Art and Survival under Totalitarianism: “A Quartet for Life”

Art and Survival under Totalitarianism: A Quartet for Life

by Darya Protopopova (London, UK)

Andrei Novashov, the first Russian journalist jailed for his anti-war posts, concluded his final statement in court, on 3 March 2023, as follows:

In the 70s, [the Soviet people] spent a lot of time and effort to find out the truth. Today, on the contrary, millions of Russians spend all their energy on isolating themselves from the truth. Playing hide-and-seek with reason and conscience is the national sport.[1]

The difference is important to keep in mind when reading A Quartet for Life, the biography of Valentin Berlinsky (1925-2008), world-famous cellist and founder of the legendary Borodin Quartet. Edited by Maria Matalaev, Berlinsky’s granddaughter, and initially published in 2018, the book was immediately recognised as a vital contribution to the historiography of music and made that year’s list of “best classical music book releases” by BBC Music Magazine. Today, faced with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, A Quartet for Life needs to be reassessed as an important historical and social study.

Founded in 1943, the Borodin Quartet worked under oppressive Soviet rule. They toured the world representing the USSR, but not to promote an ideology or make a fortune. Their generation of musicians was obsessed with one thing only—music. Things have changed since then in Russia, and while many artists have emigrated in protest against the invasion of Ukraine, others, such as conductor Valery Gergiev and violinist/conductor Yuri Bashmet, have come out in support of the invasion. A Quartet for Life reopens the question of whether “to stay” means “to collaborate” and whether it is possible for a musician to stay honest despite the regime.

Berlinsky’s unwavering devotion to music stemmed from his early cultural milieu, which was largely untouched by the Soviet regime. He was born in 1925, in Irkutsk, Siberia—an area where many political prisoners in Tsarist Russia spent their sentences. The USSR had only been in existence for three years, and so, Berlinsky’s early influences were not dominated by state education but by his family, consisting of pre-revolutionary intelligentsia. He was the only child of Alexander Berlinsky, a lawyer who was passionate about music and studied the violin with Leopold Auer, and Elizaveta Popova-Kokoulina, a singer. The family celebrated both Jewish and Orthodox holidays. This combination of music and multiculturalism resulted in Berlinsky’s “violent opposition” to “any sign of arrogance, patriotism or nationalism.”[2]

Berlinsky’s biography is first and foremost a book on music—a timeline of concerts, famous collaborations, meticulously planned repertoires, and the like. However, as Berlinsky’s years at the Moscow Conservatory coincided with Stalin’s purges, it is also a detailed study in social history.

In 1937, when “the arrests started,” Berlinsky’s father urgently moved his family to Moscow, where his son could pursue a career in music.[3] At the Moscow Central Music School, Berlinsky joined a cohort of brilliant future musicians, including Ukrainian-born violinists Leonid Kogan (considered by many to be among the greatest violinists of the 20th century) and Julian Sitkovetsky (father of famous violinist and conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky), Rostislav Dubinsky (first violin in the Borodin Quartet from its conception to 1976), and many others.

In 1942, both the Conservatory and the Central Music School were evacuated to Saratov. Berlinsky’s memory of performing in Stalingrad immediately after the city’s liberation is powerful: “As we approached Stalingrad by boat, a scene from Dante emerged: a ghost town, […] in ruins.”[4] That day, Berlinsky was nearly killed by an anti-tank mine, a near-death experience that made him even more dedicated to music. In 1943, he founded the Borodin Quartet, prepared “to live on water and black bread”[5] if that was what it took to make it great.

Filled with references to Soviet musical luminaries, Berlinsky’s reminiscences contain intimate passages on the likes of Dmitri Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich, with whom Berlinsky shared “the same teacher, Kozolupov, at the Moscow Conservatory.”[6] In the 40s, the conservatory “was an exceptional institution,” Berlinsky writes:

We shared the corridors with composers such as Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Nikolay Myaskovsky, Yuri Shaporin, Vissarion Shebalin, and the pianists Heinrich Neuhaus and Alexander Goldenweiser. Our teachers were the violinists David Oistrakh and Abram Yampolsky, Zeitlin and Mostras, and cellist Semyon Kozolupov and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky.[7]

In 1958, the Borodin Quartet “crossed the Iron Curtain for the first time, and went to a capitalist country, Italy.”[8] The Quartet’s touring schedule and repertoire were controlled by the Special Ideology Committee; “the State also took most of the money the Quartet made.”[9]

The ideological pressure was too strong to be ignored, and glimpses of it can be caught throughout Berlinsky’s memoirs. Thus, he remembers Shostakovich making self-deprecating remarks about his own music following the so-called “anti-formalism campaign” that had declared him an anti-Soviet composer.[10] Berlinsky does not mention the campaign directly, but the editor includes a note on the composer Vissarion Shebalin, who was brave enough to stand up for Shostakovich and paid for it with his career.[11] Shebalin’s son Dmitri Shebalin (1930–2013) was to serve as the violist of the Borodin Quartet for 43 years (1953-1996).

Naturally, some members of the Quartet wanted to move abroad and escape the oppression, but not Berlinsky: he regarded his colleagues’ decision to leave as a personal tragedy. For instance, when Rostislav Dubinsky emigrated to the United States, Berlinsky was devastated.[12] In 2008, he commented on Dubinsky’s departure in more detail, explaining his views on music and emigration:

My view is this: that the Borodin Quartet came into being and will continue in Russia, and only in Russia. This is how I see it. It’s the only way, in my view. I don’t criticise those who must leave. Living here, or rather surviving here, is a complicated matter.[13]

When asked why he did not leave the country, Berlinsky answered: “I found it impossible to do so. I am not a blind patriot. I can’t imagine a different life … I was born here, I will die here, and that’s it.”[14] In his own way, he performed at least one political act: despite pressure from the KGB, he refused to spy on his colleagues at the Moscow Conservatory.[15] Throughout his life, he either ignored the regime or undermined it. Should one still regard him as a collaborator for not emigrating?

Berlinsky also talks about his work in post-Soviet Russia. He openly declares having accepted funds for the Borodin Quartet Foundation from “[t]hese three oligarchs, Roman Abramovich, Oleg Deripaska, and Alexander Mamut.”[16] Today, with the first two names under Western sanctions and Mamut’s name under close scrutiny for his ties to the Kremlin, this indebtedness makes it easy to doubt the possibility of “pure” music. At the same time, though, would it be appropriate to judge Berlinsky, who spent years “harass[ing] various bureaucratic bodies” in the Soviet Union to obtain support for music festivals and competitions?[17]

In March 1953, the Borodin Quartet played at Stalin’s funeral. It was on the same occasion that David Oistrakh announced the government’s decision to “form a ‘super’ quartet, with the intention of creating the best such group in the world.”[18] “The vanity of power and patriotism,” Berlinsky comments drily in retrospect, “spawn such ideas.”[19] In the end, it was the Borodin Quartet, not some state-decreed supergroup, that became one of the world’s best quartets—not by official fiat, but thanks to the dedication and professionalism of its members.

The last photograph in A Quartet for Life is from the year 2000: it shows Vladimir Putin, then Acting President of Russia, congratulating Berlinsky at the concert in honour of Berlinsky’s 75th birthday—and the Quartet’s 55th. While this photograph might be considered controversial today, one can read it as a poignant reminder that any life may easily be bookended by the reign of two tyrants such as Stalin and Putin. Berlinsky’s biography is a testimony to the survival of personal and artistic dignity in the midst of it all.

[1] Ходорковский, Михаил, et al. Непоследние слова. UK: Freedom Letters, 2023, 267.

[2] Maria Matalaev (ed.), Valentin Berlinsky: A Quartet for Life, foreword by Steven Isserlis, translated by Angela Dickson, London: Kahn & Averill, 2018, 6.

[3] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 8.

[4] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 14.

[5] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 18.

[6] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 126.

[7] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 20.

[8] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 62.

[9] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 59.

[10] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 11.

[11] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 80.

[12] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 92. Dubinsky left his own account of the events: Rostislav Dubinsky, Stormy Applause: Making Music in a Worker’s State, New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.

[13] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 113.

[14] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 111.

[15] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 113.

[16] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 116.

[17] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 117.

[18] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 60.

[19] Matalaev, Valentin Berlinsky, 60-61.