Soviet violinist: taxi was the first step to freedom
Viktoria Mullova read a contraband copy of ''Gone with the Wind'' in Moscow in May. By June, the brown-eyed violinist was gone with the wind, too, defecting from Russia with her accompanist Vato Jordania after a Helsinki concert. They simply flagged a taxi to freedom, driving across the Finnish border to Stockholm , where they requested asylum at the American Embassy.
Now the BBC is tracking Mullova for a full year, shooting a television documentary titled ''Viktoria, Welcome to the West.'' Eurovision has plans for it. Negotiations are under way for an American television broadcast of the documentary.
Mullova had won first prize in the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in 1982, but had found herself in a musical wasteland with few concert bookings granted by the Russian government. Today, after an escape nearly as daring as Scarlett O'Hara's from a blazing Atlanta, she is free to make music as she wishes. ''I would never defect if I had artistic freedom, (if) I had opportunity to go and play where I wanted to play, where people want me to play. Because there (in Russia) is my homeland and . . .'' she says, her voice going so soft it's almost inaudible, ''my family.'' She left behind her parents and two sisters who had planned to meet her train from Finland. But she dared tell no one in advance of her defection. After defection, she traveled to the United States, where she lived in Washington briefly before looking for an apartment in another city.
Viktoria has walked into this fall interview looking more like a Bolshoi ballerina than a violinist. She is tall, fine-boned, and slender, with a solemn grace that suggests a Degas dancer. Her long, sable-colored hair is parted in the middle and drawn back in a ponytail from an oval face with wide brown eyes above high cheekbones. She wears a muted blue, green, and brown ombre-striped dress, flat brown shoes. Her manner is composed, sure; her voice low. The fluent English she taught herself from tapes is fruited with a rich Russian undertone, like a babka studded with raisins and citron.
Her life has changed dramatically since she left her Stradivarius behind on the hotel bed in Helsinki and slipped away to freedom.
She'd been plotting for months with conductor Vato Jordania, with whom she'd performed at concerts in Tbilisi, Kharkov, and Kiev. Goskoncert, the Soviet state concert bureau, had forbidden her to use her regular accompanist for the Helsinki concert. So she suggested her friend Jordania instead, and he practised the piano desperately to bring his performance up to concert calibre. It was a cliffhanger: The day before the Helsinki concert, permission finally came through for him to accompany her. When they taxied across the Finnish border into Stockholm, they found the American Embassy closed for the Fourth of July holiday. They took refuge for two days in a hotel, their every move carefully guarded against the KGB by a convoy of Swedish policemen and policewomen, as well as armed motorcades.
A US government source indicates that Mullova's application for asylum has been approved and that she has been given temporary documents to use until the final documents are perpared. In a musical world generally booked a year or two in advance, opportunity has already been carved out for this gifted young musician.
Her first recital since defecting was given in Toronto and prompted the (Toronto) Star critic to call her an ''artist with a clear capacity for greatness.'' The Toronto Globe and Mail critic noted that Mullova's performance of Bach's Partita No. 1 had ''the same calm assurance, impressive technique, and sensitivity to style'' that characterized her teacher, the late Leonid Kogin.
She also played the Bach during her first US recital, in Pasadena. The Los Angeles Times critic wrote:''She produced a clear, vibrant sound, commanded a sure, even technique and imbued the work with an expressive, lyrical quality without resorting to romantic indulgence. Occasionally one suspected this to be a studied expressivity, which time and maturity would liberate.''
Before that trip, Viktoria had asked this writer anxiously, ''What is correct , Pasadeena or Pasadayna?'' There is so much to soak up in a new land. On her arrival, she was taken under the wing of the Tolstoy Foundation, which sponsors refugees into the US at the request of the State Department.
Sasha Chavchavadze of the Tolstoy Foundation guided Viktoria through her first few weeks. Everything Viktoria saw pleased and excited her, she says. ''We took her to supermarkets, and she was in heaven.'' She asked ''What is junk food?'' and promptly went out to buy potato chips.
By interview time, she'd had it with junk food. She has seen the movie ''Flashdance,'' Niagara Falls, the Washington Monument. She loves American jazz, folk music, and rock - and calls Stevie Wonder her favorite pop musician. She says she has found her few months in Washington ''peaceful.''
After the uprooting, her life is beginning to come together again. She even has a new violin - which, she says, with a wit worthy of ''Ninotchka,'' the Westernized Russian in the Garbo comedy, ''is not worse than a Stradivarius.'' What kind is her violin? A rare Guarnerius, she says smiling, too expensive to be her own, but on loan from a benefactor in Sweden.
Harold Shaw, Viktoria's new American manager, first heard about her from a New Jersey doctor who visits the Soviet Union in connection with his hobby as a violin dealer. He raved about the young violinist. Intrigued, Mr. Shaw ran off a tape of her performance at the Tchaikovsky Competition and was impressed by her talent.
At the news of her defection, Shaw cabled her at the American Embassy in Stockholm and offered to take care of her and her career in the US. In addition to launching her concert career in the West, he is discussing offers with recording companies interested in signing her. It is all very different, says Viktoria, from her struggles with the moribund Goskoncert, which handles all Soviet artists.
''Now my manager is working for me,'' she says. ''In Goskoncert it was like I was working for them, and they don't want to get more work. . . . The people there don't understand music at all, and they don't want to work. They are really lazy.'' She tells how she had to bring them presents from her travels to ''push them to work for me'' in booking concerts. The presents were fabric, perfume, jewelry. From the $1,000 per concert she earned for the state, Viktoria says, she received only $100 - and from that had to buy the gifts.
She talked to Goskoncert about the important first record she wanted to make, of works by Brahms and Beethoven. They told her they already had a lot of Brahms and Beethoven and to play something different. She persisted: ''I am winner of Tchaikovsky Competition, I have to have one record of mine. . . . They (the public) will know me from this record, and they have to know how I play my best.'' ''Nyet,'' said Goskoncert, ''play something Russian.'' When she offered a Prokovief sonata, they said they had it already and demanded she play instead something by an obscure Russian composer, Shebalin. ''I wanted to play the programs I would choose,'' she says, firmly.
It had begun to dawn on her even in her teens, as a dutiful daughter of the state, that factors other than talent were determining her life as an artist in Russia. Her father, an engineer, and her mother, a schoolteacher, had grown up during World War II, when music as a career was not possible for them. ''So their dream was for their children to learn music,'' she says. At 5, she was already studying at a music school near Moscow; at 9, she entered Moscow's Central Music School. Then she won the Wieniawaski competition for violinists in Poland at 16, before entering the Moscow Conservatory. Studying violin at the conservatory, she won the prestigious first prize in the Sibelius International Competition in 1980.
It was then, at 17, that she began to think of leaving the USSR, because the government allowed her few chances to perform, even in Finland, where the Sibelius prize resulted in many invitations. Then she pinned her career hopes on winning the Tchaikovsky Competition; but after winning its first prize, she waited almost a year without a concert. ''They didn't allow me to go even to Siberia to give concerts.''
One of the roots of her problem was her lack of involvement in political activities the state considered proper for a good citizen. She had failed to pass a conservatory political exam, because she spent her time practicing for the Tchaikovsky Competition. As fellow Russian Mstislav Rostropovich, musical director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, said at the press conference on her defection, art is politics in the USSR.
And because it is, artists who have defected may find shadows on their paths. After her Toronto concert, two unknown Russians wanted her to go to a nearby apartment for a talk. When she refused and returned to her hotel, they were waiting for her in the lobby. They tried again to get her into a car and go off. The tactics were so similar to those used by the KBG with other defectors that Shaw had her moved to another hotel as a safety precaution.
There was another incident at a Carnegie Hall violin recital she attended, but Shaw says she is ''pretty well guarded and taken care of.'' He's enthusiastic about plans for a major New York concert or recital within the next few months. Meanwhile, does she feel free in her new country? ''Almost.'' What will make her feel completely free? ''When I will not think about my security,'' she says.