MOSCOW – I am in Moscow to attend the 40th day Panikhida (memorial wake) of the celebrated Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya who sadly passed away last December.


Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and her husband Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images.

There was a special service at the Cathedral of Christ Our Saviour, which was attended by hundreds, followed by a more intimate gathering at the grave in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery. I bought a large bunch of red carnations at a small stall I found en route. According to the florist, flowers for memorials in Russia should be both red and of an even number only. She insisted on wrapping them up in newspaper, stapling the top over the flower heads, to protect from the cold – well it was minus 15 degrees.

I remembered my first encounter with Galina Pavlovna over a decade ago in artist Sergei Essaian’s studio on the rue Darius Milhaud in Paris. It was the occasion of Galina’s husband, the cellist-conductor Slava Rostropovich’s 70th birthday. As I suppose often happened, that evening most of the attention was lavished on Slava, but Galina’s towering presence could also not be ignored and remains a strong image in my memory.

It was not until Slava had passed away that I met Galina Pavlovna properly. It was a pity that the circumstances were so sad, as she was grieving deeply throughout that period. During 2007 I was in constant touch with her as we worked together on the sale of their collection. She wanted to be involved in everything and would often question me on my expertise when we disagreed on dating of a work or an attribution. Our meetings lasted several hours and either were enormous fun or extremely difficult – I had to be ready for anything.

She was passionate about the collection; every piece in their Paris apartment had its special place. It seemed to me that she was particularly fond of the paintings by Repin that hung in their dining room in Paris, and often talked animatedly about his 1918 work Bolsheviks, which showed a red army soldier stealing bread from a starving child. The irony of the work seemed to amuse her greatly. She will be much missed.