A few years ago, my eldest daughter came down with chicken pox. I was primary carer at the time, and so needed to come up with creative ways to entertain and distract a bright and precocious child who itched all over and couldn’t play with other kids.
So, we took up stamp collecting. I bought a stamp album, and a magnifying glass, and a some packets of stamps, and we sorted and discussed and classified them. Many were 20 or 30 years old, and inevitably came one of those questions which stumps a parent.
“Dad,” she asked, “what country is CCCP?”
“That,” I explained, “was the Soviet Union. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR. In Russian, that was CCCP.”
I tried again: “There was this thing, the Soviet Union. That is what CCCP means, in Russian.”
“So it just means Russia?”
“No. Not really. A bit. Sort of, yes. Russia was part of it, but the Soviet Union … look, it’s complicated.”
Another blank look, but with mean eyebrows. Dad has failed this particular test.
I know it is wrong of me to feel nostalgia for the Cold War. It was nasty on so many levels, from vile proxy wars in Asia and Africa through to the small matter that between them, the USA and the Soviet Union had enough nuclear weapons to annihilate the human race.
But … look, it’s complicated. For one thing, in those days, we in the west were, warts and all, clearly the better choice. It was the others, the bad dudes, who built weaponised barriers to prevent ordinary men, women and children from fleeing oppression, and put them in prison camps if they dared to try.
The Soviets were good at some things, too. They didn’t put people on the Moon, but apart from that they pretty much won the space race. They were good at sport, especially the Olympics. And, for a totalitarian state, their art was astonishing.
You would expect Soviet art to be chokingly conformist, bureaucratic and bland – and there was plenty of that. But writers, film-makers, poets, singers, dancers, musicians and composers still managed to produce works of breathtaking beauty and spirit.
This is one of those. It is the score, written by Dmitri Shostakovich, for a film called The Gadfly. It was recorded in 1962, by the USSR Cinema Symphony Orchestra. A few months later came the Cuban missile crisis, one of those Cold War moments when the human race stood on the cliff, looking down.
I have chosen two tracks to share. This music, written by a Soviet composer for a Soviet film, performed by a Soviet orchestra, is like a beautiful flower growing on the edge of that cliff.
Shostakovich, The Gadfly, No. 8 ‘Romance’
Shostakovich, The Gadfly, No. 11 ‘Scene’
- Artist: USSR Cinema Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Emin Khachaturian
- Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
- LP Title: Music for the Film ‘The Gadfly’
- Tracks: Side 2, Track 1: “No.8, Romance”; Side 2, Track 4: “No. 11, Scene”
- Format: 12” LP 33⅓ rpm
- Label: Classics for Pleasure
- Manufactured in: United Kingdom
- Year: c. 1978 (recorded 1962)
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