A captive country in search of its soul

On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev signed a pact officially dissolving the Soviet Union and ending his role as President of the USSR. I was in Moscow that December. I'd planned to report how Russia intended to privatize 700 million acres of communist-controlled farmland. Instead, I filed Pro farmer reports on the USSR's catastrophic collapse.

December 30, 2021 By Jerry Carlson Amid the past two years of global pandemic, governments around the world are learning again: Dictatorships always disintegrate. Eventually. The USSR fell after 69 years. Now, even the current occupant of our White House has admitted in a prescient moment: "There is no federal solution." 

The best solutions always arise from "We the people." Not from central planners. 

Today we're seeing worldwide rebellions against governments' medical mandates — while independent and daring doctors and nurses offer effective Covid therapies. We're seeing our American economy endure lockdowns, while free Americans migrate to liberty-leaning states and farmers respond to rising ag prices. 

Reflecting on the USSR's implosion 30 years ago, I recalled a dramatic violin concert in Moscow — which to me symbolized humanity's yearning for individual freedoms. I rediscovered an article I'd written December 12, 1991 in my room at the Hotel Sputnik Moscow (which has been considerably upgraded since 1991). My story's hero is violinist Isaac Stern, who was born in Poland in 1920 and emigrated to the United States with his parents at age 14 months. However, Russians have long considered him "one of our own," as Poland was once captive under USSR rule. Stern performed violin concerts with Soviet orchestras several times during his long career. But as of December 1991, he hadn't performed in Moscow for 25 years. Muscovites realized this could be Stern's last concert in their city. He was 71.

Here's my story, as written 30 years ago (with minor edits and links added). 

 

Moscow, December 12, 1991: Tonight’s wonderful surprise: My ag consultant friend Bob Fischer and I received tickets to the Isaac Stern violin concert at the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory of Music! They’re a special gift from American Ag Attache David Neubert.

Our Russian guide, Valery Sherbakov, joined us as we arrived at the Conservatory. A crowd of college-age men and women milled among concert goers, begging someone to sell or give them tickets. Valery said, "These young people are music students who desperately want to some day tell their children they once personally heard Isaac Stern, the Russian-born American considered the world’s greatest violinist."

This was another historic moment in a momentous two weeks: We had seen the Soviet Union dissolved into dissonant republics, several of which discarded communist ideology as one of history’s major mistakes.

Inside the 3,000-seat concert hall, stylishly dressed Muscovites ascended a series of stairways, presenting their tickets at barricades.

Suddenly, shouting erupted. A mob of students shoved through the crowd, raced up the steps and stormed over the barricades to reach the concert hall’s balconies.

The guards gave up trying to stop them. Hundreds of students stood two deep against the balcony walls, under 10-foot-high portraits of Russian musical artists.

As Bob and I settled into our assigned seats, I noticed a familiar face two rows ahead of us: President Mikhail Gorbachev’s press secretary, Georgi Arbatov. We would meet him later at the American Embassy.

The Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, including 26 violinists and a huge range of other instrumentalists, filed onto the stage. A young conductor entered to polite applause, and he led a rich Mozart sonata which filled the concert hall with energy I could almost touch. A polite bow, kind applause, and he left. Now senior conductor Vasily Sinaisky took his place at the podium, to enthusiastic applause.

A lady in exquisite white gown entered center stage. She spoke without a microphone, yet her voice was clear in the acoustically perfect Grand Hall. She extended her left arm toward the side stage entrance and announced: “EEtzak Schtern.”

Total silence. The crowd leaned forward slightly, anticipating seeing the maestro.

Ten seconds passed. A minute. Isaac Stern did not appear. My friend Bob whispered, “Something’s wrong. Stern is an old man, you know.” Finally, after three minutes, Stern walked slowly onto center stage with his favorite Guarneri violin and bow, his face solemn and tense. He bowed to the audience.

Isaac Stern, 1980 Photo: Lincoln Center

Applause exploded, and after a few moments, conductor Sinaisky quieted all of us with a smile and slow wave of his baton. The Moscow Philharnonic opened with a Beethoven sonata, fading as Stern touched bow to violin. An electric sensation filled the hall, transfixing the audience.

I had never heard such beautiful music. Not like this. It lifted me like wings. The violin and orchestra spoke in a universal language of strength, purity, integrity, harmony. Perhaps I have never heard music with such profound meaning. 

Tears welled up, as if my whole being was overflowing with more joy than I could contain. I dabbed at my eyes with a quickly-soaked handkerchief; tried to sniff quietly. The elegant lady in the seat beside me smiled and nudged her husband. I sensed that they understood, and appreciated, my emotion.

I tried to contain the tears, but they wouldn’t subside. I argued with myself — this is only the world’s greatest symphony orchestra, the world’s greatest violinist, in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory of Music.

As these Russians listened to Isaac Stern’s powerful performance of Beethoven and Mozart, I wondered if they were reaching back into their wellspring of history to find an enduring, truthful reference point. Stern’s artistry spoke of classic values which transcend time and political ideologies. He finished the first half of his performance with a flourish and thunderous applause. Young girls ran up the center aisle and handed big bouquets of red roses and carnations to Mr. Stern.

The second half of the concert resounded with even greater power. Stern unleashed his awesome ability to pour out the emotion, color and integrity of his favorite composers. 

After the finale, the audience applauded on and on, calling Stern back for five bows, then six. The people stood and began clapping in unison, like rifle shots so loud my ears rang. The children heaped more bouquets in Stern’s arms. For the first time all evening, he beamed a broad smile. Perhaps he sensed he had fulfilled a special need of thousands of Russian people on a snowy winter night as their government crumbled around them.

My hands went numb from clapping. Never, said my Russian friend Valery, had he heard such an awesome response to any performance in the Grand Hall. After a final bow, Stern and the conductor left the stage together.

The audience lingered in the aisles and hallways, like a family clinging to the ambiance of a warm reunion. Slowly they filed past checkrooms to collect their coats and fur hats against the cold, snowy Moscow night. 

I couldn’t understand a word these Russians were saying, but as they smiled and hugged their friends, I saw they had received an immense gift. A revival of spirit, if not a spiritual revival. Something is worthwhile. Valid, after all. Bob, Valery and I walked out onto the snow-covered Moscow street. No taxi in sight. Valery assured us: “We can walk to the reception at Spasa House, the American Ambassador’s home. It’s not far.”

We began plodding through the freezing slush. Wind swirled between the grimy buildings. At a shabby food store, a queue of people formed outside the door — which may open tomorrow at eight, or maybe not. For several days, we’d seen swarms of people stripping shelves at other stores, dumping rubles on the news that the USSR had crumbled. On a gray concrete wall, someone had spray-painted with red a vulgar taunt in English letters two feet high: #%~* COMMUNISM!

Bob, age 72 and suffering from severe asthma, had to rest every few minutes to clear his lungs with his portable inhaler. As a child he'd almost died from a final remnant of the Spanish Flu. A European homeopathic physician, Dr. Bellicosi, saved his life. 

After a freezing hour of walking, we saw warm yellow lamps outside the home of Ambassador Strauss. At the door, a Secret Service guard checked our passports and waved us in. Ambassador Robert Strauss was not home; he had just flown to Washington to brief President Bush about formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (which eventually failed to materialize).

In the reception's entrance hall, President Gorbachev’s press secretary, Georgi Arbatov, extended a welcoming handshake. I told him I’d seen him a lot on American television. “Then I’m second-hand to you already,” he quipped. I asked, “What do you see ahead for the new Commonwealth?” He replied, “I’ll give you the real story in my new book to be published soon in America: The System: An Insider's Life in Soviet Politics.”  Arbatov stepped away to greet another incoming guest, and we were ushered into a spacious, brightly lit reception hall dominated by a fragrant balsam fir Christmas tree — 20 feet tall, sparkling with thousands of crystal-white lights.

Waiters in tuxedos eased among the dozens of guests with silver trays of chilled champaign and hot canapes. Yes! America!

And there, three steps away, was Isaac Stern. He glowed with a relaxed smile that contrasted sharply to his somber, tense appearance on stage earlier this evening. He extended a firm handshake to me, Bob and Valery. I impulsively said, “Mr. Stern, you are a national treasure. Your music is the kind of gift the Russian people need more than any other we could give. As a fellow American, I thank you for sharing yourself.”

“That’s very kind,” he replied, as other guests in the crowd reached out to greet him. Then, about an hour later after many dignitaries had left, Stern came up to me and chatted at length. “You know, I’m an old dog who’s been around the track quite a few times. Usually at these receptions, people try to flatter me with praise. But tonight when we met, it struck me that you described a significant truth. There is a deep hunger here in Russia, a real longing for lasting values.”

A longing for lasting values. Perhaps that’s what citizens of the collapsed USSR want more than anything else. But does America have such moral and spiritual capital to give? Certainly, individual Americans such as Isaac Stern, as well as many U.S. evangelical churches, are reaching out to individual Russians with enduring truth. Americans have sent about eight million Bibles into the former USSR the past three years. At least 23,000 Russian elementary schools have accepted gifts of 60 Christian-based books for their libraries. I had just personally given ten Russian-language Bibles to Russians I had met the past few days. All ten said, “I’ve never seen one!”

Possibly, Russia’s search for moral and spiritual roots will bring America a message. And the message is this: Communist control and enterprise-numbing handouts sever families, erode individuals’ concerns for each other, and ultimately threaten national survival. We prescribe the “American Way” of individual responsibility and integrity for Russia. But have we abandoned that foundation ourselves?

Perhaps this evening helped explain why I felt a kindred spirit with many Russians I’ve met here in December 1991. Maybe I felt that my upwelling of tears tonight arose not just from Isaac Stern’s music, but because I fear that America, too, needs to rediscover her soul.

Update Dec. 31: This op-ed by David Satter in the Wall Street Journal sums up the significance of what has happened to America — and Russia — since the collapse of the USSR.