“Russian Music Does Not Exist”: The Nazi Occupation of the Kyiv Opera
I was working at the former Communist Party Archives today in Kyiv in the collection of the Commission for the History of Great Patriotic War by the Academy of the Sciences URSR (f. 166 for all you archive rats out there). The Commission was set up to help document the history of the war in Ukraine and put together a number of publications. Today I found a document with testimonies from various Soviet Ukrainian citizens about their experiences from the war. They ranged from mundane (“I’m an important person and I was evacuated”) to the horrifying (“I watched pogroms, mass shootings, and somehow survived the Belzec extermination camp”), yet my favorite testimony of the day was from the director of the Lenin Kyiv State Opera and Shevchenko Ballet (now known as the National Opera House of Ukraine), Aleksei Mikhailovich Vashkulat (or Bashkulat, I’m not sure) on his experience during the Nazi occupation.
Most of Vashkulat’s testimony recounts his most unpleasant interactions with the Nazi quartermaster (intendent), Wolfgang Brückner, who ruled over the theatre from fall 1942 through the end of the occupation in 1944. Brückner allegedly got the post since his brother was a well-known composer “in” with Hitler and he was somehow related to Erich Koch. He apparently let everyone know about both of these alleged facts.
Vashkulat begins his description of this relationship by telling us that most of the orders from his Aryan superior were very “rude and curt”! Brückner informed Vashkulat how things were going to work at the Big Opera, as it was renamed, “Theatre is my German home and when I’m here I’m the complete master (polnyi khozian).” Not much room for ambiguity I suppose. Brückner went to great lengths to prove this, as he occasionally struck the musicians when he wasn’t happy with their work and gave the Ukrainians and Russians the most pithy rations possible for their work at the opera.
The man of culture, Brückner, also had very particular ideas about what type of music would be performed. He told Vashkulat that the theatre was a place where only German and Italian composers’ work could be performed. When once asked about performing Tchaikovsky’s sixth he replied, “Russian music does not exist. While I’m here at the theatre, there will be no Russian music. No Russian composers. Only German music speaks to the soul.”
Thus, the ideologically acceptable operas and operettas performed were Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” Puccini’s “La bohème” and “Madame Butterfly,” Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus,” Lehár’s “The Merry Widow,” and Verdi’s “Aida.” Oddly enough, the operas were performed in Ukrainian, since the singers did not know any other language. As you can probably guess, Ukrainians were not allowed to attend the operas. You can just picture a bunch of Nazis sitting around listening to a Ukrainian version of Madame Butterfly (an opera written by a largely apolitical bourgeois Italian), as means to display to their superior culture and race.
Beyond Vashkulat’s description of the nasty quartermaster and the dire working conditions, he also shared a small story about a disastrous staging of Aida and even commented on how the Nazis would show what he deemed “pornographic” films in the opera house on occasion. I’m curious what happened to Vashkulat after the war — if there was any retribution for his tenure under the Nazis, but alas there is no information on the world-wide web. For more reading check out Karel Berkhoff’s, Harvest of Despair (chapter on “Popular Culture”) and this little article in Ukrainian by T. Zabolotna.