MOSCOW – Mstislav Rostropovich, the celebrated cellist and champion of human rights, was buried Sunday to the applause of hundreds of mourners, an echo of the ovations he received during his life.
Considered by many to be the world's greatest cellist, "Slava" Rostropovich was renowned for his electrifying, seemingly effortless playing. But at home, under communism, his fight for the rights of dissidents resulted in cancelled concerts, foreign tours and recordings and, finally, self-imposed exile.
Several thousand teary admirers of his musical talent and ebullient personality flocked to a morning service in the soaring, gold-domed Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which was blown up by Communists in 1931 and which Rostropovich helped rebuild after the Soviet collapse.
Rostropovich lived in Paris but, suffering from intestinal cancer, he returned to Russia in February after his health worsened.
Red-robed Orthodox priests sang prayers and swung incense burners as mourners lit candles and lay flowers near the wooden coffin, where the musician's body lay covered with a white cloth embroidered with a gold cross.
After the ceremony, Rostropovich's coffin was transported to the Novodevichy Cemetery, where his teachers Dmitry Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, and his longtime friend Boris Yeltsin, the first leader of post-Soviet Russia, are also buried. Yeltsin died April 23.
After the casket was lowered into the ground, Rostropovich's widow, the Bolshoi Opera soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, his daughters Olga and Yelena and family friends sprinkled the casket with earth.
The grave was decorated with a large Orthodox wooden cross and covered with dozens of wreaths and heaps of flowers, finishing the ceremony. Hundreds of mourners burst into applause, and some in the crowd shouted, "Bravo!"
In 1989, as the Berlin Wall was torn down, Rostropovich showed up with his cello and played Bach cello suites amid the rubble. The next year, his Soviet citizenship was restored, and he made a triumphant return to Russia to perform with Washington's National Symphony Orchestra, where he was music director from 1977 to 1994.
Guests and dignitaries at Rostropovich's funeral included family friends such as Yeltsin's widow Naina, Spain's Queen Sofia and French first lady Bernadette Chirac. Also in attendance were Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliev and his wife. Rostropovich was born in Soviet Azerbaijan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who called the musician's death "a huge loss for Russian culture" paid his respects during a civil ceremony Saturday at the Moscow Conservatory, where Rostropovich studied and played.
Rostropovich's troubles with Soviet authorities began when Shostakovich and Prokofiev were denounced during the Stalin era.
After the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, Rostropovich wrote an open letter to the Soviet media protesting official vilification of the author. He also sheltered Solzhenitsyn and his wife, Natalya, during the author's bitter dispute with Soviet authorities in the 1970s.
"He spent all his life being in love," Natalya Solzhenitsyn said in tribute to Rostropovich on NTV television. "He was in love with the music he played, with those who listened to him, with his loved ones, with the halls he played in ... And in this state of love one is capable of moving mountains. And he did."