HE paces the huge living room of his elegant apartment here in Washington, with its magnificent view of the Potomac. It is his residence at present, but not his real home. Cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich has not visited his real home, Mother Russia, for 15 years. But next year he will return to the Soviet Union. In the era of glasnost, leading figures of Soviet culture who were tossed out of the country and stripped of their citizenship are no longer referred to as ``traitors.'' Moscow has made overtures to a number of prominent 'emigr'es about returning home. A few have gone back briefly to perform, but so far none have decided to return home for good.
Last month, a telex from Moscow unexpectedly arrived at the offices of the National Symphony Orchestra, where Mr. Rostropovich has been music director since 1977. It was an invitation to the orchestra, under Rostropovich's direction, to come to the USSR to give a series of concerts.
The maestro has agreed to make the three-city concert tour next February. He says he will be happy to show his countrymen ``what I have achieved with American musicians in 12 years.'' But his feelings about the trip are deep and complex. They are inextricably linked with the circumstances surrounding his 1974 exile. Rostropovich (``Slava'' to his friends) tells the story in his own words:
``The circumstances under which we were forced to leave the country were horrendous. We had been, for all practical purposes, denied the right to work. The campaign of harassment against us showed that the government was out to destroy us completely.''
Once, when he was in the midst of making a recording of ``Tosca,'' a bunch of thugs burst in to the studio and chased everyone out. ``No one needs your `Tosca,''' they shouted.
``Why did they do it?'' he asks. ``Just because we allowed Alexander Solzhenitsyn to live at our dacha for a time.''
Things went from bad to worse. ``We were driven to despair,'' he recounts. ``Finally, when I couldn't stand it any longer, I wrote a personal letter to Leonid Brezhnev asking him to let my family and me go abroad for two years. I explained that we were unable to work in our field. I delivered the letter personally to the office of the Central Committee.''
When Slava got home, literally 10 minutes later, his wife, the talented opera soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, had already received a telephone call from the deputy minister of culture. He had called to say that they must come and see him immediately. When they got to the ministry, he told them that the Soviet government would have no objection to their departure.
``It was clear that our case had been decided long ago, and they were merely waiting for a convenient opportunity to announce it,'' Rostropovich says. ``I wanted to stay for two more weeks, in order to attend the Tchaikovsky Competition, in which my students were playing and where I was the permanent head of the cello section. I made this request personally to the minister of culture, Yekaterina Furtseva, but her answer was firm and unambiguous: `You must leave at once.' Thus my departure was quite sudden. Galya stayed on for two months to enable the children to finish school.''
Rostropovich left the Soviet Union bitter and dejected. For the first two months abroad he did not give a single concert. He stayed mostly with friends in London. Once, while engrossed in thought, he forgot for a moment that in London they drive on the left, and he was nearly run over by a car. ``I raced home like mad and asked my friends to lend me the money to buy some life insurance,'' he recalls. ``If something should happen to me, I thought, my family must not have to live on the street. That's the state of mind I was in during those first few months.''
The ``two year'' sojourn turned out to be longer. In 1978, having signed a number of new contracts, Rostropovich applied for permission to remain abroad for three more years. Then came the bombshell. A month later, the government news agency announced that the family's Soviet citizenship had been revoked.
The news came while they were in Paris. Like everyone else, they learned about it on television. ``I was reading something, and Galya was watching television,'' he recalls. ``And suddenly I heard her shout, `Slava, Slava, come here quickly!' On the screen, I saw our faces and the announcer saying in French that, according to a statement by Tass, Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya had been stripped of their Soviet citizenship.''
The next morning two Soviet representatives knocked at the door and demanded that they hand over their Soviet passports. ``I was so outraged that I almost threw them out bodily,'' he recalls. ``Tell them they will get our passports over our dead bodies.''
Then there followed what the musician describes as a campaign of slander and harassment. The newspaper Sovietskaya Kultura carried an article that asserted that Rostropovich ``wanted to retain his passport in order to ... avoid paying taxes in the West.'' And a six-part Tass commentary by Alexei Petrov accused him of all kinds of crimes, including making anti-Soviet statements to the foreign press and providing aid to Soviet 'emigr'es by giving benefit concerts. Rostropovich terms the charges ``ridiculous.''
In 1975, after a successful debut in New York, the Washington philanthropist David Lloyd Kreeger asked him if he would consider accepting the post of music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, and after careful consideration he accepted.
But during the time he has spent in America, Slava has not forgotten his homeland or his musical roots. Born in the city of Baku, in the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, he began playing the piano at 4 and the cello at 8. But he was also drawn to conducting and tried it for the first time in Gorky in 1961.
Today, at 62, Rostropovich has long been recognized as one of the world's great cellists. He has recorded virtually the entire cello repertoire, and his virtuosity has inspired a number of outstanding composers (including Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Britten, and Bernstein) to create works especially for him.
He has not been back to the Soviet Union since his departure in 1974, except for two stopovers at the Moscow airport on the way home from the Far East.
With the fresh breeze of glasnost blowing and his Soviet tour on the horizon, does Rostropovich contemplate returning for good?
He recalls a piece of advice conveyed to him, through a third party, from a friend, the late violinist David Oistrakh. The message was: ``Tell Slava not to come back. If he should feel nostalgic, let him plant some birch trees around his house. I am sure he will have his own house before long.''
Rostropovich maintains firmly, ``I will never go back like a prodigal son, because I don't feel the slightest sense of guilt. The document stating that we were stripped of our citizenship read `for actions damaging to the prestige of the Soviet Union.' In other words, everything I have done here, everything I have done for Russian music, every concert I have given damages the prestige of the Soviet Union. Ridiculous!''
His voice trembles with emotion. ``It is impossible to imagine anything more absurd. Our performances were boycotted long before our departure. We were dropped from the rolls of Soviet musicians, and it was even considered dangerous to mention our names.''
One day after the invitation to visit the USSR arrived, Alexander Chaikovsky, acting head of the Soviet Composers' Union, came backstage following a concert and presented Rostropovich with his membership card in the union, which had been revoked after he was stripped of his citizenship.
But the conductor believes the Soviet government owes him a lot more. ``They still have not restored my citizenship or that of my wife. And there is something else I want even more. I want an apology. I want them to admit that I did nothing wrong and that they had no legal right to expel me in the first place. Only when this is done can we consider this unpleasant chapter closed.''