It has taken me many weeks since I read this staggering book to feel ready and able to review it.
Galina Vishnevskaya (now in her mid-80s) was the Soviet Union`s most highly praised and prized soprano in the mid-twentieth century, until 1974, when she and her husband, the internationally acclaimed cellist Msitislav `Slava` Rostropovich, were `permitted` by the particularly virulent regime in place at the time to move abroad, effectively exiling themselves from their place of birth, something Galina & Slava never wanted or asked for. As dedicated artists, all they wished was to be allowed to practise their considerable art in peace, but in the philistine, paranoid era that Soviet Russia was then enduring, no such thing was possible unless you were a passive puppet of the regime or a paid-up Communist Party member. They were neither. Far from it.
This lengthy, beautifully written, furious and searingly candid book - both the autobiography of a remarkable woman and a biography of her time - takes us from her childhood in the 1920s/30s up to the 1970s, taking in her first steps as a singer (first of all in popular touring operetta, which proved a priceless training ground for the young, ambitious Galina) and an early marriage; her first few meetings with the impulsive Slava, who, endearingly, behaved like any besotted suitor, until she relented - they soon married, and were together till his recent death aged 80; their close friendships with Shostakovich, who comes across as a thoroughly lovable, self-deprecating bear of a man, as frustrated with Soviet stupidity as anyone; and Solzhenitsyn, who holed up in the grounds of their dacha for a few years, where he had the peace to write and live the spartan life he preferred. (In fact their selfless generosity proved a timely lifeline for the beleaguered writer.)
There is much more, including many chapters on life as a leading member of the Bolshoi Opera, where your position was only as secure as the whims of the Soviet upstarts deigned to allow, as well as their endless run-ins with the fools & madmen of that same Soviet hierarchy.
What is so unforgettable about this great book, apart from its observant, incisive portraits of many of the figures of that time, is the author`s uncompromising hatred of Soviet rule, with its petty-minded timeservers and their labyrinthine dogmas, and her refusal to be cowed by it more than was expedient for her survival. There are scenes here which are as potent a condemnation of totalitarianism as in any history book. In fact, I go so far as to say that reading `Galina` gives as good a window into life under the Soviets as any other book of any kind you may come across.
This is essential reading, whether you are interested in the arts or the history of our times.
To the great Galina, I say: Spaceeba y Nazdarovya!
In this age of trashy, ghost written 'celeb' auto-biographies a book of true quality like this is a rare experience. Why it hasn't beeen re-printed I cannot imagine.
Galina's story is one of endurance over hardship, starvation, political turmoil. She emerges as a iconic opera superstar and a beautiful, warm-hearted human being.
The book covers the era of Soviet repression, when artists and writers like Boris Pasternak, Dmitri Shostakovich and Alexander Solzhenitsyn were being hounded by ignorant and malicious apparatchiks of the Communist state.
Galina and her husband, the late, great Mtislav Rostropovich, were friends with many of the most celebrated artists and composers of the 20th century. Amongst them was Shostakovich - who dedicated many of his works to them both. Galina's descriptions of the composer and his life nail the lie still perpetuated by Marxist Western academics that he was a communist stooge. He was anything but.