moscow nights nigel cliff book review

Moscow Nights, Nigel Cliff: Book Review

Harper / Ander McIntyre

A closer look at the power of music.

Moscow Nights Book Cover Moscow Nights
Nigel Cliff
Adult Nonfiction
Harper Perennial

Gripping narrative nonfiction that tells the dramatic story of a remarkable young Texan pianist, Van Cliburn, who played his way through the wall of fear built by the Cold War, won the hearts of the American and Russian people, and eased tensions between two superpowers on the brink of nuclear war.

In 1958, an unheralded twenty-three-year-old piano prodigy from Texas named Van Cliburn traveled to Moscow to compete in the First International Tchaikovsky Competition. The Soviets had no intention of bestowing their coveted prize on an unknown American; a Russian pianist had already been chosen to win. Yet when the gangly Texan with the shy grin took the stage and began to play, he instantly captivated an entire nation.

The Soviet people were charmed by Van Cliburn’s extraordinary talent, passion, and fresh-faced innocence, but it was his palpable love for the music that earned their devotion; for many, he played more like a Russian than their own musicians. As enraptured crowds mobbed Cliburn’s performances, pressure mounted to award him the competition prize. "Is he the best?" Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev demanded of the judges. "In that case . . . give him the prize!"

Adored by millions in the USSR, Cliburn returned to a thunderous hero’s welcome in the USA and became, for a time, an ambassador of hope for two dangerously hostile superpowers. In this thrilling, impeccably researched account, Nigel Cliff recreates the drama and tension of the Cold War era, and brings into focus the gifted musician and deeply compelling figure whose music would temporarily bridge the divide between two dangerously hostile powers.

This review contains quotes from the book.

*Special thanks to Harper Perennial for allowing us to read Nigel Cliff’s Moscow Nights.

Nigel Cliff describes Van Cliburn and how he tried to help bridge the gap between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War in Moscow Nights.

“At any moment, fear and mistrust threatened to unfix the stays of civilization, of human feeling and sanity itself, to the point where a handful of men could envisage destroying the world rather than allow opponents whom they had never met to win. Not for a moment did anyone suppose that classical music would make a particle of difference.”

– excerpt from Nigel Cliff’s Moscow Nights

In 1958, Van Cliburn was considered to be a twenty-three year old piano prodigy. This was also the year when he traveled to Moscow for the International Tchaikovsky Competition. He surprised the Soviets with his talent because before the competition began, they already decided who would win – and it was not going to be an American.

But when Cliburn began to play the piano, he literally enchanted entire nations with his talent. What really struck the Soviets was Cliburn’s love for music and they realized that he sounded more like a Russian compared to actual Russian players. People begged and pleaded for him to win the prize of the competition and Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev ended up giving him the prize because he was the best there.

When Cliburn returned home to the United States, he was adored by many. He gave people hope during the Cold War. People thought that if he could win over the Soviets with his piano playing, then there could be peace between the two nations. Cliff does an excellent job with capturing the anxiety that the Cold War brought during that time. Also, he highlights Cliburn as a symbol that could help these two nations end the Cold War.

Cliff was able to capture everything that Cliburn did during his time with the Soviets, as well as the events that followed when he returned home. This book goes into great detail of Cliburn’s life and what led him to this crucial point in history.  Cliburn was only twenty-three years old, but he brought hope to two huge nations. That is a big freaking deal.

It was an honor to read about Cliburn and his journey through the Cold War. Cliff did a good job describing everything that went down with the competition in the Soviet Union and what it meant for Cliburn after the fact. I would never have known this part of history if it were not for this book, so I thank you, Nigel Cliff.

I would recommend Moscow Nights to history buffs or anyone who wants to know more about the Cold War from a new perspective.

Jessica Duffield
the authorJessica Duffield
Contributing Writer
I am a junior in college. Books are my passion and I hope to work in book publishing once I graduate from journalism school.