MOSCOW - Mstislav Rostropovich celebrated a triumphant return to his homeland Tuesday by getting the Soviet elite led by Raisa Gorbachev onto its feet for a joyous, hand-clapping rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever. A glittering first-night audience - including senior Communist Party officials, government ministers and leading cultural figures - packed the Moscow Conservatoire to welcome the cellist-conductor back home 16 years after his exile. It was a symbolic, if belated, tribute not only to a great musician, but also to a man who had the courage to stand up to the Kremlin at a time when virtually all his countrymen preferred to be silent.
Many other Soviet exiles forced out of the country during the dull, conformist era of Leonid Brezhnev have returned home over the past two years. But Rostropovich's homecoming was special, not only because he is the most prominent exile to benefit from President Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, or openness, but also because of his expansiveness, generosity of spirit and empathy for his tortured country.
For a moment, after Rostropovich led the National Symphony Orchestra in a rousing performance of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, it seemed as if he had never left Russia. There he was, back in his beloved Conservatoire where he taught an entire generation of Soviet cellists, blowing extravagant kisses to the audience and bathing in the warmth of their applause.