Rostropovich at the Berlin Wall

One morning in November of 1989, Mstislav Rostropovich was listening to the radio in his apartment in Paris when he heard a news report that crowds of freedom-hungry demonstrators were gathered at the Berlin Wall. Without hesitation, the great world-renowned cellist phoned a friend who owned a private jet and arranged to fly immediately to Berlin. When they arrived at the Wall, Rostropovich made his way to the spot known as “Checkpoint Charlie” – to him the ideal spot for an impromptu solo concert. There was only one problem – no place to sit! So Rostropovich’s friend “borrowed” a chair from one of the guards. Rostropovich sat down and began to play Bach’s Second Suite for cello, the “Sarabande’. I am absolutely in love with this powerful, remarkable photo of that moment, so much that I might even try to obtain a print of it. Our Music Monday:

I have posted before about the soul-crushing effects that communism has inflicted upon artists throughout its miserable, failed history. Rostropovich, born in Soviet Azerbaijan to a musical family, experienced those effects his entire life from the oppressive state of the Soviet Union. But he fought back every time and stood his ground in the name of free expression and individualism.

Rostropovich’s most serious “crime” was his coming to the fervent defense of his friend Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the dissident writer and Nobel Prize winner who was persecuted by the Soviet regime. Not only did Rostropovich provide shelter for Solzhenitsyn in his home, he also fired off an angry, blistering letter to the media which attacked the Soviet government’s censorship of the arts, suppression of ideas, and human rights abuses. The communist press didn’t publish the letter, obviously, but it was picked up by foreign media outlets. And then came the reprisals, the harassment, the punishments – courtesy of the state. Rostropovich and his wife Galina saw their passports confiscated. His concert tours were cancelled and his domestic appearances severely diminished. His name was purged from all programs and publications. His letters to Brezhnev went unanswered. But then, thanks to the persistent efforts of prominent Americans, namely Leonard Bernstein and Edward Kennedy, Rostropovich was allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1974. He settled in the United States, became an American citizen, and served as the musical director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. Rostropovich was free. A courageous man and gifted musician, liberated from the tyranny of a cruel and wretched ideology.

We are very lucky to have this rare footage of Mstislav Rostropovich playing his cello at the Berlin Wall. In the days before iPhones, who could imagine? 😆

10 thoughts on “Rostropovich at the Berlin Wall

  1. Brilliant, Claudia! Thank you for sharing this illuminating episode from the final days of the dark heart of the twentieth century.

  2. fredh1 says:

    It’s a beautiful moment when a wall that divides and oppresses comes down!

  3. gavinpollock says:

    Communism did fail, for all sorts of reasons and I think cultural ones were most important myself. Russia pretty much acts the same as Communist, Capitalist or Monarchist.

    But the semi socialist welfare state in the UK has been called the biggest arts subsidy in human history. If the Beatles and the Rolling Stones hadn’t been able to sign on when they were learning to play their guitars, they might never have got so far 😉

    • artmodel says:

      Always love your comments Gavin!

      And it’s not just in the history of Russia. Other countries with oppressive regimes inflict the same hardships on artists. The Cuban trumpet player Arturo Sandoval is one example. He defected from Castro’s Cuba to the United States in 1990.


      • gavinpollock says:

        But let’s not forget victims of Right Wing persecution too. And even in our own countries, too many artists have been persecuted or marginalised for being the wrong colour, gender, or sexual persuasion.

  4. violinhunter says:

    Why are they speaking French? I wonder. Artists in Russia in those days almost necessarily had to get involved in politics or else they wilted. Nowadays, Russian orchestral musicians are seriously oppressed – treated like garbage by nasty conductors. …must be something in the water.

  5. Claudia,
    As much as you love the photo, I love the story as my grandfather tells it. I think you will appreciate this!

    • artmodel says:


      THANK YOU for sharing that! Amazing to read a first hand account of the historic event. Very much appreciate it 🙂


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