Chapter 2

The Texan Who
Conquered Russia

The Thawing of a Cold War

In 1958, strained relations between the US and Soviet Russia were at an all-time high. The inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow was held during the Cold War, and many believed the competition was staged to demonstrate Russian superiority and that a Russian would undoubtedly win.

Reluctant to enter, Van’s longtime teacher Rosina Lhévinne convinced him. Lhévinne called and said, “I just heard of this great competition in Moscow and you must go — knowing how much you love Russian music.” With this influence, along with a long standing love for the history of Moscow, Van entered the first International Tchaikovsky Competition.

Then Van played...and the world listened.

"Is he the best?...Then give him the prize."

Soviet judges asked Nikita Khrushchev if the prize could be given to an American. Van’s playing style, personality, looks, Texan charm, and connection with the Russian culture won the audience over. Upon completion of his performance, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff No. 3, the audience gave Van a standing ovation for over ten minutes. Against all odds, it was clear that Van had won.

“Van looked and played like some kind of angel...He didn't fit the evil image of capitalists that had been painted for us by the Soviet government.”

May 19, 1958 Time: The Texan Who Conquered Russia

January 22, 1959 Master Bear Charmer, Fort Worth Star Telegram

Meteoric Rise to Stardom

Van’s career skyrocketed following his Moscow performance, starting with a world tour. Upon his return to the United States home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City and performances scheduled for the most prestigious concert halls. With the spotlight shining bright, Van Cliburn instantly became a household name.