Come In. My Russian Vault. Curl Up. Have a Cigar.

by Micah Lewis

A History of the Soviet Union's Audio Empire
Moscow’s decadent civic pride communicates itself ubiquitously: subways are cathedrals, 19th century facades convey canyon walls, Stalin-era apartments surge heavenward like gothic churches—all extant artifacts that testify to an era of social investment gone by.

Russia’s Ministry of Culture once endowed literature, dance, and music on a scale that makes the Arts Council of Wales look like food stamps. It’s everywhere, from Bulgakov’s accounts of state housing for Russian poets to the way the Seven Sisters—the Soviet response to neo-classicism—grace the side of the Moskva River, commanding reverence. But nowhere is it as utterly compounded, catalogued, and kept as the Archive.

On the outskirts of Moscow sits a stain of gray against a gray horizon. It’s a redundant, utilitarian structure of broad concrete forms that poses a symbolic polarization: Russia will concede the height of ornamental grandeur—or glaring functionality—and little in between. This is the Soviet State Radio and Television Archive, boasting about as much aesthetic as its neighboring freeway network. Inside, however, it stores the largest collection of recorded music ever compiled. Under the delicate stewardship of its tender archivist, Anna, lay four floors of more than 3,000 tracks spanning six decades of Soviet orchestra.

The peculiar and renowned genealogy of this quarter-inch musical stockpile has borne witness to intrigue, espionage, Hollywood marketing savvy, and a case of global licensing politics—yet has remained buried within the Archive’s withered womb.

The music nurtured by the Soviet State is at first glance noteworthy, then breathtaking. First, names are apparent: Russian State Chamber Orchestra plays Bach; then, combinations: David Oistrakh performs Tchaikovsky violin concerto; Mstislav Rostropovich plays Brahms and Dvořák cello concertos. One astonishing title follows another: Dmitri Shostakovich, Preludes and Fugues; Haydn’s Symphony No. 95 with Rudolf Barshai; Richter plays Béla Bartók’s piano concerto No. 2 accompanied by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra; Handel’s keyboard suites. The Archive is a musical Olympus.

The finest concerts in Europe were held in Moscow’s Bolshoi theatre, taped live on state-of-the-art Studer-Revox equipment, hustled down to Gostel Radio at the famous Ostankino Tower (for years the world’s tallest freestanding structure), and then broadcast across a federation whose borders contained a sixth of the earth’s land surface. And as the theater doors closed and the orchestra retired home to entertain another day, the recorded performance vanished into the lonely corridors of the Archive under Anna’s watchful eye. There, tape after tape was left to noble dead storage, alphabetically inscribed by terse jottings, frozen on a shelf. Sonority captured like a footnote in the historical record, never to be played again.

Some are marked by a mysterious stripe of liquid paper, a gesture that answers for itself before you ask. While bolstered by the support of a totalitarian state, a number of Russia’s most highly profiled artists found themselves forced to reconcile their enrollment in the global music sphere. Under the weight of Soviet coercion, Rostropovich, Heifetz, and Barshai, among others, escaped to the West. The state’s response was to banish their legacy. Redaction orders were sent to the Archive where Anna, herself, was instructed to destroy their recordings and strike them from the record. But in a quiet act of courage—or perhaps disenchantment with a world where ideology and infrastructure trumped individual choice—she whited out the names, hid their identities, and left opuses credited to no one.

A massive federation and its tangible institutions dissolve in a melancholy corner of the Archive, which hasn’t received a visitor in years. The Archivist enters the names of the disavowed in a secret ledger that traces her back to anonymous reels of tape—maybe Rostropovich, maybe Heifetz—pregnant with melody, longing to be someday reintroduced by name in formal terms, or via radio waves, to a world draped in digital nets instead of iron curtains.