Even the most powerful and terrifying of dictators eventually die. Hitler committed suicide in a bunker in Berlin by taking cyanide and then shooting himself as the Russian army closed in. Pol Pot died in his own bed with his wife in attendance, after hearing on Voice of America that the Khmer Rouge had agreed to turn him over to an international tribunal.

Joseph Stalin died in one of his many dachas, with henchmen and nervous doctors hovering (it was during the Doctor’s Plot purge) after a stroke that he survived for a few days.

In the recent movie, The Death of Stalin, the cause of his stroke is a note enclosed with a recording from pianist Maria Yudina saying that he has ruined the country. This is a cute device on the part of director Armando Iannucci based on a popular story about Yudina that had nothing to do with the brutal dictator’s death.

Whether or not the story in question is true is a matter of controversy, but it is consistent with the character of this Soviet era musician and her bold flouting of the system’s cultural and political taboos.

Maria Veniaminova Yudina, born in 1899, was, according to her contemporary Sviatoslav Richter, “immensely talented and a keen advocate of the music of her own time: she played Stravinsky, whom she loved, Hindemith, Krenek and Bartok at a time when these composers were not only unknown in the Soviet Union but effectively banned.”

Amongst her artistic friends was Boris Pasternak, who reputedly did the first reading of Doctor Zhivago at her apartment in February 1947. (The novel, showing the destruction of the individual under communism, was not completed until 1956, when it was rejected by Soviet censors, but parts of it were written much earlier.) In the early 1960s Yudina read Pasternak’s poetry from the stage as an encore to a performance, and was banned from performing for five years.

Yudina was not the only artist to resist the straightjacket of “socialist realism”, even in the Stalinist era, but it was her overt – or rather, ostentatious – religiosity that exposed her to the greatest danger. Like Pasternak, she came from a Jewish family, but converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1919 while studying music at the Petrograd (St Petersburg) Conservatory, where she also studied theology.

Unlike Pasternak — whose religious views, anyway, were less defined — she expressed her faith openly in the officially atheistic Soviet state. Typically, and even while teaching or performing in public, she wore a plain black dress and no adornment but a cross. Richter describes her walking onstage at a concert carrying a crucifix and crossing herself “before launching the first note.”

Her playing the “holy fool” was extremely daring at a time when the price of religious faith could be one’s work, freedom, even one’s life, and one can’t help admiring her indifference to these dangers. She escaped arrest but was harassed in various ways and caricatured in Pravda as a nun with students kneeling at her feet. She lost her teaching position at the Petrograd Conservatory in 1930 because of her religious and political views, and was thrown out of another music school, the Gnessin Institute, 30 years later for her advocacy of modern Western music as well.

However, given that in Stalin’s time others were banished to the Gulags for less, Yudina led a charmed life. The explanation for this political license seems to lie in Stalin’s attitude to the arts. He liked music and fancied himself as a self-made intellectual. Besides, it was important to show the West that art could flourish under Soviet communism. Still, one could never be sure; the brutal dictator liked to keep his subjects off balance – and the pace of oppression quickened after the Second World War.

If Yudina really did send the sort of note featured in The Death of Stalin, it seems more likely to have terminated her own life than his. And yet there is a persistent tradition that there is something to the story.

Its source is a book, Testimony, by Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov, which he had published in 1979 after leaving Russia in 1976. It claims to be the memoir of Dimitri Shostakovich, the famous contemporary of Yudina and another musician who had a fraught relationship with the Soviet authorities.

According to Shostakovich channelled by Volkov, one evening in 1944 Stalin heard a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 on the radio, played by Yudina, and asked for a copy. It was a live broadcast and no recording had been made (recordings of her were actually banned) but the Radio Committee officials were too scared to tell the volatile Leader. Instead, they quickly called in Yudina and an orchestra and made a recording in the middle of the night. Everyone except her was shaking with fright, and two conductors had to be let go before they got one who could see the exercise through. A single copy was made and dispatched to Stalin in the morning.

Soon after, Yudina received an envelope with 20,000 rubles and she was informed that it came on the express orders of Stalin. (Another version of the story claims this came with the Stalin Prize for Music, a claim dismissed by one scholar as baseless.) Yudina, however, wrote back to him saying something like: “I thank you, Joseph Vissarionovich, for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive you your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He’ll forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend [to pray for his soul, according to one variation].”

Stalin read it, set it aside and did not say a word. Nothing happened to Yudina. Her rendition of Mozart was on the record player when Stalin was found dead in the dacha. It was the last thing he had listened to. (But, of course, he was not simply “found dead”, as most accounts show.)

It’s a great story, consistent with Stalin’s accommodation of dissident artists and intellectuals to a degree, and with the character of Yudina, who escaped liquidation despite flaunting her Orthodox Christian faith and openly criticising the Soviet system. Sadly, it may be more myth than history, as the authenticity of Volkov’s Shostakovich memoir is hotly disputed.

Still, Maria Yudina herself was real enough. She lived dangerously and in poverty much of the time, giving away money that friends raised to help her to people poorer than herself — an amazing example of courage under repression that enriches our knowledge of the Soviet era. And – who knows? – perhaps her contempt of materialism and worldly power did haunt Stalin on his deathbed, and remind him he had a immortal soul.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet