For pure human interest, the PBS documentary "Soldiers of Music: Rostropovich Returns to Russia" (tonight at 9:30 on Channel 26 and Maryland Public TV) is one of the best efforts of its kind in recent memory -- considerably better than "Horowitz in Moscow," for example.

The reasons, beyond the strong musical values, are not hard to find. The vivid personalities of National Symphony Orchestra Music Director Mstislav Rostropovich, his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, and their daughter, Olga, are all shown in some detail, in reminiscences, in tearful encounters with old friends and admirers, in crisis situations and in a brief, vivid argument about which parts of their former dacha (country house) should be shown to a camera crew.

The dacha is of special appeal, because that is where Alexander Solzhenitsyn was kept for years, protected and allowed to work after the Soviet government had made him a non-person. Of similar interest is a visit to the grave of Andrei Sakharov, where closeups show tears in the eyes of the couple, who had been exiled for 16 years because of their support for human rights. Vishnevskaya is talking about more than Sakharov when she says, "That's how a man sacrificed his life ... no compromises."

Rostropovich slips easily back and forth between Russian and English, so easily that it is sometimes hard to tell which he is speaking. PBS thoughtfully supplies (sometimes slightly imprecise) subtitles for his English as well as his Russian.

The cameras catch a lot of the action around the returning exiles, including many choice shots of National Symphony players (the maestro is reportedly especially pleased about this), Rostropovich playing part of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with Randall Craig Fleischer conducting, and some action shots of Rostropovich's hyperactive little dog and traveling companion, Vega.

There is also some comedy, intentional and otherwise. At one point, Mike Wallace is talking with Minister of Culture Nikolai Gubenko and explains who he is: "In addition to their film, their documentary, I am also doing a story for '60 Minutes.' " Gubenko asks innocently (in quite good English), "Sixteen?" and Wallace, somewhat deflated, says, "Sixty. Six-Zero."

With a friend he calls "Genka," who is not identified but answers the description of the great Soviet conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Rostropovich shows off his Stradivari cello, which has a scratch reportedly made by Napoleon. "It is an old cello," says Rostropovich. "Paint it," says Genka, with a perfectly straight face.

There are also pilgrimages to the pitifully small apartment of Rostropovich's parents and to the building where he and Vishnevskaya had their Moscow apartment. It is now a government office and the cameras do not go in, but Rostropovich reports later how interested the secretaries were when he told them, "Galina and I used to make love in this room."

There are scenes of pure turmoil that make one suspect (as veterans of the tour suggest) that the Russians are the world's greatest masters of chaos. There is a press conference where Rostropovich gets his cracks in at Leonid Brezhnev for taking away his and Vishnevskaya's citizenship. There are rehearsals with standing-room-only audiences, a woman (dismissed by Rostropovich as a "nuthead") who interrupts a concert shouting "Slava {Rostropovich's nickname} is Zeus," a penetrating observation by his daughter that "I think it is not very easy for him to be alone with himself," a scene of Vishnevskaya outside the Bolshoi, where she was for years the leading star, hesitating to go in and saying "it would be like stepping across an abyss."

At one point, Rostropovich recalls the incident that gives this documentary its title: "Shostakovich once told me: 'Slava, we're all soldiers of music. There are no generals among us. If people throw stones at you, don't leave the stage. Stand firm. Play to the end.' "