Dubious honours

Observations on Rostropovich

There is irony and tragedy in the fact that Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, led the tributes to Mstislav Rostropovich, who died on 27 April, aged 80. Revered by music lovers the world over as a peerless cellist, conductor, pianist, champion of new music and composer, "Slava", as he was known, was also a great humanist and vigorous defender of human freedoms.

Putin described Slava's death from intestinal cancer as "a huge loss" for Russian culture and "the whole world". The previous month, presenting him with the Order of Service to the Fatherland on his 80th birthday, Putin had said: "In all your life and creative work, you have many times shown the truth that art and morality together supplement each other . . . In all of the world you are known not only as a brilliant cellist . . . but as a confirmed defender of human rights and freedom of spirit and an uncompromising fighter for the ideals of democracy."

And yet it was the same Vladimir Putin who, last October, gave short shrift to that other uncompromising defender of freedom and democracy, the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya. "The degree of her influence on the country's political development was insignificant," he said dismissively, three days after her assassination.

Rostropovich had a long history of standing up for the freedom of others. He had been outspoken in his defence of Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, both of whom taught him at the Moscow Conservatory and dedicated numerous works to him, but it was his close alliance with the dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that led to the cellist's self-imposed exile in 1974 and the revoking of his Soviet citizenship four years later.

"At first," Slava admitted, "I was a very good 'Soviet citizen'. But when I heard of Solzhenitsyn's plight, I went to see him and he was being treated like a dog. I offered him refuge and that is when my troubles started."

Perestroika opened a new chapter in the exile's life. In 1989, he jumped on a plane to Berlin, playing Bach cello suites for hours amid the rubble of the wall. Two years later, hearing reports of an attempted coup, he rushed secretly to Moscow to join Mikhail Gorbachev's defenders. Later he explained why: "I understood that the cursed terror that had reigned for more than 70 years in my country was returning. I closed my eyes, and heard in the depth of my own being the sound of the Eighth Symphony of Shostakovich. The music was a quiet, devastating evocation of the inhuman suffering of its composer. That which I feared was the return of times in which that music had been written: times of lies, trickery and the undermining of human dignity."

Lies and trickery. Politkovskaya would have understood the irony of Putin's valediction.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning