Beginning in the 1950s, the Soviet Union’s most prominent musicians were often showcased abroad and used as pawns in the larger Cold War diplomatic game, as apparent proof of the humanity and greatness of the Soviet system. The pressure experienced by the touring artists themselves could be overwhelming. “As ever, I felt behind me the whole of Russia: if I sang badly, everything was finished,” Vishnevskaya later wrote in her autobiography. “Abroad we go on stage as if we are baring our breasts to a machine gun.”
Her book, “Galina,” ends with scenes from her exile in 1974, including a wrenching farewell with Shostakovich, whom she would never see again. The book’s final chapter is prefaced with grim lines from Akhmatova: “I have a lot to do today: I have to kill my memory, I have to turn my heart to stone, I have to learn to live — again.”
Perhaps inevitably, the final years of her career in the West brought her far less artistic prominence than she had enjoyed in earlier decades. She had essentially been cut off from the Russian language and culture that was the wellspring of her art. Her singing in other languages and styles rarely attained the same vertiginous heights. Meanwhile at home, as a Soviet non-person, her name was deleted from film credits and removed from the jubilee album of the Bolshoi Theatre, which, chillingly, even tossed her photos from its archives.
Yet of course through their work, performers like Vishnevskaya leave behind a record of an era that cannot be airbrushed. Her career is a stark reminder of how Soviet repression and censorship poisoned music while also freighting it with unusual powers as an antidote to the struggles of daily existence, an antidote that was craved by some of its citizens with an intensity that can be difficult to fathom today in a society so far removed from that time and place. She also embodied an approach to singing as history, whether personal or collective. “Everything you have gone through in your life can be heard when you are on the stage,” she once observed. Indeed, Vishnevskaya’s audiences encountered much more than an electrifying voice.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.