Maria Yudina was no ordinary musician. She made her spectacular debut in 1921 in Petrograd against a background of intellectual and spiritual ferment during the early post-revolutionary years. Subsequently her life oscillated between the heights of fame and official disgrace, where she proved able to balance her compassionate nature and exceptional talent against the crushing Stalinist system and the ambiguities of the post War “Thaw” period . Maria Yudina’s life was a continuous drama – if not a miracle.

Maria Yudina

Join Pushkin House for a conversation with Elizabeth Wilson, author of Playing with Fire: The Story of Maria Yudina, Pianist in Stalin’s Russia, shortlisted for the Pushkin House Book Prize 2022, to explore Yudina’s extraordinary life and musical career under the tumultuous and bleak Soviet regime. The discussion will be led by composer and writer Gerard McBurney.

Maria Yudina found her place amongst Russia’s foremost musicians and intelligentsia of the post- revolutionary period, counting such luminaries as Pavel Florensky, Mikhail Bakhtin, Boris Pasternak, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitry Shostakovich among her close friends. Born in 1899 in the Pale of Settlement to an agnostic Jewish family, she converted to Orthodoxy when she was 19. Simultaneous to her musical studies she attended Petrograd University as a student of philosophy and history, and developed a firm belief in the vital role of personal conscience. The total commitment to her values and beliefs – both musically and morally – would lead to astounding feats as well as losses.

Surprisingly, Yudina’s career did not end in the 1930s when she was expelled from her professorship at the Leningrad Conservatoire because of her fervent religious beliefs. Rumoured to be Stalin’s favourite pianist, her popularity actually reached its zenith during the Second World War. She resisted evacuation and remained in Moscow to perform, teach, and entertain millions through innumerable radio broadcasts- She siezed at the opportunity to visit besieged Leningrad, not only to bring hope and consolation to the exhausted population but to help with evacuations. In the post-war years Yudina once again began playing with fire, and was ousted from two Moscow Teaching Institutions for her spiritual beliefs and passionate advocacy of modern Western music. Stravinsky’s decision to visit the country of his birth in 1962 was largely due to Yudina’s influence. Many regarded her reading of Pasternak’s and Zabolotsky’s poetry on stage as an encore at her concerts as sheer eccentricity, but when she was actively denounced by a group of teachers in Khabarovsk she was immediately banned from all concert appearances. Yudina lived in poverty, giving away any money she had to those in need. She never owned her own piano. Her last years were marked by a quiet return to public life, renewed religious dedication, and her active support of intellectuals, including such figures as Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn.

Wilson’s research explores this brave woman whose talent, integrity, and unquenchable passion for people, makes her one of the most fascinating cultural figures of Soviet Russia.


Elizabeth Wilson was born in London, and studied cello at the Moscow Conservatoire with Mstislav Rostropovich between 1964-1971, also becoming fluent in Russian. On her return to London she embarked on a performing, teaching and writing career. From 1990 she has lived in Italy where she has been active as a teacher, performer and co-founded the Est-Ovest music festival and the much acclaimed Xenia International summer course for string players, both held in Piemonte.

Gerard McBurney is a British composer, writer, and deviser, working in live performance, radio, film, and on the web. Between 2006 and 2016, he was Artistic Programming Advisor at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Creative Director of the audience-building initiative Beyond the Score ®. Since 2017, he has been the San Diego Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Consultant. He has also been artistic advisor for the Hallé and Philharmonia Orchestras in the UK.