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Rachmaninoff Granddaughter Says Moscow Effort Risks 'Disservice To His Legacy'

Sergei Rachmaninoff had been granted U.S. citizenship in 1943, just weeks before his death.
Sergei Rachmaninoff had been granted U.S. citizenship in 1943, just weeks before his death.

Sergei Rachmaninoff's great-great-granddaughter says that not only are Moscow suggestions that his gravesite is neglected in the United States "categorically false," but she also stresses that the Russian-American icon of classical music fled the Soviet Union because "the Russia he once knew and loved no longer existed."

The comments by Susan Sophia Volkonskaya-Wanamaker to RFE/RL's Russian Service further challenge a narrative, which Russian officials have long appeared eager to push, that portray Rachmaninoff's legacy as somehow misappropriated by his adopted home, the United States.

The dispute recently resurfaced after Russia's culture minister accused "Americans" of "shamelessly privatizing" the pianist and composer's name, and a deputy governor said officials were using diplomatic channels to get his remains moved to Russia.

Soviet authorities eventually banned the exiled Rachmaninoff's music in 1931, after he denounced the Soviet government in a letter to The New York Times.

Rachmaninoff's dying wish was to rest in his adopted city, New York, next to his loved ones, according to Volkonskaya-Wanamaker. "It was per his wishes that his body was returned to New York, where he had purchased a plot," she said. "This is where he lies with his wife, Natalia, and his daughter Irina."

It is not the first time Russia has attempted -- sometimes successfully -- to reclaim the ashes of a prominent émigré.

In 2005, the remains of White Guard General Anton Denikin were exhumed in the United States and reinterred in Moscow. The same year, Russia reburied nationalist philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who was exiled in 1922 on the orders of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin and died in Switzerland in 1954.

Together with textbooks glossing over the crimes of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Russia's reburial push is widely seen as part of a broader campaign to burnish the country's troubled history and create a sense of national pride.

Filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, a fervent admirer of President Vladimir Putin, said the reburial of Denikin and Ilyin marked the "real end of the civil war" that followed the Bolshevik Revolution.

Earlier this month, Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky claimed that Rachmaninoff was like "dozens and hundreds of Russians who, by the will of fate, found themselves abroad after the revolution."

But Volkonskaya-Wanamaker emphasized to RFE/RL that "Rachmaninoff fled persecution at the start of the 1917 revolution because the Russia he once knew and loved no longer existed."

She added, "Medinsky's comments that the grave is not maintained and that nobody visits, including the family, are all categorically false."

Volkonskaya-Wanamaker also said Russian officials had never approached her family to discuss a possible reburial. She said they had gone to great lengths to gain access to Rachmaninoff's remains, despite the family's opposition and in violation of U.S. law.

"They have tried several times to requisition his body over the years without our consent," she said. "They have asked different entities. They have approached the cemetery, and the cemetery said he could not be moved without the express permission of his family."

Rachmaninoff died of cancer in 1943 in Beverly Hills, California, aged 69. Just weeks before his death, he had been granted U.S. citizenship.

"Russia was once his home and the source of his inspiration, and the government turned its back on him," Volkonskaya-Wanamaker said. "It became a place he no longer recognized. To attempt to return him now, almost 100 years later, would not only deprive him of the peace that he so longed for in life. It would be a disservice to his legacy."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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