30 Books #22: Mark Rotella on Nigel Cliff’s Moscow Nights

by Mark Rotella | Mar-09-2017

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 16 announcement of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Mark Rotella offers an appreciation of autobiography finalist Nigel Cliff’s Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story—How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War (Harper).

“Van Cliburn looked like an angel, a vulnerable, six-foot-four, mop-haired angel in a plastic wing collar and stringy bow tie,” Nigel Cliff writes, wonderfully capturing the 23-year-old Texan performing in the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, held in Moscow in the bone-chilling March of 1958. “When the last chord stopped echoing, the hall took a collective deep breath and then thundered its approval.”

 Van Cliburn was playing Theme and Variations in F Major by Tchaikovsky, arguably Russia’s best-known composer, on Russian soil, and it was widely believed that the competition would be rigged to favor a Russian pianist.

Nigel Cliff, historian and author of The Last Crusade about explorer Vasco da Gama, fluidly places Van Cliburn in the context of the arms race between Russia and the United States. Just five months earlier, the Russians had launched the Sputnik satellite, beating the Americans into space, and two years before that, Khrushchev famously threatened in an interview to the West, “We will bury you” (which Americans believed was a threat of attack, but Khrushchev argued that he meant communism would overtake capitalism). Nine months after the competition, Fidel Castro would become the leader of Cuba.

“High art had survived the Russian Revolution thanks to the leading role of the intelligentsia,” writes Cliff. “Lenin had envisioned concert halls packed with workers.” Composers Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff were held in highest esteem; meanwhile, Stalin had encouraged Sergei Prokofiev to return from exile in the U.S. but soon after accused him and Dmitri Shostakovich “for exhibiting bourgeois tendencies,” and their careers foundered.

Another composer, Russian-born Nicolas Nabokov—cousin of writer Vladimir—became head of the Paris office of the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom, and anti-communist organization.

Back in the U.S., musically, German composers came back in favor post World War II.

After the last pianist performed at the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition, the jury convened—and out of the 17 judges, 15 voted for Van Cliburn. The jury heads, terrified that an American could win the competition, appealed to the Cultural Minister Nikolai Mikhailov.

“Five year after Stalin’s death the old thinking still clung on,” Cliff explains. “Avoid responsibility at all costs… refer it upwards.”

Mikhailov did what any Soviet official would—he went directly to the top, to Khrushchev, who asked, “What do the others say about him? Is he the best?”

“Yes, he is the best.”

“In that case,” Khrushchev said, “give him the first prize.”

But Cliff doesn’t stop there in this thoroughly enjoyable read. Van Cliburn’s influence with Soviet Union officials—particularly with Khrushchev—lasted well beyond his competition win. He covers Khrushchev’s nearly disastrous visit to the U.S. with President Eisenhower—a trip that was salvaged only because of a last-minute decision to invite Van Cliburn to meet with the Soviet Minister—as well as the pianist’s following trip to the U.S.S.R., after which Time magazine put him on the cover with the caption: “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”

Publisher's Weekly review.

Kirkus review.

New York Times review.

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