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moscow nights book coverReviewed by Kelly Ferjutz

Let’s mash-up Once Upon a Time from the fairy tales of yore, and the iconic TV show of the mid-50s You are There hosted by the avuncular Walter Cronkite, and see what happens. One answer, and possibly the best one would be Moscow Nights by the excellent and elegant writer, Nigel Cliff. He tells the story of Van Cliburn, who was for a while, quite easily the most recognized face in the world! But not just the surface view – no, he really digs deep for a terrific and very comprehensive look at one of the wonders of the 20th Century!

Cliburn was born in July, 1934, and was inspired as a youngster by a photograph of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow – as who wouldn’t be, especially if said child had already been exposed to the music of Russian’s many famous Romantic-era composers? An only child, Van – real name: Harvey Lavan –  was always simply known as Van, thanks to his mother Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn. As a piano teacher in Shreveport, Louisiana, she had once been part of the welcoming committee for an appearance there of the Russian master – Sergei Rachmaninoff.

There was yet another connection: Rildia Bee had studied piano with Arthur Friedheim, who had studied with Anton Rubenstein in St. Petersburg, Russia. Rachmaninoff always claimed Rubenstein as his greatest influence, and Rildia Bee, whether consciously or not, imparted the pianism from Friedheim to her young son, beginning when he was three. (By then, the Cliburn family had moved to Kilgore, Texas and would remain there for the next half-century.) By so doing, she unwittingly set in motion one of the greatest stories of the latter 20th Century. It spanned four decades and several continents; including the leaders of the United States, Russia, China, and most of Europe.

No one else could have been so fortuitously present at a time when the world needed a non-diplomat who, through love and genuineness and great skill combined with superlative emotions, brought about the end of the Cold War. In this way, the tall young man from Texas left the world a more tranquil place than when he emerged on the world stage in 1953.

From that background the young Cliburn went to NY in 1951 to study with Rosina Lhévinne at the Julliard School. She was perhaps the most notable of all the piano teachers in the entire country, and she, too, had a connection to the Russian school of emotional pianism.

On March 5, 1953, both Stalin (Russia’s leader) and one of Russia’s greatest composers, Sergei Prokofiev, died within an hour of each other. The death of Stalin led to the promotion of Nikita Khrushchev to become the new premiere, although it took a few years to accomplish.

One result was the proposed cultural exchange between the US and the USSR. Soviet artists had not been allowed to leave their country, and this new openness totally wowed the rest of the world. But if that wasn’t sufficiently amazing, the Ministry of Culture suddenly proposed a new ‘international’ music competition, open to musicians with sufficient skills from anywhere. Of course, they intended that only Russian artists would win!

About a month after Stalin’s death, in New York, Cliburn won the renowned Leventritt Prize for young artists, to the surprise of everyone, including himself! He thought his career was going to take off, but first he had to cope with the draft board – they finally deferred him – so that once again, he could begin to look outside himself. And then, in October, 1957, Russia launched the first satellite, known as Sputnik1.  One month later, Khrushchev announced the official 40th anniversary celebrations of the Russian Revolution.

A visiting pianist brought the astonishing news of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition to be held in Moscow, with separate divisions: violin and piano. Van’s teacher and her other students decided that Van should represent the Julliard School. He was mobbed everywhere he went, or tried to go, but he very quickly realized the most amazing part of it all – he felt a great love for the Russian people, their customs and their language. From his first day there, this love made itself known to everyone he encountered, who, of course, returned it tenfold. A fan club of young women even changed their allegiance from Presley to Cliburn.

All these events coincided on the world stage to change the shape of history over the next 40-some  years. From Khrushchev to Brezhnev to Gorbachev (with a few short termers in between) Russia changed from the USSR as formed in 1922, to its dissolution in 1991: while in the US, presidents were Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan. All of these men shared in the many changes that took place during those years.

I found this to be an incredibly fascinating look at the world as it changed so drastically while I was observing it – as it happened — from my tidy little corner of (mostly) Ohio. It is a totally compelling read – I could not put it down for more than 5 minutes at a time.

In addition to the 366 pages of well-written non-fiction, there are also a Table of Contents, Acknowledgements, Photo Credits (sadly, no descriptions, credits or photos in my advanced reading copy), Selected Bibliography,  Notes, Abbreviations, and Index! If you have any interest in music, piano, or history of the Cold War era between the US and the USSR, this book should be an essential addition to your collection.

In my opinion this book should be on the short list for a Pulitzer Prize in whatever year it might be eligible.

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First and foremost, Kelly is a reader, then a writer and editor. She adores Regency-set novels, and cozy mysteries. Every now and then, however, she finds something else to enjoy if it has a great premise with characters who belong in there, and fabulous writing! She writes under her own name, as well as her pen-name, Hetty St. James.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Harper. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.