In an era of of oppression, underground X-rays offered a way to fight back
As we approach the tenth anniversary of the death of the great musician Mstislav 'Slava' Rostropovich, I find myself wondering what he would make of Russia today. Slava’s eightieth birthday, just a month before his death, was marked by a great banquet of celebration, ostentatiously presided over by Vladimir Putin. Although the guest of honour was visibly a dying man, it appears to have been a convivial occasion. When cancer claimed Slava’s life weeks later, Putin praised him as a staunch defender of human rights. How times change. Slava had not always been able to count upon such warm praise and hospitality from the leaders of Russia – or, as it was in his heyday, the old Soviet Union.
Great artists generally see themselves (in a phrase which hangs over election-time Britain) as 'citizens of the world' and it is not unusual for them to receive messages from the great and good of public life when they mark notable anniversaries. When the London Symphony Orchestra marked Slava’s 75th birthday, however, the messages gathered were unusually political in both tone and origin. Baroness Thatcher opined that ‘the world is forever indebted to you and your wife for your courage and determination in defence of human freedom’; and the former Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, Anatoly Chubais, recalled how ‘in 1991 [Rostropovich] came to Moscow to be with those who were defending ... the Residence of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation from the Communists ... He had left the serenity of Europe, and, with his life at stake, stood against the entire communist country ... This is called heroism’. The image of Slava defying the plot to restore the Communist ancien regime will be forever etched in the minds of his admirers.
Slava would always protest that his concern was with people, not politics, but political controversy dogged him throughout his life and, ever the non-conformist, he was not a man to keep his views to himself. He was an unquestioning supporter of his dear friend Dmitri Shostakovich through all his appalling trials and tribulations and, after the post-Stalin thaw of the mid-1950s, one of the Soviet Union’s most high-profile artists, across the world. He was a one-man export industry, but he loathed being a 'poster boy' for a system he despised. By the late 1960s, his willingness to compromise began to crack. One of Slava’s closest politician friends was Sir Edward Heath, for whom I worked in the late 1990s. I recently came across a draft I 'ghosted' for Heath on the subject of Slava’s political travails:
Slava Rostropovich embroiled himself in controversy in 1970, by writing a letter to four national newspapers, in which he condemned the attitude of the Soviet authorities towards Solzhenitsyn after he had been awarded the Nobel Peace prize. For a time, the Soviet authorities assumed that the letter was a fake, and all was well, but once Slava had made it perfectly clear to KGB agents who followed him to the Austrian town of Bregenz both that he had written the letter, and that he would not retract a word of it, all hell broke loose. He was banned by the authorities from performing outside the USSR for the first six months of 1971 – and his participation in the Days of British Music [a festival that was the centrepiece of a reciprocal UK-USSR cultural deal] came under threat. In the end, the tour did take place – and Britten, Rostropovich and Richter all played. But that was not the end of the story.
At the concert in Moscow on 20 April 1971, Madame Furtsev [The Soviet Minister of Culture] herself turned up, with the statutory enormous retinue - and, during the performance of the Cello Symphony, she proceeded to put on a conspicuous display of boredom, conversing with her staff in the row behind her and with her neighbour, apparently a lady spy from Goskoncert. At the end of the performance, she left with a great flourish before the ovation had reached its climax, taking with her Vice-Minister Kozyrev and his wife. The authorities also made sure that invitations for Rostropovich and Richter to an official lunch with the British Ambassador two days later never reached their destinations. Even in the world of the arts, that spiteful hand of the Communist Party was in evidence - and this was all a reminder that the Cold War was also a war of attrition, pursued on every conceivable front.
The Soviet authorities systematically humiliated Slava for almost four years. They ousted him from the Bolshoi, curtailed his foreign trips and eventually barred him from performing in either Moscow or Leningrad. Both he and his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, were banned by the Central Committee of the Communist Party from participating in a film about Shostakovich and recording projects were summarily cancelled. Although Galina continued to sing in the great opera houses, Slava was confined to working in the provinces and with students. Then, as he was rehearsing a production of Die Fledermaus in the Moscow Operetta Theatre in the spring of 1974, Senator Edward Kennedy came to the USSR on an official visit. Before he departed from the US, Kennedy had received a call from Leonard Bernstein, who apprised him of Slava’s situation and asked him to raise the matter face to face with Leonid Brezhnev. Kennedy was successful and, shortly after this trip, Slava and his family were allowed to leave the Soviet Union. Initially Slava came, alone, to London, where he was given the loan of a flat above the offices of Victor and Lilian Hochhauser, the impresarios who had so often promoted his concerts in the UK. Galina joined him two months later. They lived in exile for fifteen years, forging careers in the West. As the Berlin Wall fell behind him in 1989, Slava played a Bach suite; and, shortly afterwards, as the Soviet Union began to fragment and adopt a rudimentary form of democracy, Slava returned home for the first time.
To celebrate World Record Day this coming Saturday, Warner Classics have produced a collectible of rare allure for fans of Rostropovich. In the 1950s, an underground phenomenon known as Roentgenizdat became a remarkable feature of underground counter-culture in the USSR. We are accustomed these days to universal access to music, but life was very different in the old Soviet Union. Soviet citizens were hungry for Western music, but the authorities naturally banned it, deeming it 'anti Soviet' and decadent. A small group of determined and courageous entrepreneurs developed a method of cutting up to 4 minutes of music – enough for the latest hit single – onto old X ray plates, using aged or improvised lathes. To obtain the originals they bartered with soldiers, sailors and anyone else who had the opportunity to travel – and then made and promulgated copies, often of execrable quality. Some of these brave entrepreneurs and counter-cultural maquis were harassed and repeatedly imprisoned for this.
Last year saw the publication of X Ray Audio, a beautiful book edited by Stephen Coates, which explores and explains the extraordinary tale in detail and includes numerous hauntingly beautiful plates of Roentgenizdat. To mark the publication of the book, the singer Marc Almond performed Russian songs live at the Rough Trade East store, as an engineer cut a recording onto some of Almond’s own X Rays. It was a beautiful, moving occasion, even though one recording attempt failed and the second was almost inaudible. The Warner picture disc carries a striking image of a lower spine and pelvis; and is the first ever release of a genuinely samizdat recording – that of the world premiere, by Rostropovich, of the Cello Concerto No 2 by Shostakovich. As we mark ten years of Record Store Day and ten years without Slava Rostropovich, I can think of no more apt tribute, nor any more beautiful.