This first appeared on May 25, 2009
How well I remember the gifted wild animal trainer who now runs what is left of the old Soviet Circus empire and is virtually begging for a government bailout. One frosty October evening thirty years ago after interviewing him following a performance of the New Circus in Moscow, he offered to give me a ride back to my hotel. Sharp frosty night air. Safe darkness over quiet streets. He and his wife. I and my interpreter, Tanya (seen here, above, with her son, Sergei). The four of us inside a luxurious automobile (Russian made, I think). Discretely privileged, careful not to overplay our status. How feted by fortune I felt. If only they knew what my “day job” was back in the States.
My interviewee, who was one of the first to graduate from the Lunacharsky State Theatrical Institute, had spoken in gracious tones about the good life under socialist big tops. A paycheck every week, a nice pension to look forward to. Freedom and time to create new acts, renew old turns. And for some, the opportunity to tour the world and reap international acclaim.
On a research mission for my book, Circus Rings Around Russia, I’d just taken in another imposing circus performance, during which the young man now at the wheel of his car had astonished me with a most endearing and clever novelty: a flirtatious elephant wagging the tail of a tiger with its big trunk. So simple, and yet so wonderful. The kind of a moment we who frequent such amusements live for.
The trainer who after the show had turned himself into my personal chauffeur was none other than Mstislav Zapashny, today's director of the Russian State Circus Company. Our conversation continued as we motored over the streets of Moscow. Clearly, the subtext of Mstislav’s remarks compared the utopian Soviet sawdust scene to all the other places on the map where acrobats and tiger trainers struggled to eck out a living.
“The possibilities of our artists are unlimited,” said Mstislav, relaxed and polite, proud and grateful.
Not so "unlimited" any more. Now, Zapashny, who manages some 40 circuses throughout the country, is fighting for a little of the respect and a lot of the old government money that he and his circus colleagues once took for granted when Soyuzgostsirk operated over sixty permanent arenas. That was before the collapse of the Soviet Union ten years later. Now, Zapashny is telling Izvestia Daily that what remains of that once-thriving phenomenon, unprecedented in size and scope, teeters on the edge of oblivion. Circuses are “counting very much on government support,” he warns.
The gifted animal man argues that the circus deserves as much backing as the opera and ballet companies which play the Bolshoi Theatre, itself currently closed down for a $700 million state-funded renovation. “The Bolshoi is a global brand, nobody disputes that. But isn’t our circus just as strong a brand?”
Yes, Mstislav, at least it once was. No argument there. Cry, comrade, cry.
“The good tradition appears to be fading into the past. For some reason Russia’s presidents are leaving the circus to the side. And this is bad.”
As Zapashny sees it, circus entertainment is good for the soul, especially during times of great economic distress.
“Humanity has yet to invent a better antidepressant.”
When Zapashny drove up to the Ukraine Hotel that far away night to let me out, I thanked him and he drove off. Wonderful ride. Wonderful utopian interlude. Could either of us have guessed what a different rode he would be driving thirty years later?
[Photos taken in 1979, from the top: Street scene in Moscow (that's my favorite of all the photos I took during my trip); Sergei and Tanya Matveeva, at the Kremlin Place of Congresses -- they took me that evening to see a ballet; Showbiz David in the circus museum at the Leningrad circus building; In a circus lobby; at the Leningrad Circus museum -- Museum director Alexander Levin, center; circus director Alexei Sonin, far right; Mstislav Zapashny, 2002, from a Buckles Blog/Henry Penndorf 2007 posting]