When the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy left the Soviet Union 26 years ago, it was in great bitterness. He was rejecting, as strongly as he could, the Soviet system in which he had grown up as soul-destroying and turning his back on the Russian motherland. And for that he was called a traitor by many here.
As a young musician, the winner of the gold medal at the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in 1962, he saw cultural bureaucrats and Communist Party hacks squeezing the spirit of out of all the arts, out of his music. "I could see a time coming when I would not be able to play a single note," Ashkenazy said. "I had to leave."
But this weekend, Ashkenazy returned for the first time in a quarter century, and not as a prodigal asking forgiveness but as an honored son whose international stature has brought the country new esteem.
"Our country is changing--rapidly and for the better," he said. "I feel much more at home here now than I did 26 years ago."
For Ashkenazy, now 52, it was clearly a homecoming he had yearned for but had, until recently, doubted would ever come.
Crowds filled the streets outside the Moscow Conservatory, where he performed, the luminaries of Soviet culture came to pay homage, taking up virtually every waking moment of his five days here, and gray-haired grandmothers who knew Ashkenazy when they were all at school came to renew their friendship.
"The emotions of a return like this are tremendously conflicting," Ashkenazy said at the outset of his visit. "But the joy of coming back under these circumstances and seeing this rebirth here overcomes the sadness of the past."
Invited back by the Soviet Cultural Fund, which operates under the patronage of Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of the country's president, Ashkenazy conducted two charity concerts over the weekend by Britain's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he is the music director and which is en route to Japan for a tour.
"Had I been invited earlier, I would have thought not just twice or three times about accepting, but 10 times or more before agreeing to come," Ashkenazy said. "What was happening to this country and its people then had to be opposed and denounced. . . .
"But I thought that by accepting now and coming to Moscow that I would in a modest way endorse what is happening in my country, to support the changes that perestroika, glasnost and democratization are bringing."
Echoing the sentiments of many of the other writers, musicians, artists and other intellectuals who were driven into exile in the 1960s and 1970s and are now returning on visits, Ashkenazy said that the liberalization under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev would spur the revival of the arts and of Russian culture "in ways that will make us all proud again."
"With the new times, with the new concepts of life being put forward, with the new freedom that people experience, the effect on every aspect of this country's existence will be beneficial," Ashkenazy said, speaking with journalists.
Even as he reflected, however, on the hard times of the past and the recent change, he paused to recall that there had been great work by Russian artists even then.
"If (the late Soviet composer Dmitri) Shostakovich were writing now, he wouldn't have the material," Ashkenazy said. "The Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Tenth symphonies are all drenched in hopelessness, the feeling that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. They deal with desolation. Some of the greatest works of art appear at the most difficult times.
"But give me this freedom any time. I am concerned with the life of this country."
Although he has lived in London, in Iceland with his pianist wife, Thorunn (Dody) Johannsdottir, and now in Lucerne, Switzerland, Ashkenazy quickly submerged back into the Russian culture from which few emigres ever escape. "Half my life has been abroad, and yet I still say 'abroad' to speak about where I live and 'home' about a land I left--odd isn't it?" he said.
But he also has become accustomed to thinking mostly in English now and found himself asking friends and newsmen what the Russian words were for such concepts as affinity and free-roaming.
The Ashkenazy who left the Soviet Union in 1963 was a piano virtuoso, winner not only of the Tchaikovsky Competition but others as well; the one who returned is now a respected conductor, directing not only the Royal Philharmonic but also conducting the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Radio Philharmonic.
Ashkenazy has appeared in the Southland more than two dozen times since leaving the Soviet Union and returns to conduct the L.A. Philharmonic Dec. 8 and 10.
The two concerts in Moscow--a mix of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Walton, Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky, Ravel--were out of the repertoire of the Royal Philharmonic, and Ashkenazy played only one piece, which he could also conduct.
Did he not feel a bit schizophrenic?, he was asked during a question-and-answer session with teachers and students at the Moscow Conservatory, the country's leading music school. Did he now want to give up the piano for conducting?
"I don't know, I really don't know," he replied. "There is so much more in piano literature that I have not done, but there is even more in the orchestral repertoire that I haven't done. I don't know where to put my energy, so I just let it flow."
Lucien Ficks provided research assistance for this article.