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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich Dead at 80

APThe late Mstislav Rostropovich, shown performing in Nizhny Novgorod in 1996, directed the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington for 17 years.
Renowned cellist, conductor and human rights crusader Mstislav Rostropovich died Friday in Moscow, one month after celebrating his 80th birthday.

The cause of death was not immediately clear Friday. Rostropovich had been undergoing treatment in recent months at the country's leading cancer clinic.

Rostropovich checked into a Moscow hospital in early February, where he was visited by President Vladimir Putin. Rostropovich's spokeswoman, Natalya Dolezhal, said at the time that his condition was not serious.

National media reported that Rostropovich was being treated at the Blokhin Russian Cancer Research Center in southern Moscow and that he was in serious condition in late February after undergoing an operation. A source at the clinic said a tumor had been removed from Rostropovich's liver.

On Feb. 26, Putin awarded Rostropovich the Order of Service to the Fatherland, First Degree, for his "outstanding contribution to the development of world music and many years of artistic activity."

The cellist celebrated his 80th birthday with Putin, numerous dignitaries and government officials at a Kremlin gala on March 27, but was hospitalized again in mid-April in serious condition, a source close to the family told RIA-Novosti at the time.

Condolences and praise poured in from across the country Friday from politicians, writers, musicians, human rights activists and religious leaders.

Putin expressed his condolences to the families and loved ones of Rostropovich and actor Kirill Lavrov, who died Friday in St. Petersburg at the age of 81, calling the deaths "two very sad events."

Lavrov, who served as art director of the Bolshoi Drama Theater for more than 50 years, will be laid to rest Sunday in a St. Petersburg cemetery next to his wife, as the actor requested in his will, a theater official told RIA-Novosti.

"It is an enormous loss for Russian culture," Putin said at a news conference with Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus.

State Duma deputies observed a minute of silence in honor of Rostropovich and Lavrov during their Friday session.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II also expressed his condolences to Rostropovich's family and friends by telephone on Friday, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate told Interfax.

Rostropovich was born in Baku on March 27, 1927, and studied at the Moscow Conservatory from 1943 to 1948. He became a professor of cello at the conservatory in 1956.

A staunch supporter of artistic freedom and democratic values, Rostropovich emigrated from the Soviet Union with his wife, opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya, in 1974 under intense pressure from authorities. Three years later, he became music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington.

He became persona non grata for associating with dissidents, including the author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was expelled in 1974.

Solzhenitsyn released a statement Friday calling Rostropovich's death a "bitter blow for our culture."

"They tried to excommunicate him by force when they revoked his citizenship 30 years ago," Solzhenitsyn said, Interfax reported. "I witnessed how he suffered. He glorified Russian culture the world over. Goodbye, dear friend."

Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya returned in 1990, when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev restored their citizenship. When hard-line Communists tried to overthrow Gorbachev in 1991, the cellist rushed to the parliament building to oppose the coup.

"He was always taking risks, whether it was defending Solzhenitsyn or joining us to defend the White House in 1991," human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov said Friday. "He will truly be missed."

Conductor and violist Yury Bashmet called Rostropovich the "engine, heart and motor of musical life throughout the world."

"Now it will be very empty for a long time," Bashmet said in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio. "It will be difficult to grasp."

Bashmet said he learned of Rostropovich's death "in a break between encores after a concert."

"We honored his memory with a minute of silence," Bashmet said. "Everyone in the auditorium stood."

The public will be able to pay its respects from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the traditional place for memorial services for celebrated musicians, the rector's office announced.

David Yakobashvili, co-founder of Wimm-Bill-Dann and a close friend of Rostropovich, said Rostropovich's body would then be moved to Christ the Savior Cathedral, where it will lie in state through the night, starting at 10 p.m.

A funeral service will be held Sunday for Rostropovich at 11 a.m. in the lower church of Christ the Savior Cathedral, after which he will be buried at Novodevichye Cemetery, the press office for the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Center said, Interfax reported.

Yakobashvili said the cellist would be buried about 10 meters from his friend and Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, Interfax reported. Yeltsin was laid to rest at the cemetery on Wednesday.

Rostropovich is survived by his wife and their two daughters, Olga and Yelena.