On 3 July, we lost one of our closest friends in Brussels, Sergei Leshchenko, who died at age 73, ‘following a long illness,’ as they say. We were present at the onset of that illness, about seven years ago, when we drove him to an out of town hospital for prostate cancer surgery. We heard about the delivery of his death sentence 18 months ago, when he was diagnosed with stage four cancer. The cancer had come back unexpectedly and metastasized. And this past Monday we took part in his funeral at the main Russian Orthodox church in Brussels, St. Job, situated a few hundred meters from the Russian embassy, where his passport had been renewed periodically over the years.
Yes, Sergei was Russian. Very Russian in his zest for life, extravagant risk taking and monomania for his chosen profession, music, the piano to be specific. Indeed, music was his true nationality whatever other passports he held. Music had taken him to Cuba in the Soviet days, when for several years he held an appointment as music teacher at the Soviet embassy. He fell in love with the tropics and late colonial life, had the Latin mistresses that so many Russian males dreamed of in the distressed 1990s. It led him to his third and final wife, a Brazilian, and to travels in the Amazon, where he swam in rivers infested with poisonous fish and life-threatening reptiles without a care in the world.
In terms of professional achievement, Sergei retired several years ago from a career of teaching at the Conservatory of Brussels. He prepared more than one generation of students of the piano, both at the Conservatory and in private lessons. Some became candidates in international competitions. He gave annual master classes in northern Italy and Germany. He helped his own daughter, Polina, to develop an international career as soloist. She performs across the globe under her maiden name and she has numerous recordings.
In his own family, Sergei embodied the multinational, multiethnic Russia that Vladimir Putin speaks so often about. His family name was, of course, Ukrainian, though I know nothing about that distant past. Sergei’s immediate family came from Moscow, where his father was a leading ophthalmologist, practicing his specialty there into his early 90s in the new millennium.
During the Second World War, like many Muscovites, the Leshchenko family was evacuated to Central Asia for safety reasons and in 1948 Sergei was born in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where he grew up.
Sergei’s first two wives were Jewish. The first remained in Petersburg after their divorce. The second lived with him abroad, settling ultimately in Belgium after a stay of several years in Israel.
After music, Sergei’s greatest passion and indulgence was forest mushrooms. Year after year, we joined him on mushroom hunting expeditions, mostly in the Flemish lands around the industrial town of Genk, best known to the general public for its Ford factory. We knew it better for its fields of cêpes and other prized funghi. Sergei went through the forest like a vacuum cleaner, picking up varieties we would never touch. He alone knew how to disarm their toxins and enjoy the flesh, whether sautéed or, more commonly, in rich soups to which he treated his dinner guests.
A Dieu, Sergei. Till we meet again, as I know we shall.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022