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Rostropovich art paints a picture of his life in exile

Jonathan Brown , News.Independent.Co.Uk

The auction of a vast private collection of Russian paintings and artefacts has shone new light on one of the most glamorous relationships in classical music.

Due to take place at Sotheby's in London next month, where it is expected to attract bidding of up to £20m, the sale of the contents of Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya's London flat has been eagerly awaited by lovers of art and music. But the story of how the couple left their homeland and then bought up the best of its art is at least as compelling as the quality of their acquisitions.

Once feted by the party bosses in the Kremlin, he was the genius of the cello, heir to the legacy of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. She meanwhile, was the grand diva of the Bolshoi Opera, the finest soprano to emerge from the Soviet Union.

Yet the couple were to give up their position in Soviet society over a matter of conscience. Forced into exile in 1974 after offering refuge to the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, four years later they were stripped of their nationality.

"We had to abandon everything," Vishnevskaya later recalled. "All of our property was left behind in Russia. We left, quite literally, without a penny to our name. Everything we owned remained there."

They arrived in the West armed with nothing more than a cello, a dog, two children and a pair of suitcases, setting up home in London, where they had enjoyed towering reputations since their first performance here in 1956. Benjamin Britten composed for both. Able to command the highest fees at the time, up to £25,000 a night, the former Soviet cultural heroes were soon amassing the trappings of capitalist wealth.

It was Vishnevskaya's decision to convert the family's flat in Little Venice into a "Russian house" that went some way towards easing the trauma of being declared an "non-person" by the Soviet authorities. They set about acquiring one of greatest private collections of Russian art with an astonishing vigour.

They purchased more than 20 works by the painter Ilya Repin, a rediscovered portrait by Vladimir Borovikovsky, and seven important works by Boris Grigoriev. The paintings which graced the walls of their London and Paris homes were displayed beside porcelain, glassware and ivory dating back to the time of Catherine the Great.

The couple had decided to auction the collection built up during their exile and return to Russia together. But death was to interrupt their plans. Rostropovich died of cancer this year and is buried beside Boris Yeltsin at Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetery. Vishnevskaya will now make the journey alone.

The couple married in 1955, by which time Vishnevskaya was already famous and her husband a celebrated recipient of the Stalin Prize. Their recitals together, Rostropovich at the piano, were famous among Moscow's elite. Together, they enjoyed every privilege afforded by the system and were trusted to travel to the West and work with foreigners.

It was the couple's support for Solzhenitsyn in the late 1960s which earned them the wrath of the authorities. Having lent the author their dacha as he recovered from cancer, and penned an article in his defence, the couple were banned from travelling abroad and their names expunged from official Soviet history books. They were eventually allowed to leave after appeals by Edward Heath, the British Prime Minister, and Ted Kennedy, the US senator.

The hardship of exile was eased by their art collection and their homes in Britain, France, Switzerland and the US. Yet behind the Iron Curtain, they remained popular heroes. By the time the wall came down, they were back in possession of their citizenship rights. Hearing news of the events in Berlin, Rostropovich hurried to the old frontier to perform Bach cello concertos to astonished revolutionaries. And when hard liners seized the Russian Parliament in 1991 he dashed to be beside Boris Yeltsin.

In later years the couple's charitable foundation raised millions of roubles for children's hospitals in Russia. Vishnevskaya remains active into her 80s. Having completed her autobiography she opened an opera theatre in Moscow in 2002. This year, she starred in Alexandra by Alexander Sokurov, which was shown at Cannes.

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