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Cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich once recalled the time that he stood against his country's government. He said, from exile I would never see Russia or my friends again. But he was able to return in later years for his 80th birthday before his death, announced today.

NPR's Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr reports.

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JEFFREY FREYMANN-WEYR: Mstislav Rostropovich leaves a legacy that's both artistic and political. As a cello soloist he was friend and muse to many of the most important composers of the 20th Century. The longevity and the path of his career can be seen in some of the many honors Rostropovich was awarded, including the Lenin Prize, the Stalin Prize, and in the U.S., the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Rostropovich was born in Baku in the Soviet Union, in what is now Azerbaijan, in 1927. Both of his parents were accomplished musicians. His English remained heavily accented throughout his life. In a 1987 NPR interview, with the help of an interpreter, Rostropovich said his favorite feature, his hands, were a gift.

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Mr. MSTISLAV ROSTROPOVICH (Cellist/Conductor): My mother (through translator) carried me for 10 months.

I tell, Mother, you have extra month, why you not make for me beautiful face? And mother tell me, my son, I was busy with make for you beautiful hands.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Rostropovich learned his love of music from his parents. His father was a cellist who had studied with Pablo Casals. In 1943, the young Slava entered the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with Dmitri Shostakovich. The composer wrote two cello concertos for Rostropovich.

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FREYMANN-WEYR: Rostropovich had a thriving career as a soloist in the 1950s and '60s, including performances and recordings outside of the Soviet Union. Cellist Lynn Harrell says the first time he saw Rostropovich perform his passion and ferocity were reminiscent of a forest fire.

Mr. LYNN HARRELL (Cellist): He was a gigantic virtuoso, but one who threw caution to the winds to such an extent that the cause of drama and the intensity of the music itself was uppermost.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Mstislav Rostropovich also took chances politically in the controlling atmosphere of Brezhnev's Soviet Union, which ended up getting him into trouble. In the early 1970s, he not only provided housing for the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn for four years, but had also written a letter that circulated in the West protesting Soviet treatment of the author. As a result, his concert appearances were drastically cut, and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, lost her job at the Bolshoi Opera.

In 1974, they were granted exit visas and while out of the country were stripped of their citizenship. Rostropovich adopted the United States as his home in exile. He served as the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., from 1977 to 1994.

And in a dramatic reversal, in 1990, President Mikhail Gorbachev reinstated the couple's citizenship. Rostropovich triumphantly returned to his homeland on tour with the NSO, where he was greeted enthusiastically at the Moscow Conservatory.

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FREYMANN-WEYR: Rostropovich told NPR the visit reminded him of when the Berlin Wall had come down.

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Mr. ROSTROPOVICH: I have feeling that my heart now is together, two half of hearts now together - to my family is united. And then I come to Russia and give to me back citizenship I feel that now, that all world for me complete together in my heart.

FREYMANN-WEYR: Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, NPR News.

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