January 01, 2012

Paranoia Trumps True Love

Leonid Zorin’s marvelous 1967 play, Warsaw Melody, begins in December 1946, when Victor, the male protagonist, meets a Polish voice student named Helen at the Moscow Conservatory. The two are immediately drawn to one another and a month later are dreaming of marriage. But then, on February 15, 1947, Stalin issues a decree prohibiting marriage to foreigners. Although Victor promises Helen he will “think of something,” he is, of course, powerless. The couple parts ways. Victor goes to work in Krasnodar and Helen returns to Warsaw.

When Mikhail Ulyanov and Yulia Borisova first performed these roles at the Vakhtangov Theater in the late sixties, the audience watched with baited breath as the young lovers’ hopes for happiness slowly evaporated. The Soviet authorities claimed they only had the public’s best interest at heart and were concerned, for example, that “in unfamiliar surroundings abroad, Soviet women do not feel comfortable and are subjected to discrimination.”

The marriage ban was just one tiny piece of the vast and terrible mosaic of the Cold War. The Soviet people had developed several illusions over the course of the struggle to defeat Nazi Germany. Some even hoped that after victory the government would finally stop seeing spies and saboteurs in every corner, every workplace, every family. The war showed who the true enemy had been – the fascists – and many of the countries that had previously been branded “imperialist” turned out to actually be the Soviet Union’s “friends” and allies. In the spring of 1945, Soviet and American troops embraced when they met at the Elbe. Wasn’t friendship with the West sure to flourish now?

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