Mstislav Rostropovich's Dreams of Freedom, Wealth and Fame Now Turn to Mother Russia
On a spring day in 1974 Leonid Brezhnev was entertaining the Ted Kennedys in the Kremlin. Charmed by Joan, the Soviet party leader asked what he could give her to make the visit memorable. “Rostropovich,” she said.
Within a week the renowned cellist, an outcast in his own land for befriending dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, had his ticket to the West. Since then he has gained the artistic freedom he longed for, and the wealth and celebrity he now covets. But Mstislav Rostropovich, 51, has lost what was dearest to his soul, Mother Russia.
He has tried to re-create it, turning his spacious Paris apartment into “a Russian island, down to the last teaspoon,” as he wistfully describes it. The hall is hung with prints of Moscow landmarks, and display cases in the salon glisten with rare 19th-century Russian porcelain and glass. “I show you, my dear, I show you,” Rostropovich assures a visitor, hastening through a musty volume to find illustrations that attest to their pedigree. The main fireplace is flanked by bronzes of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. An oil of the same empress hangs over the Bösendorfer grand piano, which is about the only object in sight that isn’t Russian.
Last March Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, were stripped of their Soviet citizenship for “cultural offenses.” It was Moscow’s coup de grace in an eight-year war of attrition and nerves. Slava (it is always Slava—his informality and ebullience compel it) lashed back at Brezhnev in a public letter: “You are depriving us of the possibility to live and die in our homeland…If you fail to respond then perhaps the color of shame will come to your cheeks.”
But the couple knew the protest was an exercise in frustration. They were simply playing out in public another scene in an almost ritual political drama. Slava plots his moves as carefully as the Soviet authorities do, though he steadfastly maintains, “I don’t want anyone to think I am a political activist. I consider myself an artist and musician, not a politician. Solzhenitsyn is political.”
The Gulag author, however, is a recluse in Vermont, and Rostropovich (with some 120 appearances as a conductor or cellist each year) serves as the most visible reminder of the sorry state of human rights in the U.S.S.R.
It was not by chance that Rostropovich was chosen by President Carter to give a televised White House concert three weeks ago. With the President at the Camp David summit, Rosalynn Carter underlined Slava’s credentials: “He truly knows the meaning of the word liberty.” Galina Vishnevskaya admitted that Soviet authorities “could not be pleased” that her family was the toast of the East Room.
Slava remembers the day he left Moscow: “A hundred friends gathered at the airport to see me off. They were silent as the doors opened and then closed behind me. It made me think of the Moscow crematorium as the casket passes through.”
He supposedly was leaving for two years of travel and performances. But then he angered Soviet authorities by giving the Kennedy Center a bust of Dmitri Shostakovich, proclaiming that “only in the West can we realize our dreams in art.” He provoked them further by conducting a benefit for Russian indigents in Paris. Furthermore, Slava set impossible terms for his return. He insisted that the Soviet press publish the reason he had left—the destruction of his and Galina’s careers because they had sheltered Solzhenitsyn. Rostropovich also asked for freedom to perform in the West at will. He says Moscow never officially responded, then sardonically corrects himself: “Well, I got the answer in March.”
His jaw thrusts forward in defiance or, when he is concentrating on his music, with a pout of determination. His rotund face and balding head are framed by tufts of silver hair. His smile disarms; his blue eyes dance. The mobs of people he attracts delight him. They are chers amis in Paris, meine Lieben in Zurich. Like a huge pawing grizzly, he threatens to annihilate them—but with affection. “Man, woman, child,” laughs a friend, “Slava kisses everyone. It makes no difference to him. He just slobbers all over you.”
Rostropovich was born in the Caspian city of Baku. His mother was a pianist, his father a cellist who studied with Pablo Casals. Slava took to the piano at age 4 and in no time had composed a polka. When he was 7, the family moved to Moscow so that Slava and his sister Veronica, a violinist, could receive the best musical training. The next year Slava began cello lessons. “That was my father’s decision,” Rostropovich says.
He eventually entered the Moscow Conservatory and by 1947 was on his way to a brilliant career. But then his mentors, Sergei Prokofiev and Shostakovich, came under attack for creating works “alien to the Soviet people.” Shostakovich, who was Slava’s composition teacher, was dismissed from the conservatory. The music of both composers was banned for two years throughout the Soviet Union. Slava remembers the stir of rebellion. “Everyone then believed in our system. But after 1948, I thought, ‘Maybe there’s something wrong.’ ” Pointedly, he left the conservatory and later moved in with Prokofiev.
Still, by the late 1950s Rostropovich commanded the highest esteem from the Soviet state. He won the Lenin prize and two Stalin prizes, and his triumphant tours of the West were widely publicized back home. Galina, whom he had married in 1955 after a four-day courtship, was the leading soprano of the Bolshoi Opera. They lived in a luxurious apartment in Moscow and maintained a dacha, with a rooftop swimming pool, in a village outside the capital. The couple toured together, Galina singing to Slava’s piano accompaniment. After performances they were showered with violets.
Then came Solzhenitsyn’s ostracism when his works were published in the West. Unable to find a heated apartment, he was invited to live in the guest house of the Rostropovich dacha. In 1970, to the government’s chagrin, the outspoken author won the Nobel Prize. Attacks on him increased. Slava’s fury erupted, and he wrote a letter—published in the West—defending his friend and attacking the government for its strangulation of the arts.
Slava’s foreign bookings were canceled. His performances inside Russia were mercilessly curtailed. Galina was humiliated at the Bolshoi. Because their concerts were not advertised, they often played to half-empty houses. Rostropovich wrote Brezhnev and pleaded for an end to the harassment. The situation only worsened. “I had no choice, only to commit suicide or leave my country,” he says. Galina, who watched her husband begin to drink heavily, insisted they seek exit visas.
A haughty, statuesque woman, she knew the move might destroy her. “It was a critical time in her life,” explains émigrée and longtime friend Remi Saunder. “She lost her theater—and the Bolshoi was hers—her position, her home. Her voice may be going now, but there she needed never to open her mouth again. Here, quite apart from her voice, she sticks out on the stage like a foreign creature. She lost everything. And he did not.”
Slava’s career ascended. He slowly adjusted to being a capitalist. For the first time he had to pay taxes. There was the cost of setting up a new home and furnishing it (he brought just two suitcases with him, and most of the family’s possessions remain to this day inside their locked dacha). Everything loomed as a frightening expense to Rostropovich. He would ask friends, “How am I going to make this money?” Now he earns a princely sum from his records, a six-figure annual salary for 14 to 18 weeks’ work as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington and up to $15,000 for each appearance as a guest conductor or soloist. He has become financially astute but retains a hunger for money that is a characteristic of Soviet émigrés. He is careful about expenditures, to the point of washing his shirts and socks on the road. He often fixes his own car, once emerging from under the hood with his maestro’s hands “smelling like kabobs,” he recalls.
Slava, his friends claim, is as insecure about love as he is about money. He is jealous of anyone’s affection. His dog, Pooks, is not encouraged to dote on anyone else. Daughter Olga says, “Poppa is very possessive.” She and her sister, Elena, are in their final year at Juilliard.
The girls, who aspire to careers in music, share an apartment in New York. “We can live the way we want,” Elena says, which means out of Slava’s eye. Neither misses Russia. “There you are always standing in line for groceries,” Elena recalls. “You spend your life stupidly. How can you care about concerts when you just want to get some ham?”
Although Poppa checks on his daughters’ musical advancement, he entrusts their formal education to others. Two years ago he gave Olga the mid-18th-century Storione cello he had used for 20 years (Elena studies the piano). For himself, Slava bought a 1711 Stradivarius from the widow of a wealthy amateur player (there is a scratch on it made by Napoleon’s spur). “An instrument has a soul,” Slava proclaims. “If it lies in a museum, it is the same as forcing a human to be forever silent. An instrument must sweat. It must be taken out for an airing like a dog. It must feel a part of the normal life of an artist.”
The Strad could be in no better hands. Slava has a distinctive style that in some works does not suit every purist, but he reigns as the world’s supreme cellist, a giant whose ungainly body becomes endowed with a peculiar beauty as he hugs the instrument.
Composer-conductor Lukas Foss maintains that Rostropovich “is the only musician alive with a halo.” “A halo!” a friend protests. “Slava, alas, is very human.” Women can make him wild-eyed and weak-kneed. The amount of vodka and food he consumes is awesome. Reflecting on Slava’s overcharged life, a former student says, “He wants to be in a state of ecstasy continually, with his feet never touching the ground.”
Rostropovich’s impact on Washington was immediate when he arrived to take over the National Symphony last fall. Nine thousand new subscribers signed up, and wherever the orchestra toured it drew full houses. “It is a blessing for all of us,” said one member of the orchestra. Others disagree, pointing to the case of a flutist who had been with the orchestra for 32 years. Slava fired him for “musical deficiencies.” “The firing should have been handled in a more democratic fashion, a more American way,” a fellow musician says. “But nobody advised Slava how to do it.” The NSO was a second-rank orchestra on Rostropovich’s arrival, and it still has defects. But it will be improved by 15 additional players hired this season, primarily for the string section.
To make the orchestra one of the nation’s best is the maestro’s dream. From the podium, he inspires musicians with an outpouring of visual images. Says concertmaster Miran Kojian, “Slava may announce, ‘I like this be in church, solemn, heavy, in communion between you and God.’ That’s all we need to know to play.”
These days, from his rented Watergate apartment, Rostropovich is speaking out even more openly about the arts in the Soviet Union. Appearing before the Helsinki Commission, which was set up to monitor human rights violations, Rostropovich declared: “If a single blade of grass grows up a little higher than the rest, they [the Soviets] not only very carefully trim it down with scissors, they send a bulldozer and tanks…” Yet, for all his criticism, it is “my” Russia and “my” people to whom he always refers. Much of his career is devoted to creating a love in the West for Russian music.
He and Galina travel on passports issued by Prince Rainier, but they do not plan to become citizens of Monaco. Slava says, “I have a feeling that a great part of the earth is my home.” And that is some solace for the loss of Mother Russia.