The tears flowed

Mumin Shakirov
28 July 2009

The death of actor Oleg Yankovsky has stunned Russians and caused a real shock among his fans. It is difficult to recall a time over the last 20-30 years when Russians have with such grief to the death of a famous artist. Ordinary viewers could not hide their tears and nor could the venomous critics, who are always ready to tear their victim to shreds, if he gives them an excuse for a serious creative discussion.

Oleg Yankovsky burst on to the Soviet cinema scene in the late 1960s.  He was still a young provincial actor, living on the Volga and working in the theatre in Saratov.  He was given the rare break that a provincial actor can only dream of when he happened to meet the famous director from Moscow, Vladimir Basov. The theatre was on tour in Lvov in Western Ukraine.   Basov was preparing to make a new film about spies, "Shield and Sword".  He was at an ordinary restaurant with his colleagues and was attracted by Yankovsky's "Aryan looks".   Oleg was given the opportunity to play the role of a German officer who loses faith in the ideas of the Third Reich. When the film was released in 1968, the 24-year-old Yankovsky woke up to find that he was famous.  Mosfilm directors rushed to employ him.  He had made his mark in the film industry, but he was noticed by the theatre world too.  He had many offers, but chose the famous Lenkom Theatre and its director Mark Zakharov

Yankovsky had joined one of the best theatres in the country. Soon Moscow audiences were not just going to the Lenkom, but to see Oleg Yankovsky, whatever the play.  This thin, tall handsome man with light hair and mysterious slanty eyes captured women's hearts. Yankovsky was capable of wonderful silences on film, which is a rare skill, but he also spoke beautifully. His phrases from films and plays have become quotes. Just take: "A serious face is not a sign of intelligence, gentlemen. All the stupid things in the world have been done with this expression. Smile, gentlemen, smile!"  These words were spoken by his famous character Baron Munchhausen in the film "The Very Same Munchhausen".

Yankovsky is perhaps for Russian culture what Marcello Mastroianni was for Italian culture. Both of them played the hero of their time - a restless intellectual in conflict with himself and his surroundings. Despite the 20-year age difference, the creative and biographical parallels are clear. Both studied and trained with great masters. In the 1970s, Yankovsky acted in the company of the Moscow theatre guru Mark Zakharov, while Mastroianni began his career in the 1950s in a theatre that was headed by the great Luchino Visconti. Yankovsky played Gorchakov, the tormented writer in Andrei Tarkovsky's film "Nostalgia".  Mastroianni's character, the writer Giovanni, has almost exactly the same feelings in Michelangelo Antonioni's "Night": the dark night of the creative soul, the sunset of feelings and the twilight of habits.  In the film by the cult director of the 1980s Roman Balayan "Flights in Dream and Reality", Yankovsky plays a restless 40-year-old intellectual Sergei Makarov, who is reviewing his life.   Wife, lover, work, friends....nothing gives him satisfaction.  Mastroianni's character, director Guido Anselmi, in Fellini's film "8 1/2" is the same. Guido is at a creative dead-end and is looking for sources of inspiration, but his wife and lover only hinder his concentration.

What about Yankovsky in Mark Zakharov's TV film "The Very Same Munchhausen"? He's a charming inventor who believes all his stories, which means that these stories have the habit of coming true from time to time. You can't help recalling the society reporter Marcello in Fellini's "La dolce vita", who tells tales and scandalous stories from the life of the so-called "restaurant society". Marcello is just as smart and ironic as Yankovsky's Munchhausen.

Yankovsky and Mastroianni are among the few actors who could work in all genres: comedy, drama, tragedy. Mastroianni is convincing in the role of an ordinary Italian - a farmer, a worker or a taxi driver. Yankovsky is just as convincing as an ordinary Russian: a mechanic, bandit or soldier. Both artists could act subtly and convey emotions using a meagre palette.

Oleg and Marcello were far from meeting Hollywood standards, but they enchanted millions of women with their charm and spontaneity.

Perhaps the only area in which Yankovsky surpassed his Italian colleague was his portrayal of Russian leaders on the Lenkom stage and on film.  He played Tsar Nicholas II (the film "The Killer of the Tsar"), Peter the Great (the play "Balakirev the Jester") and Lenin (the play "Revolutionary Etude").  In this play he wore no make-up, an unprecedented experiment in the Soviet period, when the "idol" Lenin was always depicted with a beard and polished bald pate.

Hence the special attitude to Yankovsky, who played thinking people full of contradictions, something the Russian intelligentsia has always loved, rather than self-satisfied boors or role-model heroes on stage.

Yankovsky's work with Andrei Tarkovsky is a special page in his creative biography.  The filming of the famous "Nostalgia" in Italy and Moscow is the stuff of legends.   According to one version of the story, Tarkovsky invited Oleg to the shoot, but didn't schedule him for filming or even make contact with him for a long time. Yankovsky became very anxious hanging around for weeks in a small Italian town with nothing to do. This was Tarkovsky's way of helping Oleg find the frame of mind he needed to play the main character, the writer Gorchakov. "This was the nostalgia in the hearts of Gorchakov and Tarkovsky. Yearning for a good conscience, for a miracle, for faith," critics wrote later, when they had seen the great film-maker's last masterpiece.  Tarkovsky knew Yankovsky well:  in 1974 he had played the director's father, the poet Arseny Tarkovsky, in the autobiographical film "The Mirror".  The duo could have continued working together, had their collaboration not been cut short by Tarkovsky's early death.

Oleg Yankovsky had a very fortunate acting career and could still surprise his fans at 65.   Early in 2009 there were rumours in the press that he was ill.  Many people were upset to hear this, but no one thought that the end was so close. He was in excellent form, and in the year before his death he appeared in two major projects. In director Sergei Solovyov's film "Anna Karenina" Yankovsky played Anna's husband Alexei Karenin, and in Pavel Lungin's film about Ivan the Terrible, "The Tsar", he played Metropolitan Filipp. These were excellent works, which were released only quite recently, after his death.  People were openly in tears at the screenings.  Colleagues and friends were as upset as if they had just lost a close relative. This was all genuine and unfeigned.

The doctors weren't able to save Yankovsky, as he was discovered to have cancer of the pancreas at an advanced stage. He went to Germany for expensive treatment with the German oncologist professor Martin Schuler, a specialist in therapeutic methods of cancer treatment, but even that didn't help. Shortly before his death, Oleg returned to Russia.  He wanted to take his leave of the audience and went on stage in spite of terrible pain.  Audience affection for Oleg Yankovsky was at its peak in his last performance.   It was in Gogol's "The Marriage" and the retired sailor Zhevakin - comical, ridiculous, with big bushy eyebrows - came on to the stage to applause. This was on 18 February 2009.  Oleg Yankovsky said goodbye to audiences for good that day, and on 20 May the Russian media reported the sad news of his death.

Surprisingly enough, the press and journalists covered Yankovsky's personal life very tactfully, and especially his last days. Of course, his family and his favourite theatre were his bulwark, but not only them. His reputation of a person with principles and excellent taste in choosing roles contributed to his image. Oleg never gave any cause for gossip, never played politics, and tried to avoid dubious contacts with the government. In other words, he never sold his face, as did some of his more calculating colleagues in the hope of getting some payback from contacts with the ruling elite.  Yankovsky never cosied up to people in power so as to be in the eye of the public, the press or influential officials. He got everything from his audiences, who went to his performances and always gave the actor a standing ovation when he came out to take his bow.

The last time Oleg was applauded was on the day of his funeral, when his coffin was carried along Malaya Dmitrovka street, past the Lenkom theatre. Moscow had not seen a funeral like this since the funeral of poet and musician Vladimir Vysotsky, who died almost 30 years ago. Entire offices took time off work to say goodbye to Oleg. Elderly people began "lining up for Yankovsky" at 5 a.m. On this day, ordinary people did not hide their tears, and neither did famous artists and public figures, for whom the name of Yankovsky meant only one thing - a great Russian artist. This is in the Russian tradition: if you fall in love with your idol, this love will remain with you all your life.

As fate would have it, Oleg Yankovsky learned that he had become a people's artist of the USSR some days before the collapse of the Soviet Union. His name was the last on this list of awards. Oleg used to point out ironically that the first person to receive this Soviet title was Konstantin Stanislavsky, the great theatre director and teacher, and the last was himself.  He would make fun of himself by saying "Look who they started with and who they ended with!"

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData