Episode: Why Russia Wants to Take Rachmaninoff From Westchester

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Why Russia Wants to Take Rachmaninoff From Westchester

An international dispute arose last month when Russia announced its intentions to reclaim Rachmaninoff's remains from a cemetery in Valhalla, NY. Russian cultural minister Vladimir Medinsky claimed that Americans have neglected the composer's grave (pictured above) while attempting to "shamelessly privatize" his name. But Rachmaninoff's descendants have balked at the idea of moving the body, pointing out that he died in the U.S. after spending decades outside of Russia in self-imposed political exile.

This week's podcast explores just how Russia has built its case for moving Rachmaninoff's body, and what larger ambitions may be driving the effort.

Simon Morrison, a professor of music and Slavic studies at Princeton University, was approached by Russian officials to find evidence that the composer wanted to be buried in his homeland. "Rachmaninoff didn't express a desire to be buried anywhere, as far as I know," Morrison tells host Naomi Lewin. All that Morrison could find was an "offhand" comment, cited in a biography, about his Swiss estate, Villa Senar. "He did write a letter to his sister-in-law, saying, 'If I must die, then this wouldn't be a bad place to be buried' – or words to that effect," noted Morrison.

Sergei Rachmaninoff at a Steinway grand piano. Circa 1936 or earlier. (Wikimedia commons)

Morrison says that a Russian delegation then traveled to the U.S. in 2014 to secure a copy of the letter from the Library of Congress. That led to a meeting between officials from Russia and the U.S. State Department, which Morrison attended as a musicological expert witness. Ultimately, the talks fell apart over Russia's military intervention in Crimea.

Welz Kauffman, president of the Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation, a nonprofit established by the composer's late grandson, Alexandre, says the matter of Rachmaninoff's remains are intertwined with Russia's efforts to purchase Senar. An attempted sale last year to an unnamed Russian oligarch fell through. The Foundation maintains that any decisions over the composer's remains or effects should be done in consultation with all of the composer's heirs (his great-great-granddaughter, Susan Sophia Volkonskaya-Wanamaker, has repeatedly dismissed the idea of reinterment).

Ultimately, Morrison believes that the case reflects a desire by Russian politicians to reclaim their cultural legacy, whether that involves scattered manuscripts or the bodies of long-dead artists. This, he says, would establish Moscow "as this faux imperial city that it never was in the first place. It's part of a broader effort to re-establish imperial culture back in Russia."

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