The war years were the most difficult time of my life. There was real famine in Moscow. The water froze inside the houses. There was no heat. I didn't have shoes, so I received American boots. They were two sizes too big and made me look like Charlie Chaplin. We ate canned pork rations from the Americans. We were happy and grateful to the Americans. All the people felt this.
During the war, I studied cello and composition at the Moscow Conservatory. Shostakovich was my composition professor. He taught us Mahler and Stravinsky pieces because he knew all these composers. It was kept underground, but in this way we learned all this culture. We were also interested in records. It was rare to get Western recordings, but this way we could perfect our knowledge of the Western repertoire. I listened to Pablo Casals, which was a big change for me. Without hearing Casals, I would never have advanced as I did.
In 1948 the first severe crash occurred in my life when Stalin put out his decree on "formalism." There was a bulletin board in the Moscow Conservatory. They posted the decree, which said Shostakovich's compositions and Prokofiev's were no longer to be played. Then we were told to go to a big meeting. Several Communist professors said, "What a wonderful decree. We were all in error. We thought Shostakovich and Prokofiev had talent. Now we understand that we were blind and deaf." I myself was forced to criticize Shostakovich and say he was a terrible composer. But I knew he and Prokofiev were geniuses, because these idiotic Communists had given me an excellent education.
I remember being in Budapest with a group of artists on March 6, 1953, the day after Stalin died. A ballerina in my group took me aside and said, "I have bad news. Prokofiev died yesterday." Prokofiev was my second God, along with Shostakovich. I cried for several days. My tears blended with everyone else's. They were crying for Stalin, but I had absolutely dry eyes for Stalin.
In 1955-56 they sent three Soviet artists to the U.S. for the first time since the Revolution: Emil Gilels, David Oistrakh and me. Of course, we were watched by our KGB "nannies" to see that we behaved properly. We were a political weapon. We would give interviews saying that we had such a great life, that we were very happy. We would blind people. We knew the truth, but we were afraid to say it even to one another.
Mstislav Rostropovich is a Russian cellist, who left the U.S.S.R. in 1974 and was music director of Washington's National Symphony Orchestra from 197794