Back in the long long ago, when I was diligently studying the history and politics of an Eastern Europe that was on the brink of political upheaval, then-Soviet General Secretary of the Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev introduced “Glasnost” and “Perestroika”, or “openness” and “restructuring”, respectively. The Soviet planned economies were failing, and the people were getting wordy about it, so Gorbachev gave them some window dressing political and economic reforms. It was these policies, brought forth by a more youthful and pragmatic Soviet leader – following up two corpses and the calcified bureaucracy of Brezhnev – that ultimately led to the breakup of the Soviet Union and its generational transition to the neofascist kleptocracy it is today.
Dissent became more tolerated. Exiles were starting tentatively to return for visits – something previously unthinkable.
And then there was Vladimir Horowitz.
Born in 1903, Horowitz was considered to be one of the greatest pianists in the world, possibly ever. Horowitz ultimately fled the Soviet Union in 1925, ultimately settling in the U.S. Under Stalinism, once you left, you didn’t get to come back.
And he didn’t, until 1986. President Reagan and Gorbachev got along rather well, and the late 80s saw a rapid thawing in US-Soviet relations. Horowitz returned to give recitals in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).
When this occurred, it was broadcast on TV here in the States. It was quite clear that these performances were something special. On the one hand, you had this compelling personal story of a prodigal son returning triumphantly to his homeland one last time, honoring a life well lived, and sharing his incredible gift with his people again. He was no longer an outlaw.
On the other hand, it was clear that the return of an exile to the Soviet Union had huge geopolitical significance, and that it was proof that the Soviet awakening was real and good.
But what I remember most was the way he played Schumann’s Träumerei at that Moscow recital. The piece is part of Schumann’s “Kinderszenen”, or “scenes from childhood”. It’s difficult to describe the emotion – it’s a melancholy song, being played by an old man who had seen and lived through so much, to an audience that had seen and lived through so much more. It was as if Horowitz had managed to capture all of the sadness, despair, lost lives, and lost time that 20th Century Europe had endured, and now – as the century was coming to a close – we hear it. We hear the dreams of every refugee, every member of every diaspora, every victim of totalitarian despotism and hatred, every displaced soul. Everyone. It was all there, laid bare. Haunting. Beautiful.
For those two minutes, there was peace, there was beauty, and all was right with the world.