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Tango from Russia: Pyotr Leshchenko - Wino Lubwi, 1936

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Published on Oct 24, 2007

Pyotr Leshchenko - "The King of Russian Tango", owner of a breathtaking, soft baritone voice - was born on June 14, 1898 in a village Isaeva in Ukraine. His father was a clerk, mother - illiterate. During the First World War, his mother and stepfather moved to Kishinev (now part of Moldavia). As a result Leshchenko has been claimed as a national by Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Romania. In his early childhood he sang in a church choir and learned how to play the guitar and the balalaika. After the war Pyotr worked at various restaurants performing small theatrical acts, mostly dancing.

After the revolution, in Paris he took some ballet lessons to perform with his Latvian wife Zinaida, who was a dancer. Their act was a mixture of ballet, folklore dance and European tango, which was so popular it led to tours to Egypt, Persia, Turkey, Germany and Britain. It was at Riga, when he improvised a kind of a gypsy/tango singing to make up for the absence of his pregnant wife, that he discovered he could sing in front of an audience. Skon he started to perform regularily. In 1935 he was at the peak of his success. Though he still included old Russian romances, and even Soviet songs , like „Serdtse" („A Heart" ) - tango from the Stalinist movie production, which was originally sung by Leonid Utyosov - in a different version, as „Kak mnogo devushek horoshih" (How Many Goud Girls Are Around!"). ) In his repertoire, one of his favourites was a Polish composer Jerzy Petersburski, but he also sung certain songs composed specifically for him were (Oscar Strok, Mark Maryankovsky and Yefim Sklyarov).
Leshchenko performed for European nobles and "White" Russian emigres at his own "Leschenko" cabaret in Bucharest (dubbed the "Eastern Maxim"). The first part of every performance would typically be dedicated to gypsy music, but during the second part Leshchenko would dress up in a tuxedo, with a white silk handkerchief and sing and dance Argentine tango. He recorded dozens of sides for „Columbia".

In the Soviet Union his work was banned both because he was believed to be a White emigre (which he was not legally) and because the style (tango and foxtrot) was deemed counter-revolutionary. Nevertheless, secretly he was very popular: people would even listen to Radio Tehran to hear his music, '78 plates were smuggled into the country from the Baltics, and specialists would bootleg his music onto "ribs" (used X-ray plates). When during the Second World War and the subsequent occupation of Odessa by the Romanian army, Leshchenko was finally able to perform in the country he still considered his own, people would queue for hours on end to buy a ticket to one of his Odessa concerts. It was at Odessa that Pyotr met his second wife, Vera Georgievna, for whom he would later, back in Romania, divorce Zinaida.

After Romania switched sides during World War II and the Soviet army came to Romania, Leshchenko was not arrested and became the protege of General Bulganin. Some sources believe this was due to Marshall Zhukov being a secret admirer of his music - Pyotr probably thought so, and after the War, wrote many letters to friends in the Soviet Union asking them to contact high-level officials so that he and Vera may be allowed back to the country of their birth.

In 1951, immediately after receiving an from the Soviet government an official letter granting them permission to settle in the USSR, he and his wife were arrested by the communist Romanian militia. Vera was sent to the Soviet Union (where she was condemned to penal labour for amongst other things, "marrying a foreigner") and Pyotr was imprisoned near Bucharest. Both outlived Stalin, but Pyotr died in a prison hospital on July 16, 1954, without Vera (who had already been released but did not know her husband was still alive) at his side.

Recording: Pyotr Leshchenko - Wino Lubwi (Wine of Love), Columbia 1936

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