The Russian pianist Maria Yudina once said: “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast.” These words hold true when it comes to the talented pianist herself, who melted the heart of one of history’s most infamous dictators.
Born in 1899, Maria was a Russian pianist trained at the Petrograd Conservatory who possessed an exceptional musical talent. Moreover, an honest heart and unyielding respect for God gave her music an uplifting, life-affirming quality.
Under state-imposed Atheism, Maria’s choice to remain conspicuously religious was a brave one.
Thanks to a book titled “The Ladder of the Beatitudes” by Jim Forest, we have reason to believe that Maria was also a selfless woman, always putting the needs of others before her own.
One extraordinary fact of her life is that the magic woven by her piano playing, along with a letter that followed, seemed to have a stunning effect on notorious Soviet revolutionary Joseph Stalin.
Maria Yudina and Joseph Stalin
In the last years of his life, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin became increasingly isolated, locking himself inside one of his holiday homes and conducting himself in an increasingly bizarre way.
It was said that he cut pictures and photographs from old magazines and newspapers, made complex collages, and hung them on the wall. He avoided other people for days on end.
During his isolation, Stalin was an avid listener of radio programs, and once even called the station to ask if they had a recording of Mozart’s Concerto No. 23, played by the young artist Maria Yudina.
Out of fear for Stalin’s terrifying reputation for vengeance and vindictiveness, the radio programmers told him that they did have the recording. In actual fact, there was no recording, because Maria’s performance of Mozart’s piece had been broadcast live.
Stalin asked the radio programmers to send the recording to his home. During the night, the programmers frantically telephoned Maria, and she, along with her orchestra, proceeded to record a brand new version especially for Stalin.
Every orchestra member was riddled with fear, except Maria; she seemed relaxed, at ease, and entirely lost in the performance.
However, the orchestra’s conductor was so paralyzed by fear that the orchestra was rendered thoroughly confused. Maria sent him home and requested a replacement. The replacement conductor was equally terrified; no musician wanted to suffer the wrath of the infamous Stalin, if their recording did not succeed in satisfying him.
Conductors came and went, and it was only after the third conductor was replaced that the new record was completed, potentially setting a new record for the number of conductors per musical performance!
As the next day dawned, the recording was packaged and sent immediately to Stalin.
Shortly thereafter, Maria received an envelope containing 20,000 Russian rubles (approx. USD $305) as a personal mark of gratitude from Stalin. Maria boldly took the opportunity to write Stalin a letter, in response.
Maria’s letter included the following lines:
“I thank you for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He’ll forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend.”
The fearless Maria had dared to voice her true thoughts to the powerful leader, Stalin, regardless of the ramifications she may face for doing so.
However Stalin, upon receipt, read the letter and didn’t say a word.
A warrant for Maria’s arrest was drafted, but Stalin merely shuffled the papers to one side of his desk in mysterious silence. How deeply had the man been affected by Maria’s playing? Why was he so reluctant to punish the brazen pianist for her words?
Maria had seemingly escaped the wrath of the notorious Soviet brute. Until it was discovered that Stalin had died, at home, with Maria’s version of Mozart’s Concerto No. 23 circulating through the house. Maria’s music was the very last thing that Stalin heard before he died.
Pianist Maria Yudina was one of the very few people who dared reveal to Stalin that he was not exempt from God’s mercy. She was a woman of pure heart and devout belief. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her tomb in Moscow has become a pilgrimage site for sincere devotees since her death in 1970.
Maria’s life, as told by her friends
Maria’s story was told predominantly by those closest to her; among them, composer Dimitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich knew Maria intimately and shared fascinating details, like the fact that she often slept under her piano. For her, it was the safest place in the house.
Maria lived a rather ascetic life. She did not wear makeup, she spent very little money on herself and usually wore very plain clothes. Shostakovich once commented: “I am impressed that Maria only wore a black dress throughout her long life, [however] it was too worn and old.”
Typical of Maria, she did not keep anything of value for herself, but instead always thought of others. Shostakovich recalled another indicative story:
“Once she came to see me, saying that she was living in a small room, she could not work and could not rest. So, I tried all possible ways to help her.”
“After much struggling, we finally found an apartment for Maria. I thought she would settle down, then. But she soon came to me saying she had no home to live in. ‘What?’ I said. ‘We found an apartment for you, why do you need another apartment?’ Do you know how she responded? ‘I gave the apartment to another woman,’ she said.”
Maria would often sacrifice her own living conditions for the good of others.
Another story chronicles a broken window in Maria’s room. She received a loan to fix the window when the weather became bitterly cold. Yet, upon visiting, the friends who loaned her money found the room just as cold as the outside world; the broken window was stuffed with a towel.
“Why is it like this, Maria?” asked her friends. “We gave you money to fix the windows.”
Maria answered that she had gifted the money to her church because they needed it more than she did.
Shostakovich regarded religion as superstition and did not approve of this. He accused Maria of behaving like a “yurodivye,” a Russian word meaning “silly, holy person,” often used to denigrate devotees of the church.
Maria was unperturbed; her love and respect for the Lord were unyielding. She was always seen wearing a cross when teaching or performing in public as an outward affirmation of her belief.
Even in the face of increasing religious persecution, Maria played Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a personal, musical interpretation of the Bible.
Shostakovich said that she always played as though she were giving a sermon.
Sometimes, Maria’s passionate vocalization of her religious beliefs would get her into trouble. Despite being an exceptionally talented artist, she was often banned from certain concert halls and was never once allowed to travel abroad.
Shostakovich said that she was watched, and once even attacked, by cavalry at the music school in Leningrad. Serebriakov, the director of the Leningrad music school, knew that Maria was a first-class pianist, but he always worried for her safety.
Serebriakov once allowed soldiers to enter Maria’s classroom. The soldiers demanded: “Do you believe in God?” Maria, of course, asserted her belief firmly.
“Do you promote religious propaganda among your students?” the soldiers continued. She replied yes, of course, as the constitution did not prohibit her from doing so.
A few days later, a copy of this dialogue appeared in a Leningrad article, with Maria depicted as a caricature in a nun’s cloak, surrounded by kneeling, subservient students.
Maria was fired.
For people like Maria Yudina, people with stoic intentions and unshakable beliefs, the wrath of their contemporaries is no source of fear. It is nothing more than an opportunity for them to reaffirm their faith.
Violence will never extinguish the purity of the soul. On the contrary, it is the faith and selflessness of people like Maria that has left an enduring impact. Their example can move the hearts and minds of even the most godless of people.
Much like Joseph Stalin, whose reverence for Maria’s spirit accompanied him to his very last breath.