by Martin Steinberg
Suffering is essential for art, Mstislav Rostropovich told me during an interview a month after he turned 75. The 2002 interview was at New York’s Lincoln Center, where “Slava” Rostropovich was about to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra. He was in the midst of a 28-day tour, giving 16 concerts as a conductor or cello soloist in 11 cities—nearly 10,000 miles and twice across the United States.
The suffering he spoke of wasn’t about the pain of travel. It was about the relationship between deprivation and creativity.
“You know, creators, composers need a palette for life, a color for life,” he said in the interview for the Associated Press story. “If he is only happy with his life, I think that he doesn’t fully understand what happiness means. Only after that [suffering] do you understand what happiness is.”
The ebullient Russian, who loved to give bear hugs and whose nickname means “glory,” lived a heroic life while amassing great wealth, but he also knew misery. He risked—and experienced—tremendous loss, and years of exile from his country.
Rostropovich, who would have turned 90 in March, died ten years ago this April.
“Slava called himself the foot soldier in the army of music,” Yo-Yo Ma reflected in a statement after his fellow cellist’s death. “Through his music, he reported the triumphs and tragedies of the world . . . . Slava set the world on fire with the brilliance of his performances and he succeeded over and over again in his unwavering mission to reveal the depth of the human soul.”
For Rostropovich, even a video recording of Bach’s cello suites was part of that mission. After he finally decided to record all six suites at age 63 in 1991, he did so at a 900-year-old abbey in Vézelay, France. The videos are filled with religious imagery, in stark contrast to the atheism of the Soviet Union. Standing in front of a moss-covered grave outside, he talked about the decay of Marxist-Leninist materialism versus the eternal ideas created by Bach. “It is evident that all matter disappears and decays, whereas everything that has been created by the genius of mankind remains with us,” he said.
Rostropovich’s political journey took off in 1948, when the then-21-year-old Moscow Conservatory student witnessed the oppression of two of his mentors, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. The two composers were removed from the faculty after being vilified by the Stalin regime for “formalistic distortions and anti-democratic tendencies alien to the Soviet people.” Rostropovich responded by withdrawing from the school and taking up residence with Prokofiev as a sign of solidarity. Prokofiev and Shostakovich remained nonpersons until a thaw that followed the death of Stalin in 1953. (For Prokofiev, however, rehabilitation came too late. He died the same day as the Soviet dictator.)
Fifteen years later, on August 21, 1968, Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, ending the Prague Spring—an attempt by an East European satellite to assert independence from the Soviet empire. By coincidence, Rostropovich was performing Czech composer Antonin Dvořák’s Cello Concerto that night at the Proms in London with the Soviet State Symphony Orchestra. Demonstrators protested outside, and catcalls greeted the start of the performance, but Shostokovich received a tremendous ovation at the end. Cellist Julian Lloyd Webber called it “a performance of such seething intensity that no one could have left the hall with any doubt about his feelings toward the invasion.”
Soon, Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, came to the aid of another towering Russian artist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. After Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in October 1970, he came under severe pressure by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s regime. Weeks later, Rostropovich sent a letter to Soviet newspapers. It went unpublished in Russia but was widely circulated in the West.
“Why is it that in our literature and our art, the decisive word so often belongs to people who are absolutely incompetent in these fields?” he wrote. “I know that after my letter, there will undoubtedly be an ‘opinion’ about me, but I am not afraid of it. I openly say what I think. Talent, of which we are proud, must not be submitted to the assaults of the past.”
The Rostropoviches allowed the novelist to live in their dacha for four years despite his status as persona non grata. Vishnevskaya lost her position with the Bolshoi Opera, and Rostropovich was stripped of his Soviet awards and his name was removed from the dedications of compositions written for him by Soviet composers. The couple was largely banned from traveling abroad and was banished from top Soviet venues and orchestras.
Four years later, in February 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and deported to West Germany. In another three months, after an appeal by Senator Ted Kennedy to Brezhnev, Rostropovich and his wife were given travel visas—but were banned from the Soviet Union. He was not able to return for the funeral of his mentor, Shostakovich, who died in 1975.
The couple settled in the United States, where Rostropovich became music director of Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra in 1977. “I will not utter one single lie in order to return,” he said that year. “And once there, if I see new injustice, I will speak out four times more loudly than before.” The following year, the Rostropoviches were stripped of their citizenship, and denounced as “ideological degenerates.”
As the Berlin Wall was being ripped down by anti-Communist protesters in November 1989, Rostropovich jumped on a plane and dashed to the scene, borrowing a chair from a nearby resident to play the cello. “I played the most joyous Bach suites for solo cello in order to celebrate the event,” Rostropovich recalled in a 2005 interview with the French newspaper Quotidien. “But I could not forget all those who had lost their lives on this wall in trying to cross over it. Hence, I played the Sarabande of Bach’s Second Suite in their memory, and I noticed a young man crying.”
Under the reformist leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet authorities restored citizenship to the Rostropoviches in January 1990. The next month, he finally returned to his motherland in a triumphant tour of Moscow and Leningrad with the National Symphony Orchestra.
The following year, Communist hardliners attempted a coup against the Soviet leader. Rostropovich, without a visa, rushed back to Moscow. Kalashnikov machine gun in hand, the cellist stood with Gorbachev ally Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Republic, at the besieged parliament building. “Of course it was difficult,” Rostropovich said after the insurgents’ defeat. “We waited there for the attack and we expected it to come.”
It didn’t come then, but violence returned two years later. In September 1993, as a showdown between Yeltsin and his opponents was reaching a peak over his reforms, Rostropovich happened to be touring in Russia with Washington’s National Symphony. One of the featured soloists was a young pianist named Ignat Solzhenitsyn, the author’s son who was born in Rostropovich’s dacha in 1972. One concert was performed outdoors in Red Square, attended by 100,000 people.
“The Russian people were completely betrayed for 70 years, and now we’re beyond this,” Rostropovich told the New York Times during the tour. “We’ve matured, all except for those who are hanging on to their privileges by their teeth and dream of the day when they can shoot whoever doesn’t agree with them.”
Yeltsin prevailed in what was dubbed the “Second October Revolution,” but at least 187 people died in the insurrection, the deadliest street fighting in Moscow since the 1917 revolution.
In early 2007, living in Paris while ridden with cancer, Rostropovich decided to return to Mother Russia. He was treated at a Moscow hospital, where he was visited by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who awarded him a medal, the Order of Service to the Fatherland.
Rostropovich was discharged from the hospital in time to attend a Putin-hosted celebration of his 80th birthday on March 27, 2007, at the Kremlin.
“I feel myself the happiest man in the world,” Rostropovich told the gathering. “I will be even more happy if this evening will be pleasant for you.”
Exactly a month later, on April 27, 2007, Rostropovich died at age 80. His death came four days after Yeltsin’s. Like Yeltsin, and Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Rostropovich was buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery. His wife was buried there in 2012.
With their wealth, the couple established the Rostropovich Vishnevskaya Foundation after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Its mission is “to improve the deplorable state of children’s health care in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union.” It claims to have helped provide health care for nearly 20 million people in former Soviet lands and in the West Bank and Gaza.