The deeply devout and fearless Christian pianist who defied Stalin

Many Christians have stood out in the 20th century for their profound integrity and faith to the point of martyrdom. Doubtless most readers will be familiar with German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hanged by the Nazis, and French Catholic Simone Weil, who starved herself to death at 34 in sympathy with the victims and refugees of World War II.

A less familiar name, but their equal in tenacity and courage, was the great Russian pianist Maria Yudina, a deeply devout and fearless Christian who always wore a cross when performing in public – a direct challenge to the atheist Soviet regime that invited a bullet or the gulag.  Her faith cost her concerts, the opportunity to travel, and her job at the Leningrad Conservatory, but she would survive Stalin.

Born into a Jewish family, Yudina converted to the Orthodox faith at 20. She was a fellow student and close friend of Dmitri Shostakovich, to my mind the greatest composer of the 20th century after Stravinsky. Shostakovich said her concerts were her way to proclaim her faith – “she always played as though she were giving a sermon”.

She lived a remarkably ascetic life, apparently always wearing the same soiled black dress, and sometimes reading from banned poets such as Pasternak during her concerts.  In older age she began wearing sneakers, summer and winter, including to gala occasions.

Shostakovich once put considerable effort into finding her a room to live in – arranging petitions, visiting bureaucrats, investing a great deal of time – only to find her soon asking again: she had given it away to a homeless old woman.  Fellow Russian virtuoso Sviatoslav Richter said she took in the poor and lived like a tramp herself.

The most notable story about Yudina is how she defied Stalin and survived, at a time when far lesser offences led to death in the gulags or the basement of the Lubyanka prison. Shostakovich himself reportedly started sleeping in the hall outside his apartment after falling afoul of the authorities during the Great Purge because he didn’t want his family terrified when the secret police came to grab him. And he was indeed on a list to be executed or sent to Siberia, but the bureaucrat who was to order his arrest was himself purged the day before. Providentially for Shostakovich and the world of music, he slipped through the net.

But back to Yudina. According to author Jim Forrest, who said he got the story from Shostakovich, Yudina played Mozart’s 23rd piano concerto in Moscow in 1944. Stalin listened to the live broadcast and ordered the record sent to his dacha. But there was no record, just the broadcast, which had not been taped. What to do? Panic! It was usually fatal to say no to Stalin.

The episode is chillingly but entertainingly presented in the 2017 film The Death of Stalin. It shows the authorities locking the auditorium door so the audience can’t leave and ordering the concerto performed again. Yudina was not so easily bullied, but eventually consented. (Solomon Volkov also records the incident in his biography of Shostakovich, Testimony.)

According to Shostakovich in Volkov’s book, everyone was shaking with fright “except for Yudina, naturally. But she was a special case, that one, the ocean was only knee-deep for her”. The first conductor was so scared he couldn’t think and was sent home, the second trembled so much he confused the orchestra, so a third finished the recording. They made one copy and sent it to Stalin.

Soon after, Yudina received an envelope with 20,000 roubles. She wrote to Stalin, thanking him. “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 will forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend.”

The dictator read this potential suicide note and didn’t lift an eyebrow. He was apparently amused, or perhaps valued her playing too highly. Arrest orders had been prepared, but were laid aside; Yudina was left alone. It is claimed that when Stalin died in 1953 – the same day as the great composer Sergei Prokofiev – that historic copy of Yudina’s Mozart K488 was revolving on the turntable.

What could inspire that kind of crazy courage? Was she insane? Suicidal? Or simply touched by the divine? It seems to me that sort of ferocious integrity is only possible in combination with the purest faith.

Yet that sort of confidence and courage is common in the history of Christianity. After all, the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians that “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”

In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his followers that in the world they will have tribulation. “But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

None of us can know until it happens how we might react to the threat of martyrdom. In the West, of course, we don’t expect it, but the possibility of it is a daily reality for hundreds of thousands of Christians around the globe. Of those persecuted for their religious convictions, 80 per cent are Christians.

As a young convert, I used to try to imagine martyrdom so I could prepare myself for the possibility. That’s futile, impossible. But what we can all do is live our faith with integrity and vigilance so that we build solid foundations and know that, whatever befalls us, God has promised to enable us to bear it. Like Maria Yudina.

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.