Understanding Russians

Sometimes we are blessed to discover an artist whose miraculous gifts touch the soul, who introduces us to undiscovered beauty and treasured memories; I can think of no finer example than Dmitri Hvorostovsky. One of the foremost interpreters of Verdi, Hvorostovsky had the uncanny knack of making even an operatic villain a fully dimensional, sympathetic character; I am thinking now of his portrayal of Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, exemplified in the aria Il balen del suo sorriso. (The Metropolitan Opera has posted on YouTube this performance from 2011.)

Yet Hvorostovsky’s talent was not limited to opera; some of his most beautiful, powerful singing was of Russian war songs. Perhaps it is inconceivable that an American singer would forge his reputation and the love of the people of his nation by singing songs of World War II in the first decade of the twenty-first century but a recital program by Hvorostovsky of new arrangements of songs from the era of “The Great Patriotic War”, Where Are You My Brothers? was given in the spring of 2003 in front of an audience of six thousand at the Kremlin Palace in Moscow, and seen on Russian Television by over ninety million viewers, an event that made him a beloved legend in Russia.

To put the difference between the American experience of World War II and Russia’s in perspective, Professor Stephen F. Cohen has written and discussed the terrible human cost of the Nazi invasion of Russia, as much of what we learn in textbooks and especially schools and popular media is false:

Time to buy old US gold coins

Most Americans today believe that “we defeated Nazi Germany,” as President Obama wrote on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, a misconception promoted by Hollywood films that portray the US landing at Normandy in June 1944 as the beginning and eventual end of the war against Hitler’s Germany. In truth, America won the war in the Pacific, against Japan, but the Soviet Union fought and destroyed Hitler’s war machine on the “Eastern Front” almost alone from 1941 to 1944, from Moscow, Kursk, and Stalingrad, and eventually to Berlin in 1945. Some 75 to 80 percent of all German casualties were suffered on the Eastern Front. By the time US and British forces landed at Normandy, Hitler had relatively few divisions available to withstand the successful invasion, many more still embattled against the Soviet Union.

Soviet losses were almost unimaginable. More than 27 million Soviet citizens died, 60 to 70 percent of them ethnic Russians. Some 1,700 Soviet cities and towns were all but destroyed. Most families lost a close or extended member. Perhaps most tellingly, only three of every hundred boys who graduated from high school in 1941–42 returned from the war. This meant that millions of Soviet children never knew their fathers and that millions of Soviet women never married. (They were known as “Ivan’s widows,” many doomed to lonely lives in the often-harsh postwar Soviet Union.) This is an enduring part of Russia’s “holiday with tears.” This is in large measure why so many Russians, not just the Kremlin, have watched with alarm NATO creep from Germany to their country’s borders since the late 1990s; why they resent and fear Washington political claims on the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia; and why they say of NATO’s ongoing buildup in the Baltic states and Poland that “never has so much Western military power been amassed on our borders since the Nazi invasion in June 1941.” All of this history and living memory underlies Russia’s reaction to the new Cold War.

I can’t explain why I feel such a special connection to Dimitri Hvorostovsky; it’s not just that I love his singing or my late mother, who introduced me to his work, had such affection for him. Yet there was something about his warmth, the way he connected with audiences, his passion that made me feel a bond with someone I’d never personally met. I can’t put into words the sorrow I felt when I discovered he was diagnosed in 2015 with brain cancer; in fact, impulsively I reached out to the contacts on his website via email to tell them about the writings of Bill Sardi on cancer.

Hvorostovsky has also performed and recorded Russian Orthodox sacred and Russian folk songs; I played his album The Bells of Dawn: Russian Sacred and Folk Songs soon after I learned of his illness and more than ever, especially only a few short years after the death of my mother, his artistry moved me to tears.

Sporadically, I’d check for news about Hvorostovsky. But one day this year something compelled me to do a search and I found this article on line at Operawire.com: Metropolitan Opera 50th Anniversary Gala Review: Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Surprise Return Among Many Highlights in a Memorable Night. Author David Salazar wrote:

The Emotional Core of the Night

But before I do that I want to highlight possibly the most emotionally riveting moment of the entire evening. Halfway through the first half of the 5-hour gala, general manager Peter Gelb came on stage to deliver a surprise announcement – Dmitri Hvorostovsky would be singing “Cortigiani! Vil Razza!” The audience exploded with passionate applause as the baritone, who has been battling cancer for the last few years, walked onstage. He delivered the opening sections of the aria with a bitter quality, his sound pointed and shrewd. But the second half of the aria, during which Rigoletto begs for clemency showcased Hvorostovsky at his most passionate, his phrasing rising with intensity at each plea. When put into the scope of his own personal plight, this scene and choice of aria really struck an emotional chord. That was undeniably the winner of the emotional moment of the night.

A video of this performance, brilliant as always, can be seen on YouTube; his frailty, his grave illness is also all too evident; I thought after his long fought battle with cancer, it was clear he was losing. On November 22nd, Dimitri lost his battle with cancer.

One of Hvorostovsky’s most powerful, heartrending performances is of Zhuravli (Cranes); it is on the DVD Russian Songs from the War Years from the VAI label. After his diagnosis, he performed it in a memorial concert on May 2015. You can see in the faces of the audience that they are still haunted my memories of the war.

The post Understanding Russians appeared first on LewRockwell.


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