Russian call on US to hand over Rachmaninov remains raises stir
MOSCOW - Agence France-PresseRussia's cultural authorities want to reclaim the remains of composer Sergei Rachmaninov from the United States, in a move seen as aimed at stoking patriotism but has made his descendants fume.
Rachmaninov, one of the greatest composers and pianists of the 20th century, left Russia in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and lived in Europe and the United States before dying of cancer in Beverly Hills, California.
Despite spending decades abroad and acquiring US citizenship shortly before his death in 1943, his music is steeped in Russian culture and nostalgia and Russia considers him firmly as its own.
People in the United States "wrongly" consider Rachmaninov American and have neglected his grave, culture minister Vladimir Medinsky said recently, calling for the remains to be repatriated.
"Russia's greatest genius Sergei Rachmaninov is currently presented in the West absolutely wrongly," Medinsky, an outspoken official who firmly backs Russian President Vladimir Putin's conservative and anti-Western drive.
"If you look at American websites and read American Wikipedia, you will learn that Sergei Rachmaninov is a great American composer of Russian origin," he added.
Medinsky said that judging by some pictures he saw, the composer's grave at the Kensico cemetery in New York state -- which includes remains of his wife and oldest daughter -- is in "poor condition".
Instead, the remains should be moved to Russia's Novgorod region north of Moscow, where the composer grew up, he said.
Russian state television lauded the idea Aug. 17 evening in a special program that listed other notables whose remains were moved back to the motherland, including famous singer Fyodor Shalyapin, whose grave was elaborately relocated from Paris in the 1980s.
The idea, which came out of nowhere, seems to be driven more by political expediency rather than interest in the composer's personality in particular, said culture critic Sergei Khodnev, who writes for Kommersant daily.
"Maybe the intent is to take Rachmaninov away from the United States, since in the American mentality he is also one of their own" and was influenced by American jazz, he told AFP.
"Without question, this is a political need for yet another patriotic spectacle, for a sad yet triumphant event to boost the national spirit," he said.
Rachmaninov, a gifted musician who was mentored by another Russian great Pyotr Tchaikovsky, had to flee the country in late 1917 after his home was ransacked during the revolutionary upheaval.
In Soviet times he was broadly seen as a traitor for leaving Russia and in 1931 signed a letter condemning Soviet authorities, though he donated money to the Red Army's World War II effort a decade later.
Russia's interest in Rachmaninov's legacy did not start with his grave. The government was also involved in talks about purchasing the composer's villa in Switzerland which he built in the 1930s and had to abandon as the European continent became embroiled in war.
Medinsky last year, however, blamed the composer's descendants for letting the deal fall through due to their desire to first sell valuable belongings, including Rachmaninov's grand piano.
Rachmaninov's great granddaughter Susan Wanamaker had no warm words for the minister's latest grave initiative, saying the composer had said he wanted to be buried in New York in his will.
"We have no plans to go against his wishes, so he will remain there," she told the BBC on Aug. 17. "There should be absolutely no confusion."