May 01, 2014

The Rise, Fall and Rise of Mikhail Glinka

The Rise, Fall and Rise of Mikhail Glinka

In 1946, just one year after World War II ended, the director Leo Arnshtam came out with the film Glinka. Arnshtam – a respected man of culture and a subtle thinker – deserves credit for sensing the precise moment when the life of nineteenth-century composer Mikhail Glinka became permissible subject matter.

Before the war, the Soviet government had little use for Glinka. This is hardly surprising when you consider that his most famous opera was A Life for the Tsar, based on the legend of the peasant Ivan Susanin's ultimate sacrifice to save young Tsar Mikhail Romanov from Polish occupiers in the early seventeenth century. Hardly suitable entertainment for Soviet audiences in the 1930s.

Glinka was much beloved by artsy Silver Age types. His lyrical songs and magnificent operas were not exactly banned, but they were certainly not encouraged. By the late forties, the situation began to change. Clearly, the title had to go, but once the opera was renamed Ivan Susanin, its eponymous hero could be held up as a patriot, a folk hero, and a defender of the motherland. Allowing a man legendary for sacrificing his life for the tsar into the pantheon of national heroes definitely represented an expansion of Soviet orthodoxy, but by the late forties, the idea of standing up for the tsar had lost the negative connotations of the immediate post-revolutionary years. Suddenly, in the most varied spheres of life, the prerevolutionary past began to be “rehabilitated,” and even held up as a suitable object of nostalgia.

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