bureaucracybusters

SPEAKING TRUTH TO TYRANTS

In Bureaucracy, History, Humor, Politics, Social commentary on May 1, 2018 at 12:04 am

Speaking truth to tyrants is always risky. But those who do—and survive—can find consolation in knowing they have done something few others have dared to do.

Two women—one Russian, the other American—have had this experience.

Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (1899 – 1970) was a gifted pianist who joined the piano faculty of the Moscow Conservatory in 1936, where she taught until 1951.

Maria Yudina

From 1944 to 1960, Yudina taught chamber ensemble and vocal class at the Gnessin Institute. In 1960, she was fired from the Institute because of her religious beliefs and championing of modern Western music.

She continued to perform in public, but her recitals were forbidden to be recorded. At one of her recitals in Leningrad, she read Boris Pasternak’s  poetry from the stage as an encore.

For that, Yudina was banned from performing for five years. In 1966, when the ban was lifted, she gave a cycle of lectures on Romanticism at the Moscow Conservatory.

Although born into a Jewish family, she joined and remained a devout member of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Perhaps her most courageous act occurred during the last years of the reign of Joseph Stalin. The Soviet dictator was responsible for the deaths of 20 to 25 million people—through execution, famine, torture, imprisonment and deportations.

Joseph Stalin

One night in 1944, Stalin, listening to the radio, heard a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23. Yudina had played the piano, backed up by a full orchestra.

Stalin, impressed, ordered that an envelope containing 20,000 rubles be sent to Yudina.

According to Russian composer and pianist Dimitri Shostakovich, Yudina then did the unthinkable.

In his posthumously-published memoirs, Testimony,  Shostakovich writes that Yudina sent Stalin a letter almost certain to result in her arrest.

The gist of the letter: “I thank you, Iosif Vissarionovich, for your aid.

“I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He will forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend.”

Stalin read the letter to his inner circle. Although he could have destroyed Yudina as easily as killing a fly, he set aside the letter and did nothing.

Yudina’s recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 was on Stalin’s record player when he collapsed with a cerebral hemorrhage on March 1, 1953. It was the last music he had listened to.

Shostakovich believed that Stalin was superstitious—and it was this that saved Yudina.

Throughout her life, Yudina remained an uncompromising critic of the Soviet regime. She died in Moscow in 1970.

Seventy-four years later, another woman—Michelle Wolf—dared speak truth to a tyrant in a different way.

Wolf (1985 – ) is an American comedian and writer. In 2007, she graduated from the College of William & Mary, a public research university in Williamsburg, Virginia.  Her major: Kinesiology (the scientific study of human or non-human body movement.

She decided to enter the comedy world and made her first appearance on late-night television in 2014, on Late Night with Seth Meyers. She made repeated appearances on the show,  A regular at the Comedy Cellar in New York City, she joined The Daily Show with Trevor Noah in 2016

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Michelle Wolf

In 2017, she made her HBO stand-up debut, Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady.

On April 28, she hosted the annual White House Correspondents Dinner.

Traditionally, it’s been an occasion where Washington’s political and media elites enjoy dinner and trade barbed quips at one another.

But President Donald Trump chose to skip the dinner in 2017 and 2018. Trump—who repeatedly  insults others—is too thin-skinned to accept even harmless jokes aimed at him.

That, however, didn’t deter Wolf. And she served up a series of barbed jokes aimed at the greed, deceit and hypocrisy of high-ranking Trump administration officials. Among these:

  • [Trump] loves white nationalists, which is a weird term for a Nazi. Calling a Nazi a white nationalist is like calling a pedophile a kid friend or Harvey Weinstein a ladies’ man.
  • [Vice President] Mike Pence is a weirdo, though. He’s a weird little guy. He won’t meet with other women without his wife present. When people first heard this, they were like, “That’s crazy.” But now, in this current climate, they’re like, “That’s a good witness.”
  • A tree falls in the woods is [Environmental Protection Agency director] Scott Pruitt’s definition of porn. Yeah, we all have our kinks.

But Wolf also had plenty of jabs for assembled media bigwigs.

  • The most useful information on CNN is when Anthony Bourdain tells me where to eat noodles. 
  • People want me to make fun of [Fox News host] Sean Hannity tonight, but I cannot do that; this dinner is for journalists.

Wolf’s jokes—especially those about White Hose Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders—triggered harsh attacks in turn from Trump officials and media critics.

But Jimmy Kimmel—who has also performed at the correspondents dinner—tweeted:

“Michelle did exactly what she should do, which was [to] upset everybody. That’s the role of a commentator and a bomb thrower and a comedian. Your job is not to make people comfortable and your job is definitely not to stay within the line. Your job is to say the things that make people uncomfortable and upset.”

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