There are famous people, and then there are famous people you feel some sort of connection to for one reason or another. Strange that in the last two weeks three of the latter have died: Vonnegut, Yeltsin, and now Mstislav Rostropovich.

I’ve known the name Rostropovich since I was really small. When he and his family were in exile in the U.S., they lived in upstate New York and sometimes gave concerts in my hometown. I remember going to see him and his wife perform when I was 7 or 8 years old. I remember my mother telling me, on the way to the concert, about why they had left the Soviet Union. I think that this was one of the formative experiences that made me curious about Russia, which made me choose to study Russian in junior high school, which led to a whole long chain of events.

In 2002, when I went to Russia for the first time and spent three months in St. Petersburg, I went to the philharmonic several times a week. The music was amazing, the tickets were cheap, and I didn’t know many people so I had to occupy myself in the evenings somehow. Aunt Kelly came to St. Petersburg for a business trip/visit that summer, before we ever dreamed we’d live there together. We went to the philharmonic one evening. During the performance, an old man sitting across the aisle from us opened some noisy cellophane candy wrappers. I was horrified and annoyed, and rolled my eyes at Aunt Kelly. During the intermission, people started lining up to talk to this old man. “Isn’t that Rostropovich?” said Aunt Kelly. I looked closer. “I think so, actually.” I felt so guilty for being annoyed. If anyone has the right to open candy wrappers in the philharmonic, I suppose it’s Mstislav Rostropovich.

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