For eight years, Vladimir Feltsman was the ultimate victim of identity theft. The talented Russian pianist was forced to live the life of a “non-person” in his own country.
“It was a very bad time,” he later recalled. “It was a very painful experience.” Talk about an understatement.
Feltsman, who was born in January, 1952, was raised in a storybook environment that seemed to augur an illustrious musical career. Both of his parents had achieved prominence in the arts; his father was a successful composer of film and popular song.
As a child, Feltsman was admitted into Moscow’s Central Music School, the training ground for future superstars. At the age of 11, he made his debut with the Moscow Philharmonic: he performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. He knew then that his life’s work would be at the keyboard — “there was no question that I would play piano,” he remembered.
Plans for his development followed at an orderly pace. He made his way to the Moscow Conservatory, won an important competition in Prague at 15, and then captured the Marguerite Long International Competition in Paris.
These victories occurred in spite of the “hatred” Feltsman has always had for competitions. “I suppose it is the only way for us to get launched,” he noted. “I do not like the principle of competitions. Art should not be a sporting event.”
Like them or not, it was part of the patented design Russian artists had to follow. He taught at the Conservatory and relentlessly played concerts throughout his country, Japan and Europe. All of this activity was strictly controlled by the government ruling party.
Perhaps on the outside, he appeared fulfilled and successful, but Feltsman was possessed by an internal turmoil. “From an early age, I did not like the system,” he pointed out. “I could not do any of the things that I really wanted to do.”
So the acclaim was not enough — on May 23, 1979, he made a decision which produced immediate and catastrophic changes. Feltsman went to the appropriate office and filled out what amounted to a “walking dead” application: he registered for an emigration visa, a request that was tantamount to committing the most mortal of sins in the eyes of the Russian power structure.
“It was an artistic decision,” he said, “not a political decision.” He was tired of party apparatchiks telling him where and when to play.
Whatever his motivation, understanding was not the hallmark of the rigid environment Feltsman was trapped within — consequences followed swiftly.
Within two hours of the application, he heard from a friend at the state radio station. Feltsman’s recordings were removed from the official playlist.
In short order, the enforced silence, the real Iron Curtain, fell. Recordings of his were no longer available in the marketplace, concert tours were cancelled, and Feltsman had no work. He had been airbrushed out of history.
This was not a new phenomenon in Russia: artists who valued independence, who did not grovel to the “party game,” soon paid a steep price. Many had to flee to survive as artists, and indeed, flee to survive period. Confinement in the Gulag (the dreaded system of detestable prisons) was not uncommon.
Names like Boris Pasternak, Vladimir Nabokov, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Mstislav Rostropovich, Rudolf Nureyev and Andrei Sakharov — just a few of the musicians, writers and scientists who dared to express themselves freely and were punished accordingly. These men overcame their “non-personhood,” some within Russian borders, most in Western countries.
Nobel winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who did time in the Gulag, and miraculously survived to write about it, once said: “no one can bar the road to truth, and to advance its cause I am prepared to accept even death.”
Feltsman followed in the footsteps of these heroes — eventually, through the intervention of U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz (and the encouragement of President Ronald Reagan), he was able to leave Russia and settle in the U.S.
He has carved out a magnificent career — just recently, Sony released Vladimir Feltsman, The Complete Columbia Album Collection, an outstanding, wide-ranging collection of his work.
For more details about this accomplished master, his website is: www.feltsman.com.
When asked about the sacrifices he made, Feltsman once said: “I think if you are born with a call, a message from God, it is your duty to develop it…I am here because I want to play.”