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These are not the best of days for those of us who, by love, have devoted our lives to the study of Russian culture. Russia’s reputation, damaged by wars, corruption, subterfuge, lies, belligerence and bad politics is at an all-time low. In just the last week the Russian government has launched numerous campaigns against “internal and external enemies,” that is, those who would like to see Russia be a land that respects the rule of law and the freedom of conscience. Just today the government officially accused former tycoon, and now, social activist, Mikhail Khodorkovsky of two murders and the masterminding of four more. This comes two days after Khodorkovsky declared in a public speech that revolution might be necessary to force regime change in Russia. Yesterday the Russian Prosecutor General launched a massive investigation into the life and work practices of the muck-raking opposition leader Alexei Navalny. This came one week after Navalny released a stunning 45-minute film detailing the mafia-like corruption of the two sons of the Russian Prosecutor General. All of these events are sandwiched in and around an event that is enormous for those of us in Russia, but may slip by those who aren’t watching the territory closely – that is, the three-year prison conviction handed down to a young man, Ildar Dadin, whose crime it was to participate in four political protests where he was detained by police. Dadin is the first individual to be prosecuted under a relatively new, draconian law, which makes it a crime to be detained four times at political protests. Thus, while there are many people sitting in prisons in Russia right now for political reasons, Dadin has become the first actually to be arrested, tried and convicted for nothing other than the fact that he makes it a point to protest the policies of the Russian government. (Incidentally, the prosecutor asked for two years in prison; the eager-beaver judge handed down a sentence of three.) This, meanwhile, coincides with an enormous strike being led by Russian truck drivers to protest unfair and unfairly high road taxes. Thousands of truck drivers, with their trucks, have descended on Moscow, and are prepared to stop traffic in the city in order to make their demands be heard.
In short, things are bleak and confrontational around here these days.
Thus, it seems the proper moment to combine pain and joy into one. We seek joy to offset our pain – thus this entire blog site arose, as I explained some time ago. And, yet, we refuse to turn our eyes away from what pains us. Thus everything I have written up to this point today.
In short, I now wish to ponder the final resting place of two of Russia’s greatest citizens of any era – the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. I photographed their grave at the Novodevichy Cemetery last week when passing by it to attend the burial of the great film director Eldar Ryazanov, still another fine citizen whom this nation could not afford to lose.
But if the pain of losing Ryazanov was, and still is, acute, fresh and unabated, the joy of coming upon Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya was equally as sharp. The mere pronunciation of either of these two names is enough to bring a smile to anyone’s face who knows.
To be sure, we are not entirely at ease with the notion that these two extraordinary people are no longer with us. For contemporaries who were affected by them – and that is half of Russia, half of the world – that nagging pain may lessen to a certain level of discomfort, but it does not go away. Yet, the joy that they brought us is, obviously, what prevails. I must insert here a comment that I randomly discovered on the internet. I think it perfectly sums up the public attitude to this pair:
“I hold this man [Rostropovich] in veneration not because he was a GREAT musician, but simply because he was a marvelous PERSON. The vaccines purchased by the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation saved the health of thousands of Russian children. Vaccines against Hepatitis B and cancer found their way to many regions and corners of Russia. We remember...”
The comment is signed “galsvanidze.”
These two great citizens of their nation, the Soviet Union and Russia, were personal friends of Dmitry Shostakovich during the years when the composer was persecuted by the Soviet government, as well as of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the writer whom they sheltered at their dacha outside Moscow when he was under attack from the officials. Rostropovich, defying the fears of his wife, jumped on an airplane to join protesters on Moscow’s streets during the attempted coup by hardliners seeking to depose Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. You can read about that in the L.A. Times. He had done the same so as to be present when the Berlin Wall fell in 1889 – he felt compelled to be there to play his cello for that historical event. You can see him do so on YouTube.
As for Vishnevskaya, she was every bit as fierce a defender of freedom, truth and art as her husband. Although her native land essentially forced her into emigration in 1974, when it became possible to return and work in Russia, she set about establishing a Moscow-based, world class school for opera musicians, the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Center. Since its opening in 2002, it has been one of the strongest bearers of Russia’s cultural traditions. As a declaration on the center’s website puts it, “The principal task of the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre is to perpetuate Russia’s great operatic traditions and to cause Russian opera to be perceived anew.”
Throughout difficult times in Russia from the end of the 1980s until Rostropovich’s death in 2007, and Vishnevskaya’s death in 2012, these two individuals brought hope, light, courage, humor and strength to everyone around them. I remember what a joy it was to hear or see that one or the other, or both, had arrived in Moscow for a concert or a personal appearance. It was as though old friends had come home to visit. Their presence, the knowledge that they were with us, was a powerful antidote to the negativity that can seep into one’s bones in Moscow.
At times like the present we look to individuals like Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya, Ryazanov, Shostakovich and Solzhenitsyn to remind ourselves why we fell in love with the art they made and the culture they helped build and sustain, sometimes against all odds. Now it is our turn to carry that flame, as best as we can, and flicker as it might.