Rostropovich playing for the Cuban peasants in 1961
Istomin was both devoted to the country which had hosted his parents (and where he was born) and determined to fight communism, which had forced his parents to flee their native Russia and perpetrated so many atrocities. He was convinced that in the Cold War, battles also had to be won in the field of cultural communication, especially through music, where no language barrier existed. He made himself available to the State Department, deploring the fact that the Soviet Union was so far ahead in this area. The United States used to send second-class soloists and ensembles abroad for cultural exchanges, while the USSR requisitioned its most distinguished musicians (Oïstrakh, Gilels, Rostropovich, Richter). Not only was Istomin willing to offer his talent and time, but he convinced many prestigious colleagues to do the same. The Kennedy administration was highly interested, but the project was later neglected by Johnson.
The domino theory
Istomin believed in the domino theory, which had been prevalent since Truman’s presidency. This theory stated that if a country fell under communist domination, neighboring countries would immediately be threatened and that soon all Southeast Asia would undergo the same fate. It was therefore necessary to intervene. This was the case in Korea, where it took no less than three years of hard fighting between UN troops (mostly American) and North Koreans (allied to the Chinese and helped by the Soviet Union) to stabilize the border between the two Koreas. When the American government decided to engage militarily, more and more massively, in Vietnam, Istomin considered it a legitimate decision. He thought that, like any war, it was a terrible thing, but that it was justified by the need to protect the free world. While many intellectuals and artists disagreed, Istomin declared his support and offered to travel to Saigon and give some concerts in 1966. His trip was a disaster – it was not even possible to play. Istomin soon realized that this war could not be won. He urged Humphrey, the Democratic candidate in the 1968 presidential elections, to distance himself from Johnson’s position and affirm his willingness to call for a cease fire and negotiate without preconditions. Under Nixon, the war continued for another five long years with the Americans, followed by two years without them. Finally, all of Vietnam fell into the hands of the communists, as did Laos and Cambodia.
Istomin never wanted to give in to naive optimism during periods of liberalization and truce. He was suspicious of the Strategic Arms Non-Proliferation Treaties (SALTs) and maintained that the Soviets should not be trusted and that it would be wise not to reduce the United States’ military budget too much.
Mao Zedong and Nixon in 1972
Due to his interest in Chinese civilization, Istomin was attentive to what was happening in China. He felt that the Cultural Revolution of 1966 was too brutal not to provoke a reverse reaction a few years later and that the balance of the world would be much more stable if the United States could break the unity of the communist bloc by opposing China and the Soviet Union. Without knowing that contacts were being secretly made by Kissinger, Istomin had taken steps to visit China, to give concerts and master classes, thinking that musicians should lead by example. Despite the support of Malraux, the Nixon administration did not allow him to do so.