Russia's Beloved Clown

Only here, in Russia, can a circus clown become a national hero while telling the authorities just what he wants. Only in Russia can a hundred newspapers immediately write about the death of a famous clown, and the president announce on television to the citizens of the country that Yury Nikulin "was the most talented and kind artist." And only in Moscow do they bury a great clown in the national necropolis, in the Novodevichy Cemetery, next to literary and theatrical legends such as Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov and Konstantin Stanislavsky. Charlie Chaplin would never have been buried in Westminster Abbey.

How to explain the secret of this wonderful fairy tale?

I think the secret lies in the fact that there is nothing more boring than living under a totalitarian government, and Yury Nikulin was the first to win the triumphant and official right to amuse the country while simultaneously laughing at the regime. Even as a young boy, he started collecting jokes. And he was carried away with this frivolous pastime during the most grim period of Stalin's despotism, in 1937. At that time, no one was into laughing. For just one joke, a person could be sent to the gulag, and Nikulin was collecting jokes by the hundreds.

When the war began, he went as a simple soldier to the front and took his guitar with him. He was probably the only soldier in the Soviet Union who took a guitar to the front. And that saved his life. He amused his friends, entertained the higher-ups, danced, told jokes. And not one bullet touched him. Though he fought for six years, he was never injured.

It was precisely during the war that Nikulin decided to become a great artist. He didn't know at the time that he was born to be a clown, so as soon as he took off his soldier's uniform, he immediately went to all the capital's theatrical institutes to try to enroll. None of them accepted him. During the entrance exams, he read tragic monologues from Pushkin and Shakespeare with the stupid expression of a fool on his face and brought the examination committee to tears they were laughing so hard. "You're not Hamlet -- you're a clown!"

So Nikulin entered the circus academy to study to be a clown. At the time, he thought he had suffered a fiasco. He didn't want to be a clown. He hid his face behind a thick mask of makeup. He glued on eyelashes. He wore a red nose. He wanted to look as funny as possible, until one day an old circus performer told him, "Yury, why are you putting on so much makeup? Even without it, you've got a stupid, funny face."

So Nikulin stopped putting on makeup; he was the first clown to come into the arena without it. And everyone saw those intelligent, sad eyes peering out from that silly face. The clown had the eyes of a tragedian. Thus did he start down the path toward renown: He was the first person in a country of hypocrites who stopped wearing a mask.

First Moscow got to know him; then, the entire country. The world of film made him definitively famous. In Leonid Gaidai's films "The Moonshine Makers," "Operation Y" and "Diamond Arm," he played the grandiose comedic role of the Fool and, in Andrei Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublyov," the tragic role of a monk who died after being tortured by the Tatars.

He was at home both with comic personalities and dramatic heroes. Once he had attained the heights of fame, had become the people's favorite, had received all the prizes and honors the nation had to give, had made an unheard of career from a clown in the ring to director of the famous circus, Yury Nikulin continued to make us laugh, to make faces, to amuse us. During Brezhnev's regime, he teased the authorities with jokes about Brezhnev. During the Andropov period, he took advantage of the fact that they shared the same name and patronymic:

"Secretary: 'Yury Vladimirovich will talk to you now.'

"On the other end of the line, there's panic; 'The general secretary of the Communist Party himself is calling!'

"'Hello, hello ... It's Yury Vladimirovich ... Nikulin calling.'"

During Gorbachev's reign, when they weren't giving the circus any money, Nikulin threatened to bring wild animals to Red Square and let the tigers out by the mausoleum.

In Russia, there has always been a special attitude toward fools. A fool or yurodivy, an idiot believed to possess a divine gift of prophecy, is considered almost sacred. The cathedral on Red Square was named in honor of the yurodivy Vasily the Blessed, who sat on that spot and told the truth to the tsars. Yury Nikulin occupied this place in society during our day.

But, in laughing, we are saying goodbye to our past. As the stupid era of the Sovs has passed, so has the era of clowns. The ocean of idiocy is receding from the shores of Russia. Low tide has begun. It is taking out to sea a small boat with a sad clown clad in a flat boater hat, an awkward jacket with short sleeves and narrow pants. The clown holds in his hands a small fishing line without a hook and is trying to catch fish. The tide is taking the clown farther and farther out to sea, toward eternity, toward the darkness. Now it has already vanished from sight. Farewell, great clown. Now you are in paradise, telling your jokes to the apostle Paul in heaven.

Anatoly Korolyov is a writer whose works include "Aron." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.