Occasionally, a man devoted to beauty and truth is given the opportunity in a moment of triumph to confront ugliness and lies. Such a moment occurred in November, 1989, when Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, seeing reports of the end of the Berlin Wall, grabbed his instrument and flew from Paris to Berlin to celebrate by performing for a small, lucky crowd at the Wall.
That month brought many surprising images to the world. Many of us had long been accustomed to thinking of the Cold War stand-off between communist regimes and Western liberal democracies as a permanent condition. We were startled on November 9 to see news photos showing crowds standing on the Berlin Wall. My own reaction was not just surprise but disbelief: I had visited Berlin as a guest of the German government just two years before while serving in Europe as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. During my 1987 stay, a person was killed trying to escape East Berlin, one of around 200 killed among many more arrested or wounded while risking everything for a chance at freedom during the forty-eight years of the Wall’s testimony to ugly untruth and despotism.
The Wall began as a barbed wire barrier in 1961 and became perhaps the most visible manifestation of the Iron Curtain that Winston Churchill had described in 1946. The post-World War II division of Europe, sketched out by Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Churchill at Yalta in 1945, had produced a series of crises regarding the status of Berlin, which was partitioned into four sectors — American, Soviet, British, and French — with the city as a whole deep within East Germany. By 1961, some 3.5 million people had left the communist zones of Europe for the West, a flow that was unsustainable for the communist powers. They began fortifying their borders with the West, and in 1961 the Wall was put in place to curtail the mass flight. The Wall grew over the years into an extensive scar in Berlin with machine gun emplacements, vehicle barriers, and free-fire zones, which only the daunting or desperate would dare to try to cross. It stood as a silent, grotesque witness to the inhumanity of the powers who could not otherwise convince their citizens to stay within their borders.
That inhumanity produced a government in East Germany so corrupt and illegitimate that it ultimately took only the slightest puff of a refreshing breeze to bring it down. At a news conference in early November, 1989, an East German functionary, in a moment of confusion, responded to a press question by suggesting that some movement of people would then be allowed. That instant of uncertainty was all it took to bring the crowds to the Wall, and the Gorbachev government in Moscow chose not to respond with force. The Wall was doomed, and with it the communist governments of Europe.
Of all who celebrated the fall of the Wall, few saw the moment with the aesthetic and historical clarity of Soviet dissident and exile Mstislav Rostropovich. Born in 1907 in Baku to a brilliant Russian musical family, Rostropovich pursued the cello with studies in Moscow and an early series of prizes and successful performances. His talent and superb musical accomplishment gained him permission to travel in the West, where he developed friendships with fellow musicians and composers. In 1968, Rostropovich performed at the annual BBC Proms music event in London on the night of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, a show of force that would suppress the “Prague Spring” uprising that had threatened the communist government. Cello Concerto in B Minor by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was on the program that evening, and at the conclusion of the concert, Rostropovich stood and held aloft the conductor’s score in a gesture of solidarity with the Czechs and the city of Prague. His encore was the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite #2.
Now marked as a dissident, Rostropovich sheltered Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn in his home in 1970. His foreign touring was soon curtailed amid other restrictions. He was allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1974 and came to the United States, where he began as director of Washington’s National Symphony in 1977.
Rostropovich’s fifteen-year exile ended, in effect, when he played his tribute to freedom at the Wall in November 1989. He chose for that occasion the extraordinary beauty of the work of a German composer, J.S. Bach. One of his pieces at the Wall was the Sarabande of Cello Suite #2. Twenty years after the Soviets had invaded Prague, Rostropovich met the invasion with a display of truth that ushered in a very different world.
Joseph R. Wood serves as a research and seminar Fellow for Cana Academy. This blog post is based on his Cana Academy VISIONS presentation at Hubbard Hill Retirement Community in Elkhart, IN, April, 2017.