Secrets Are a Captive Country

My grandfather had never told me about his trip to the Soviet Union in the sixties, but I don't know why I was surprised. He never told me anything, not even my grandmother's name.

Larissa Diakiw’s work can be found in Brick, Joyland, the Walrus and other printed and virtual places. She writes and illustrates a comic series...

Last November, my grandfather told me that he went to the Soviet Union in 1962 as a roadie for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. We were eating dinner, spaghetti squash with watery Bolognese, wine from the basement. The table was set with marmalade-colored Ikea napkins on forest-green linen. “We had to put the harp between the pilot and the co-pilot,” he said, looking at my step-grandmother. “There wasn’t room anywhere else.” Outside, the snow had hardened into a crust. It was the first time I had heard him mention this trip. I had no idea he had ever been to the Soviet Union.

My grandfather is in his seventies. If you Google image search his last name, which we don’t share, you will see obituary photos of old Polish women with perms and carnations pinned to their blouses. He is balding. His blue eyes pop unexpectedly, frog like, from behind his glasses. He wears pressed caramel pants, never jeans, and as far as I can tell he has little to no interest in Poland or being Polish. The guest bedroom in his Calgary home has mints on the pillows, bars on the windows, and was renovated to look like Don Draper’s living room. When I visit, the first thing we do is go through his version of a safety seminar. He explains how to open the bars and climb out the window in case of fire. I never listen. I figure I’ll just go out the back door, but the bars annoy me because they are indicators of anxiety rather than danger. No one walks down the streets there. The little fortified bungalow near the airport will never see a pedestrian, let alone a robbery.

He ladled the tomato sauce onto a pile of squash, and it flooded the plate. “You understand the context, right?” he said. “You have to understand the context. Montreal was invited to perform in Moscow only because the Kremlin wanted to have a musical exchange with the Philadelphia Philharmonic, and Soviet planes weren’t allowed to land on US soil.” He looked over his glasses at me.

I understood some of the context. In 1962, the Cold War was escalating. It was the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis. I guess Washington didn’t want these musicians—probably spies—landing in their territory. Questions of national security and the fear of nuclear fallout were ever present. A war of culture had started to prove ideological superiority, as though a pianist could affirm that collectivization was better than Liberal market capitalism. By inviting Montreal to participate in the exchange, the Soviet musicians could fly on a Canadian plane to the US, and back to Canada, to play at Place des Arts. Then, the MSO would tour the USSR. At least, that is what I understood from his explanation.

“The place was grey,” he said, cutting his food with the mannered precision of someone who has learned table etiquette later in life, a class chameleon. “Was it ever grey.” When he talks he uses the cadence of a salesman. Each phrase is constructed towards selling the product of implicit agreement. As I grew older, I learned to not believe everything he said. “You have to understand what was going on there at the time. Bread lines went on forever. All they sold was vodka. Everything was grey, the clothes, the buildings, the sky. It was all grey, so when they saw us, well, that was a different story, but they weren’t allowed to talk to us, even if they wanted to.”

In 1953, Stalin was found on the floor next to his bed, paralyzed, stuttering, pajamas soaked in urine. In their accounts, witnesses always took note of the urine stain, as though the weakness of the man’s body was a surprise, a truth that had to be recorded to be reconciled. Or maybe it was just a crucial humiliation. The paranoid arbiter of life and death pissed himself when he was dying, like anyone else would. He likely lay next to his bed for hours after the stroke. No one wanted to disturb him, because they were afraid of retribution. One of many hundred doctors, imprisoned in the previous months during an anti-Semitic purge, had to be consulted in his jail cell. No free doctors knew what to do. And like those who waited hours and hours before opening his bedroom door, those who attended to the Great Leader in the hospital were terrified. The dentist who removed his dentures was trembling so much that he dropped them on the floor. But none of the nurses or doctors or bodyguards were killed, exiled, imprisoned, or demoted, because Stalin died three days later after an unsuccessful treatment of leeches and oxygen.

“It is difficult for most people to imagine how a nation worshipped such a monster,” Oleg Kalugin wrote in his memoir, Spymaster, which details his life as a KGB operative, “but the truth is that most of us—those who had not felt the lash of his repression—did. His propaganda machine was all powerful, I revered Stalin.”

In ’62, the MSO would have landed in a world where, only a decade before, musicians were sent to the Gulag for any misstep, any note that displeased the Party. Up until Stalin’s death, music was tightly censored. It had to fit into the aesthetic doctrine of Socialist Realism, or be innocuous enough to maintain the Politburo’s idea of a status quo.

“Our bloody tyrant was in a bad mood one day,” the composer Dmitri Tolstoy said in the documentary War Symphonies, describing how Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was banned, “and then he went to the opera.” It isn’t clear what Stalin objected to, maybe the plot’s moral imperative to kill a tyrant or the sex scenes. Either way, an anonymous letter published in the newspaper Pravda a few days later said that the opera “titillates the depraved tastes of bourgeois audiences with its witching, clamorous, neurasthenic music,” and signed off by warning “it might end very badly.” It was no secret that Pravda was the mouthpiece of the communist party, and that this letter was probably penned by the man himself. Shostakovich had to be very careful.

Jazz was suppressed. In 1949 all saxophone players in Moscow were ordered to KGB headquarters, where their instruments were confiscated, and their names put on a list. Musicians were put under surveillance. Jazz was considered dangerous. It had bourgeois implications. It glamorized individualism, and experimentation. Songs like “Yablochko,” that mixed traditional folk with military marching music, fit in with the official party line, music that could define the new proletariat, without relying on nostalgia for a Tsarist past. Folk was the music of the common people, so it didn’t threaten communist culture, and marching bands were the metaphorical sound of the army. If there was any evidence of a trumpet mute, a brazen bass player plucking instead of bowing, or a flatted fifth, the musician would be immediately arrested and sent to the gulag. A popular phrase was “today he dances jazz, tomorrow he will sell his homeland.”

My friend Chrystia’s family fled Ukraine during World War Two. She told me that the first time she visited, she was walking through the tangerine light of downtown Kiev. A busker played saxophone, and even then, everyone who passed turned their heads away or stared at the sidewalk. The saxophone was still an uncomfortable symbol. People had been so well trained to disassociate from anything suspect that it was Pavlovian, if no longer imperative, to look away from anything that could be dangerous. This legacy of fear runs deep. 


My step-grandmother carried an almond cake from the kitchen and placed it between us as we drank the dregs of a bottle of wine. I could feel the sediment in my mouth. She is beautiful in an unremarkable but relentless way, like Debbie Reynolds in Singing in the Rain, with delicate, perfectly placed features and endless small-town Francophone charm. In the ‘60s she worked as a flight attendant in a dusty blue suit with matching pillbox hat, and spent part of the ‘70s stationed out of Casablanca working chartered flights from Morocco to Mecca. When I was a teenager she would bring out nail polish and a file. “If you tried harder,” she said, “you could marry a rich man.”

My grandfather cradled his fishbowl wine glass between his fingers. Sun spots freckled his hands. “At the Kremlin, one of the violinists was wearing a nylon shirt,” he said to no one. “Imagine, they hadn’t seen synthetic fabric. It caused a stir in the audience, and afterwards the guy exchanged it for a suitcase of rubles. Of course, he was arrested on the spot by his translator.” Why had I never heard this before? “Those rubles would do nothing in Quebec. It was basically Monopoly money.” I know so little about any of his life. 

“Wait, what did your mother think of you going there, being Polish?” I asked.

“I hadn’t seen her since I was thirteen.”

“Really? Why?”

“Each of us had a translator who doubled as a KGB handler. It was how it was done. The poor dupe just didn’t know until it was too late.”

I have always wondered why my grandfather refuses to speak about certain subjects. One subject he avoids is my biological grandmother. I know nothing about her. She could be dead or alive. She could be my neighbor. I don’t even know her name. When I ask about her, he responds with diversions and evasions. This applies to everything, even his account of this trip to the Soviet Union.

The details are difficult to confirm, but the basic facts are easy to research. The tour was three weeks long, with five stops: Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kiev, Vienna, Paris. Zubin Mehta, the Mumbai-born conductor, organized the trip. After my visit, I emailed my grandfather several times to ask for more information. The first time I left the question open, hoping he would fill in missing details. The second time I listed specific questions: What was it like to be in a communist country in the ‘60s? What was Zubin Mehta like? How did Soviets interact with you? What were the musicians like? Tell me more about the concert at the Kremlin? He responded with two short sentences: It’s nice that you’re interested. You should do more research. 


Psychologist Michael Slepian published a study called “The Experience of Secrecy” in 2017. The average person, he writes, has thirteen secrets, five of which have never been revealed to anyone. He defines a secret as something that you intend to hide, even if you never have to hide it. The secret exists before and after the point it is concealed. “Secrecy” he writes “is something we do alone in a room.” Examining the effect secrets have on mental and physical health, the study concludes that the burden (and there does seem to be a physical toll) comes not only from the content, but from how preoccupied we are with it. The more our mind wanders to the subject, the more difficult simple tasks become, hills seem steeper, distances farther, everyday chores exhausting. The metaphorical language of unburdening the weight of a secret is maybe more tangible than we understand. 

Grade five was the beginning of my conscious relationship to secrecy. My friend Mai and I sometimes slipped away from the other kids during recess to talk about what no one talked about. At the edge of the fields and fields of playground, only possible in a prairie city like Edmonton, was a swing set. No one could play on it because fights would break out over whose turn it was, but also because Jared Michaels* said that an old man with a white beard, wearing garbage bags for shoes, hung out there, and had given him a baggie of white powder, telling him to light it. He ended up with second degree burns on half of his face. The adults didn’t know what to do, so that entire end of the schoolyard was out of bounds, and carefully patrolled by volunteer lunch supervisors in yellow vests.

The kids knew Jared had lied about the old man, that he had stolen a handful of gun powder from his parents and lit it up as a spectacle for his friends. We were all burgeoning pyromaniacs at the time, so it wasn’t a surprise, but I remember feeling the first hints of pride at diagnosing his stupidity, planning my safer, more impressive grass fires as a response to his, and then guilt when he came to class with blisters running up his cheek to his eyelid.

Near the swing sets was an old cedar tree that was perfect for climbing. If you swung back and forth while holding onto the lowest branch, you could use your feet to walk up the trunk, and flip yourself onto the branch. From there, each branch was like a rung on a ladder. When you got to the top, you could watch the playground from above, like a guard in a surveillance tower.

I had a dramatic way of telling secrets. I would whisper “I have something to tell you,” in Mai’s ear while we sat on the bench in gym class waiting to be subbed on for floor hockey, “let's talk about it in the tree.” The recess bell would ring. We would run before anyone else could see where we had gone, and climb up.

I realized quickly that my family had more secrets than the families around me, and I needed to make sense of it. Their secrets weren’t veiled translations from the adult world that I could decipher as I got older. They were omissions. No one spoke about my grandmother. No one spoke about my father. When I found out that this was because he was schizophrenic, I told Mai. The fact of schizophrenia was as unusual a revelation as the fact that I was supposed to care that some man I never knew, who existed elsewhere, had the problem. I told her in the tree, and the word, which may be outdated now, felt ugly on my tongue. Stigma was latent in the enunciation. It was a word of consonants, medicalized and complicated, with a suffix that could only mean problems, and by the sound of it should only be repeated in private.

But there were other secrets. We talked about our shared crush, who had perfect dark caterpillar eyebrows. We talked about BDSM, because I had come across the phrase in a newspaper article about a court case. We talked about our bodies. We talked about things which aren’t mine to share. When we were up in the tree, nothing else mattered. The football fields that ran along 76th Avenue disappeared. Edmonton became a set designed as a backdrop for us. The younger kids playing freeze-tag disappeared. Naomi and Lena, cross-legged behind the skating rink, playing truth or dare in Chicago Bulls caps, disappeared. Who cared that we weren’t invited to French-kiss. Who cared that Cam White, brushing his blonde hair from his eyes like Leo in Titanic, wanted to kiss them and not us. It all faded in favor of excavating the new secret, and sharing the discovery that up until then we had been lied to. And aren’t we all lied to, constantly?

After Stalin’s death, Khrushchev became the new leader of the Communist Party. His tenure is referred to as the Thaw because repression and censorship were relaxed. Millions were released from prisons and labor camps. Those who had died behind their walls were officially exonerated. In 1958, Khrushchev held the inaugural Tchaikovsky competition. The Iron Curtain had only barely lifted, and foreign musicians were invited to compete.

A twenty-three-year-old Texan Baptist named Van Cliburn won first prize. He played Rachmaninoff. The musical motifs yearned for a metaphysical Russian past. His fingering lingered emotionally on the notes. It was not the safest way to play music at the time. It would have been discouraged in favor of precise, technically adept fingering. Van Cliburn was humble, boyish. He genuinely, unguardedly loved Russia, and for Soviet audiences it was like someone had cracked open a can, the lid peeled off, the seal broke, he had the effect of Elvis. Teenagers swooned. Thousands camped outside of the concert hall in hopes of getting tickets. People risked punishment to send him tokens of their affection. He left Moscow with suitcases full of gifts. Twenty-five-thousand items: samovars, malachite cigarette boxes, silver cutlery, woodcuttings, music scores, jewelry, photographs, violins, perfume, paintings, letters, valuables that had been hidden away during the terror of the previous decades.

Second-place was shared between the nineteen-year-old Chinese pianist Liu Shikun, and the Georgian pianist Lev Vlassenko. After the competition Liu Shikun was sentenced to six years in a Chinese prison for playing Western music. The Cultural Revolution had hit a shrill pitch. Students from the Beijing Conservatory of Music joined the Red Guards in their denunciation of Western, and feudalist, music, beating professors and classmates with boards of nails and belt buckles. The bone in Shikun’s forearm was shattered during an interrogation. After years in the labor camp, one day a guard accidentally left a newspaper in his cell, and the pianist managed to compose a note, attaching characters ripped from the article using pieces of sticky bun as glue. He hid the note in his prison cell until the right moment came years later. He was able to sneak it to a visitor, who then delivered it to a Party member who pardoned him.

The third-place winner, Naum Shtarkman, was sent to prison for eight years after the competition, when a witch-hunt broke out against homosexuals at the Moscow Conservatory. He was arrested on his way to a concert for factory workers in the industrial city of Kharkov.

They were both in prison when my grandfather visited Moscow. 


The dry, nearly fat-free cake was brown and deflated. I cut it into bite sized pieces with a butter knife, because I needed something to do with my hands, and the half-eaten lumps looked like balls of clay. Someone had put on a CD, a Quebecoise chanteuse I had never heard. She was singing from the adjoining pink living room, filling the long silences, so they were less obvious. I had the urge to get drunk. Across from me was a landscape painting. Mountains edged by a lake. I took a bite of the cake. It was dry and difficult to swallow. I washed it down with wine.

How do we understand family secrets without considering their relationship to shame? And how do we begin to consider something so murky, so complicated? Shame is a social emotion, administered by the disapproving gaze of another. It filters our perception of ourselves. It is the feeling that who you are is wrong, that who you are must be hidden from the outside world. Etymologists suspect that the root of the word shame is from Proto-Germanic skamo, to cover, and the Greek aiskhyne, to put someone to disgrace. The word stigma has a revealing history too. In the 1560s, it was a physical mark scratched into skin with a pointed stick until it would leave a permanent scar, or a brand burned into skin with a hot iron. In the 1600s, stigmata were marks appearing on the body that mirrored the wounds of crucifixion. Now stigma is an invisible mark that everyone can see.

When I told Mai my secrets, I remember trying to fight against a world where appearances were more important than isolation, and self-hate. I thought that if I was open about my father being schizophrenic, then kids couldn’t hurt me by saying I was destined to be cuckoo for cocoa puffs. I wasn’t hiding anything. 


Khrushchev delivered the Secret Speech, officially called “On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences,” during a meeting of the Communist Party in 1958. He denounced Stalin’s network of prisons and labor camps. On its face, his speech was an investigation into the Great Purge, though it was also an analysis of Stalin’s methodology, the machine that revered him and rendered him omnipresent. For his own reasons, Khrushchev wanted to show Stalin’s reign of terror for what it was. Stalin, he told his comrades, was a man who gave orders to shoot soldiers retreating from the front line. A man who fabricated crimes and put on show trials to educate his people about the new social order. But, the exposure of this propaganda was disturbing. People in the audience fainted, and later some committed suicide.

When someone is forced to repeat an obvious lie, Hannah Arendt observed, even if they don’t believe the lie, through repetition of the lie they submit to the liar. They are forced to choose the world contained by the lie. Self-deception can become a matter of survival. If you are constantly affirming the lie, why not believe it? At least believe it sometimes, or with half of your mind, or because you stop being able to comprehend a world outside of the lie. When do you start to believe that Jazz is dangerous, and that it’s a slippery slope from loving jazz to betraying your family, to betraying your nation, to betraying yourself? Certain lies are exercises in power and social control. What happens when the lie is dismantled? Were the suicides after Khrushchev's secret speech a reaction to the disclosure of these lies? Was it a question of complicity? Was the horror too much?

I am not interested in a simple narrative where Western musicians go to the Soviet Union and liberate minds through art. I don’t consider the West to be a place of freedom. Its prisons are full too. Still, as I researched Soviet music to understand what the MSO would be walking into, it became clear that the double lives of these Soviet musicians and audiences offered insight into the loneliness and horror of extreme social censure.

In 1957, Glenn Gould began to play in Moscow to an almost empty hall. At intermission, the entire audience used the telephone in the lobby, and called their friends, urging them to come to the concert as fast as they could. After intermission, the hall was so packed that people stood in the aisles, and out the door onto the streets. Tatiana Zelikma, a pianist at the Moscow Conservatory, described this concert by saying “we started to live by each new recording of Gould’s and until his death, his life became part of our life.”

One of the first Western musicians behind the Iron Curtain was the soprano Lois Marshall. She toured in a ball gown with lavish layers of crinoline and her limited mobility, the effect of polio, captivated the audience. They were already breathless before she started to sing. “She represented inner freedom,” musician Olexander Tumanov wrote, “which was an absolutely overwhelming concept, because we were all captives in our own country.”

“You remember that guy, what was his name?” my grandfather said, mostly to himself. “He rented a white baby grand. The ladies loved him, but he never paid his bill. I had to go up to his hotel the night before he left town to get him to pay up. He came to the door in sunglasses and a bathrobe with a bottle of champagne.” He pushed back his chair and crossed his legs. “Dino-something-or-other…”

I put my fork down next to my plate. “I was wondering,” I paused. “What was your first wife, my grandmother’s, name?” He looked at his watch, then turned to the window. The sun had set outside. It was a dark moonless sky, and the milky way was visible above the snow. He looked at his watch again. “Look at the time, it’s getting late. The game should be on soon.”

I stared at him, his eyes, his nose, and couldn’t help thinking, who is this person in front of me? What is he hiding? Why is he hiding it? I finished my glass of wine. My face was burning. Maybe I didn’t need to know anything about him to understand myself better. Somehow, I want to mourn these missing people, lost in the preservation of an acceptable family, but I don’t know how. And each time I ask a question that he won’t answer I feel it again, the hint of shame, the reminder that there is something to keep secret.

“The Oilers are playing the Flames.” He pushed back his chair. “We can light a fire in the Chinook room if you want. I know you like a nice fire.”

*not his real name. 

Larissa Diakiw’s work can be found in Brick, Joyland, the Walrus and other printed and virtual places. She writes and illustrates a comic series called Conversations in the Dark as Frankie NoOne.