AUSTIN - Sergei Khrushchev first met Van Cliburn moments after the young Texan's triumphant concert in Moscow during the height of the Cold War.
Khrushchev's father, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, was enraptured with Cliburn's performance. He embraced the 6-foot-4 Texan in a bear hug and jokingly asked: "What do they feed you to make you so tall."
The younger Khrushchev was 24, just a little older than the 23-year-old pianist. They would meet two other times over the years, but despite time and distance, Sergei Khrushchev recalled on Thursday, they forged a lasting bond.
Khrushchev, a retired professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, learned of Cliburn's death from a reporter Thursday morning after returning from a trip to Costa Rica.
"It is sad news," he said in a telephone interview. "You could say that we were friends. "
Cliburn, one of the 20th century's most celebrated pianists, died Wednesday after battling advanced bone cancer. As admirers in Fort Worth and across the globe mourned the loss of a musical giant, Khrushchev offered reflections that few others could match.
Decades after his breakthrough performance in the late 1950s, Cliburn remained a musical icon to millions of older Russians, many of whom remembered him simply as "Vanusha." In 2004, at the age of 70, Cliburn made a return appearance, drawing a thunderous standing ovation at the Moscow Conservatory. The performance was sold-out days in advance.
Sergei Khrushchev was with his father when Cliburn first stunned Russia and the world by winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, injecting at least a brief thaw in the Cold War distrust that divided the two superpowers.
The cover of Time magazine called him "The Texan who conquered Russia." He also clearly conquered Khrushchev's father.
Throughout his reign as the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev was considered a villain by many Americans, a diminutive tough guy who staged a shoe-banging tirade at the United Nations in 1960.
'Old Stalinist thinking'
But he was captivated by Cliburn and his performances of the works of Russia's best-known composers, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. Sergei Khrushchev recalled that jurors obtained his father's blessing before awarding first prize to the lanky East Texan.
"My father was behind that decision because at the time it was still the old Stalinist thinking," recalled the younger Khrushchev. Party officials, he said, "didn't want to give the first prize to the American" but the Soviet leader insisted that Cliburn be judged the winner based on the unanimous opinion of the musician judges.
"It is the professional thinking that he has been the best, you have to give him the first prize," Khrushchev quoted his father as saying. "And after that he received the first prize and he became famous."
The Soviet leader became both fan and friend of the young Texan.
In the early 1960s, when Cliburn made a goodwill tour of Russia, Nikita Khrushchev invited him to his dacha about 20 miles outside of Moscow, showing the young pianist his prized vegetable garden.
The younger Khrushchev, who at the time worked on guidance systems for Soviet missiles, snapped photographs and took home movies. A photograph of his father with Cliburn adorned his office at Brown until he retired.
They met again for a final time when Sergei Khrushchev was in Fort Worth nearly 10 years ago to give a lecture. "He just came to my talk and we had a pleasant meeting," Khrushchev recalled. "He told me he came because I was there."
Dave Montgomery is chief of the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau