Van Cliburn congratulated by Nikita Kruschev, 1958 (AP)

Beauty in culture can save the world.

How do I know? Dostoyevsky told me. As Prince Myskin said in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot: “Beauty will save the world”.

Prince Myskin explained what he had understood about a moment in his life lived with suffering and sickness:  “when I recall and analyze the moment, it seems to have been one of harmony and beauty in the highest degree—an instant of deepest sensation, overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion, and completest life..”

Van Cliburn’s story confirms it. As Nigel Cliff reminds us in his book Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story-How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War, even during times of most tension between governments, the common denominator of culture that can be mutually appreciated serves as an essential reminder of what humans share between themselves, rather than what ideas may divide them.

During conversations I had with Nigel Cliff during the writing of this book, Nigel told me that what struck him most in his research at one stage was the similarity between Russians and Americans, or all the things they have in common. I agreed, the shared love for the great outdoors is one, the love of music and sports is another example.

The story of Van Cliburn is a story of how music broke barriers between Russians and Americans at the height of the Cold War. Van Cliburn participated in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, and against all political odds the young American pianist won the competition, and conquered the hearts of at least a generation of Russian adoring fans. Nigel Cliff records this story in great detail in his latest book, which should be used as a model for any artist which is interested in building bridges between different cultures at times of great and dangerous geopolitical tensions.

Here is a short extract from the introduction to Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story-How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War which describes the use of culture, in this case music, as an unintentional Cold War weapon to ignite love:

The moment the young American with the shock of flaxen curls sat before the piano, a powerful new weapon exploded across the Soviet Union. That weapon was love: one man’s love for music, which ignited an impassioned love affair between him and an entire nation.

The parallel between the days of Van Cliburn and the contemporary situation is also addressed by Cliff:

While we contemplate talk of a new Cold War, it can be illuminating to recall that Russia and America have had a love- hate relationship for a long while. Both nations became world powers at the same time, as multiethnic states with one foot in Europe with its old- world refinement and the other in their vast rude hinterlands. Both were ideologically extreme nations with utopian identities: America the shining city on a hill; Russia the third Rome and the chalice of true faith, be it Orthodox or Communist.. And while America’s exemplary heroes were businessmen and industrialists, Russia’s were artists who peered into the human soul with an unmatched intensity.

We can only hope that in future we will spend as much time debating Russian, American or Chinese artists as cultural ambassadors with as much love as many discuss foreign or domestic political leaders with hate. Nigel Cliff’s book is a great start in this direction, a new army of Van Cliburns spreading beauty across boundaries is much needed today: beauty in culture can save the world.

Read more:

Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story-How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War

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