsky Opera at the Barbican Hall, London, on 4 November. There is a pre-concert discussion with Shchedrin and Plisetskaya at Milton Court Concert Hall.
Ismene Brown is The Spectator’s dance critic. She was Daily Telegraph dance critic from 1993 to 2008.