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I was a teenage Cold War Russophile


Josef StalinIn J. D. Salinger's collection of short stories, For Esme with Love and Squalour, there is one that I especially like called 'De Daumier Smith's Blue Period'.

Comic and deadly, it is a portrait of youthful self-absorption, obsession and innocent ignorance, and I think it appeals to me because it reminds me unerringly of what I might call my 'Russian Period'.

In September 1952, I was working on a plan, at that stage unrevealed, to convince my parents to buy a radiogram. Radiograms and the emerging Long Playing microgroove records were just beginning what would be their relatively brief dominance of the music-listening world before Compact Discs and the replacement of valves by transistors supplanted them.

For a nearly sixteen-year-old, hormone-besieged young bloke plotting to ambush loving parents who, in his opinion, needed some re-education, the radiogram was heaven-sent. It was a music player which looked like a piece of furniture. Substantial, polished, pretending to be fashioned by hand from this or that kind of wood, radiograms cleverly concealed their essential artiness, their capacity to resound with symphonies and choirs or riff and rage with traditional jazz behind or beneath a façade entirely acceptable to any respectable, middle-class suburban lounge room.

I reasoned, however, that to make the case for a radiogram convincingly, I would have to show how and why it was necessary for the proper completion of my life and well-being, and how a lack of it would be desolating and possibly cause me to fall into dangerous decline. In short, I needed to know something about the music which only the radiogram could dispense. This task suited me very well because I was embarking with genuine enthusiasm and a degree of dogged determination on a self-tutoring course in classical music, aided by a program on ABC Radio, the name of which I forget, but which I turned to each Saturday once the counter attraction of football had either waned or ended.

I don't know how it was that I became so engrossed with and especially appreciative of Russian composers. Whatever the explanation, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Khachaturian, Ippolitov — all one way or another goose-bumpingly romantic — became my special favourites, though Ippolitov perhaps partly because I loved sounding the drum roll of his full name: Mikhail Mikhailovich Ippolitov-Ivanov.

It was difficult for me in those intense days to choose a favourite from among these melodic Slavs whose tortured lives and gloomy sensibilities appealed strongly to a teenager imagining himself to be similarly tortured, lovelorn and dramatically gloomy.

My radiogram campaign, impeccably conducted, and orchestrated with such subtlety and calculated restraint that my parents could not ignore it but would not feel badgered by it, bore fruit early the following year. A radiogram took its place in our lounge room and my education in classical music, while still rather random and driven by tumultuous adolescent emotions, continued.

When Josef Stalin died on 5 March 1953, a couple of months into my Matriculation year, my Russophile leanings seemed about to be intensified. Research in those days was a matter of consulting encyclopaedias, or, if possible, going to the Public Library, but in Stalin's case the newspapers were full of reports, history, anecdote, judgement and various degrees of relief, so there was suddenly plenty of information.

I was quite shocked to find that one of my heroes, Khachaturian, whose Gayne and Masquerade suites had suffused my soul with 'tragic inevitability' — a phrase I thought I'd invented but later abandoned in embarrassment — had been accused by Andrei Zhdanov's Agitprop ( the 'Department for Agitation and Propaganda') of 'formalism' in 1947. Essentially, formalism described art that was beyond the comprehension of the masses though the aesthetic theory was more sophisticated than that. Among Khachaturian's co-accused were Prokofiev and Shostakovich. All three tendered apologies but Khachaturian's, I learnt, was immediate, fulsome and successful in safeguarding his career and position.

I don't know what I expected of him. I didn't know enough about any of them to have much of an opinion, yet I was obscurely disappointed. Somewhere in my ferment of romanticism, intellectual curiosity and generalised excitement about literature and music and creativity lurked the understanding that ideologues and art don't mix and that artists do not apologise to ideologues. Easily said, of course, in the safety of an antipodean lounge room with its new radiogram. Zhdanov had the direct backing of Stalin and there were formalists who were imprisoned or were simply 'disappeared'.

The heat went out of my Russian prepossession, a cooling off partly engendered by Khachaturian's apostasy as I saw it, but mostly, it must be said, by the passing of time and, above all, the discovery of Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, Dvorak, Brahms, Sibelius — 'funeral music', my father remarked in a Zhdanovian moment — among many others.

The wondrous radiogram lost its polish and new marvels replaced it. The room faded from memory, the house changed hands, the family aged or went their ways. Time ran over it all, but the music at least lives on.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Joseph Stalin, Russia, biography, cold war



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Existing comments

Was there ever a teenager who didn’t believe his or her parents needed re-education? Crikey, I have vivid memories of the trouble I had rearing mine but looking back now from a distance of almost sixty years, and with a nod towards Mark Twain, I think I did a fairly good job. In the end, they turned out to be pretty decent people.

Paul | 18 September 2015  

Nice essay, Brian. I too miss the old radiograms, they were lovely things. We had a smaller cheaper version, a radio gramophone that sat on a table - HMV was the brand. I envied my best friend's big freestanding radiogram. It wa mahogany veneer. His mother kept it beautifully polished. I can remember the name of that ABC Saturday classical music program too, I listened to it often. It was 'For the Music Lover' and it was beautifully presented by Ralph Collins.

Tony Kevin | 18 September 2015  

I, too, had my "Russian" phase which coincided with my matriculation year in 1953. The same romantics roused my feelings. We, too, invested in a radiogram. I progressed to Beethoven etc., and eventually to teaching English. There must have been something dominant in the culture surrounding us in Brisbane at that time!

Jim Slingsby | 18 September 2015  

At 16 in minor seminary I was de rigueur into Gregorian chant and Palestrina polyphonies. My adolescent broken voice was the antithesis of plainchant simplicity! [My vocal variants not even accepted in Palestrina polyphonic multi-tonal melodies.] I had never been duped by Stalinism as I read of heroes like Cardinals Mindszenty and Stepinac. I reveled decades later in the irony that in 1935, Stalin taunted the papacy with “and how many tanks has the Vatican?” the Vatican waited decades to answer! Pope John Paul II in February 1981 wrote to the Kremlin that if the Soviet Union invaded Poland (as Communist ‘law and order’ was being shaken by Solidarity) he would personally stand between the tanks and the Polish people. The Soviet Union sensibly drew back from the possibility of invasion and 'the domino effect' rolled on: Stalin’s question had finally been answered. Must say I have enjoyed the Russian anthem and Kalinka a Russian song written in 1860 by the composer and folklorist Ivan Larionov and first performed in Saratov as part of a theatrical entertainment that he had composed. Soon it was added to the repertory of a folk choral group [YouTube has provided such delights]

Father John George | 18 September 2015  

But their voices of protest came out in their music, Brian. Listen to Shostakovich's symphonies with the idea that they are his way of attacking Stalin and you get a different view. The parody of Stalin's favourite tune in the 7th Symphony is just one example of that, especially powerful because, although the Symphony was supposed to be about Leningrad's resistance to Hitler, it was in fact written well before Germany invaded Russia. It was a criticism of Stalin's totalitarianism. Listen to the music rather than the words.

ErikH | 18 September 2015  

1953 was my Matriculation year. By that time I had learned that Uncle Joe Stalin was no longer our brave Russian ally fighting against German Fascism. My mother was the biggest influence in my early musical education. She told us how in the 1930s she was a member of St Joseph's Choral Society, which flourished in the docks area of Belfast, Northern Ireland. The driving force behind the Society was the parish organist, Rosamund Werner, the daughter of a German immigrant, The group performed scenes from German and Italian operas/operettas (Marietta, The Tales of Hoffman, La Boheme) My parents most treasured musical possessions was a cabinet phonogram and a collection of records of Irish, Italian and German singers. Sad to say when they migrated to Australia in 1949 they couldn't take their musical lifeline with them. One of the first things I did when I could afford it was to buy them a radiogram on Hire Purchase and one LP record of Count John McCormack singing favourite classical tenor roles. Music has a power to transcend national and political differences. As Brian Matthews has written despite changed circumstances 'the music at least lives on.'

Uncle Pat | 18 September 2015  

You are fortunate your relatively brief love affair was with Russian music and not Marxism, Brian. So many of your era at Melbourne University remained either unreconstructed Marxists or eventually became bitterly disillusioned anti-Marxists. Some were on the Arts Faculty staff in the late 1960s. Both types seemed sad, one dimensional figures. Fortunately there were other, happier, more rounded types we could take as mentors.

Edward Fido | 18 September 2015  

Thank you Brian Matthews for rekindling old memories. You were obviously an idealistic and romantic young man, however youth seems to distort reality and provide the answers that we most desire. It was with amazement that I recalled how, as a 15 year old, I revelled in gloom and loneliness listening to English waltzes like Charmaine on my little record player, smoking cigarettes that made me feel sick and sipping whisky so rough that my throat ached. I survived this period. Later on, when I was hospitalised for a long period during a difficult pregnancy, it was Sibelius who provided me with courage and calm, leading me to accept what I had to live through. My beautiful daughter is testament to his powers, as well as the endless generosity of my dear husband and friends. Music touches the soul, and somehow we do not forget.

Eveline Goy | 22 September 2015  

Because the French socialists, eg Sartre, were so friendly towards Russia, it was a long time before we realised just how deadly Stalin had been, Even more, we did not want to believe this very ugly face of communism. Where were we supposed to turn to, if they were all miscreants?

Eveline Goy | 22 September 2015  

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