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Russia: Legendary Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich Dead At 80

Rostropovich at a Kremlin reception in March to mark his 80th birthday (ITAR-TASS) April 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich, one of the world's best-known cellists and conductors, died in a Moscow hospital today after a long illness. He was 80.

It was only last month when officials and dignitaries, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, gathered at a concert and gala dinner in Moscow to celebrate Rostropovich's 80th birthday. He was born in Baku on March 27, 1927.

"Whatever Rostropovich's hand touches, whether it is a cello bow or a conductor's baton, begins to flourish under his talent," Putin said, praising his guest's legendary gifts.

There was a time when Rostropovich could never have imagined celebrating his birthday in Moscow, let alone at the Kremlin. But on the occasion of his birthday, he described himself as "the happiest person on earth," and expressed a deep love for his motherland.

"I have always been and will always be a Russian," he said. "All my life, I have dreamed not of my own happiness, but of the happiness of the whole country, our Russia."

"I have always been and will always be a Russian," he said. "All my life, I have dreamed not of my own happiness, but of the happiness of the whole country, our Russia."

Dark Times

In the past, his loyalty was called into question. His opposition to the Soviet regime and his friendship with dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn led to his official disgrace in the early 1970s.

"August 1991, the 22nd, was the happiest day of my life," Rostropovich told RFE/RL.

Rostropovich described these times as one of the darkest periods of his life.

"One of the periods that was more or less happy was before 1969," he told London-based music critic Yefim Barban for RFE/RL's Russian Service earlier this year. "I've had a very happy life, but after 1969, a second period started when Solzhenitsyn came and lived with us. Then a bad period started for me in the Soviet Union. This period lasted until 1974, until my expulsion."

Rostropovich settled in the United States in 1974 with his wife, opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya, and their two children.

His Soviet citizenship was revoked four years later.

For almost 20 years, until 1994, he was the musical director and conductor of Washington's National Symphony Orchestra.

He continued to perform with some of the greatest musicians of the time, including Svyatoslav Richter and Vladimir Horowitz.

He developed close friendships with renowned composers such as Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, and Dmitry Shostakovich, who wrote music for him.

He was also a gifted teacher. Russian composer Tikhon Khrennikov told RFE/RL's Russian Service that Rostropovich leaves a rich musical legacy in the form of his many students.

"He was a superb musician, a great cellist, who played an enormous role in developing the culture of performance, in Russia and the whole world. He has left behind many students who are now demonstrating throughout the world what they learned from their great teacher."

Brighter Days

The fall of communism marked a new chapter in Rostropovich's life.

His spontaneous performance in Berlin shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was broadcast across the world, boosting his international fame.

In 1990, his Soviet citizenship was restored. And one year later, in August 1991, the failed coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union:

"August 1991, the 22nd, was the happiest day of my life," Rostropovich told RFE/RL. "I've had many happy days. So if I say it was the happiest day of my life, that means it was really important for me."

Again, Rostropovich rushed to the scene. Holding a Kalashnikov, he hailed the crowd that had gathered to defend the government buildings.

Former Russian Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi today told RFE/RL that Rostropovich had insisted on taking up a weapon to defend the parliament.

"He was a paragon of kindness and decency, a sweet -- but at the same time, courageous -- person," Rutskoi said. "Imagine an outstanding musician of international fame coming to the rescue of democracy and demanding to be given a weapon. Can you name another such person of his rank who would have the courage to come to the defense of democracy in Russia?"

Since then, Rostropovich had divided his time between Russia, the United States, and France.

In February, Putin honored him with a national award for his contribution to world music, sealing his rehabilitation.

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