The Cable

New York Says ‘Nyet’ to Moving Remains of Russian Composer

Russia wants the remains of its most famous composer returned.


Amid standoffs over Ukraine, missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, and how to best end the Syrian civil war, Russia and the United States have found a new, albeit unlikely, issue to disagree upon — the final resting place of famed Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Last week, Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky called for the remains of the acclaimed artist, who has been buried at Valhalla, New York, since 1943, to be returned to his homeland and announced Moscow’s plans to rebuild the old Rachmaninoff estate as a historical landmark. Rachmaninoff, a member of the Russian aristocracy, left St. Petersburg (then Petrograd) after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and came to the United States in 1918, where he made a career as a composer and became known as one of the finest pianists of his era.

Rachmaninoff’s descendants have rejected the proposal of moving the remains of the composer, who asked to be buried next to his wife in Valhalla’s Kensico Cemetery. “We have no plans to go against his wishes, so he will remain there,” said Susan Wanamaker, Rachmaninoff’s great-great-granddaughter, BBC radio reported Tuesday.

With Rachmaninoff’s descendants against moving his remains to Russia, the composer is likely to stay in New York. But the current reburial campaign provides a fertile opportunity for the Russian culture minister to take shots the United States amid souring relations between the two countries. Speaking from the Russian city of Veliky Novgorod — the site of Rachmaninoff’s family home — on Saturday, Medinsky told reporters, “Americans have shamelessly privatized Rachmaninoff’s name, just like the names of dozens and hundreds of Russians who, by the will of fate, found themselves abroad after the revolution.”

Rachmaninoff, who became a U.S. citizen before he died of cancer at 69 in California, maintains a strong following in Russia and his admirers have called for the return of his remains in the past.

Medinsky said Rachmaninoff’s current grave in New York is in poor condition and promised to build a much better memorial area in Russia. The authorities in Russia’s Novgorod region said that they intend to restore the Rachmaninoff family estate by 2018.

Listen to Rachmaninoff’s most famous song:

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Astana, Kazakhstan covering Central Asia and Eurasia for Foreign Policy and other publications. He was formerly an associate editor at FP. Twitter: @reidstan

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