The New York Times has some nice coverage of pianist Van Cliburn’s enduring popularity in Russia:
Legend says that Mr. Gilels was worried enough to approach Khrushchev about the American. “Is he the best?” Khrushchev is said to have asked, and when Mr. Gilels allowed that he was, Khrushchev said, “In this case, give him first prize.”
The mania for “Vanya” or “Vanushka,” as he came to be called, cut through all levels of Soviet society. A Russian violinist, Artur Shtilman, recalled the tremulous words of a janitor who said the performance had left her strangely transfixed: “This young man, really just a boy — he plays, and I sit and cry. I myself don’t know what is happening to me, because I have never listened to this music, and I simply cannot tear myself away.”
Despite the fact that Mr. Cliburn had no plans to play the piano on this visit [to Russia to serve on the jury of the International Tchaikovsky Competition], Yevgeniya Zalyashina traveled 120 miles from Tula to be present at all his appearances — which sometimes consisted of just walking into the concert hall. She was joined by a group of women who had met in 1958 while standing in line all night for tickets.
“You have to understand, people were talking about him on the bus, on the Metro,” said Lyudmila Avdushina, 73. “For us he was never a foreigner, he was one of ours.”
This prompted me to seek out YouTube footage of the performance of Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto that won Cliburn the prize.
It’s an amazing performance. I was unprepared for how young Van Cliburn was; he’s almost cherubic. And those rubatos! I don’t think a performance like this would fly on the competition circut today.