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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Passing of a True Artist

My friend, the actor and director Sasha Kaidanovsky, lived when I knew him on Vorovskova Street, in a single high-ceilinged room that must have once been an aristocrat's ballroom. All around him was the clutter and clatter of a typical Soviet communal apartment. But inside this room was an island haven, full of books and music: an oasis of civility.


It was, when you first saw it, a shock, an anachronism, a totally unexpected survival. And so, in his way, was Sasha. For he was a real artist: immune -- like his room -- to history. Of all the Russians I've ever met, he was the only one who hadn't a trace -- not even a whisper -- of Homo Sovieticus in him.


I always thought of him instead, I suppose, as a sort of displaced Irishman. He came from Rostov, but he looked a lot like the Irish actor Richard Harris, when young. And like Harris he had a disarmingly (alarmingly) clear gaze: a sort of quizzical directness touched with edge, with danger. It was this that gave him the force and power he had on screen: as Stalker in Andrei Tarkovsky's film of the same name, or in the dozens of other parts he played on television and in movies, from Oscar Wilde to White Army officers to criminal drunkards. He was, as the Irish say, fey: mystical, so intense, so much himself, that he sometimes seemed slightly mad. It's the blessing -- and curse, I think -- of all great actors.


And now he's dead -- late last year, of a heart attack -- and I feel numb. Numb, because Sasha was such a force for life. And numb, because now all the films he might have directed will never get made. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he directed three; and directing was all he ever wanted to do. I think he thought acting in the end too easy a cheap trick, like conjuring -- while directing was the job of a poet or a necromancer.


But then the Russian film industry died on him, in a welter of cheap imports and pirated videos, and though he remained full of ideas for projects -- for an elaborate film on Ivan the Terrible and his courting of Elizabeth I of England, for example -- they were never made. He went on teaching the advanced film-directors' course in Moscow; he did some directing in Germany; and he recently worked on a video for the guitar-poet Boris Grebenshchikov. But he was mostly reduced once more, when he needed money, to acting: in Hungary, in Spain -- wherever he could find enough work to keep his dreams alive.


I don't want to make Sasha seem a sad man. He wasn't. He had a passion for books and music. He loved -- and was adored by -- women. He sang; he played guitar; and he enjoyed, on occasion, roistering like any rip-roaring Irishman. I remember him once arriving at our dacha at 8 in the morning, after a night of carousing, with a Georgian actor in tow. He told some garbled story of their having walked through the night from Moscow from village to village, asking for where the Englishman lived. And that's how he'd found us; it was a miracle. In the meantime, did we have, perhaps, a little vodka and maybe a beer or two?


What I remember most now that he's dead, though, is his odd, fierce gentleness: his self-contained clarity, his shyness. He wasn't much of a man for parties: He didn't seem to know quite what they were for or what he was supposed to do at them. But from time to time he'd insist on taking us out to the House of Film's restaurant, or else to his marvelous room -- where he'd cook as marvelously.


The first time we ever went there he took down from the shelves a book of Protopop Avvakum, Russia's first dissident, and gave it to me, saying it was time I got round to learning Church Slavonic. For my birthday one year, he gave me with a wry smile a tiny, pillbox-size copy of the 1936 Constitution, that dream-document that neither Stalin -- who framed it -- nor anyone else ever paid the slightest attention to. Sasha was self-taught -- so he had the best of all teachers. He was a highly educated man.


I know that loss is a private matter -- and that elegies are usually mawkish. But Russia is a cruel place: It always seems to cut off the best in their prime and leave the rest -- the profit-takers and the time-servers who killed off the Russian film industry, for example -- a blithe old age. They will no doubt mourn for him, but I can't help thinking that they killed him too. Let us hope, then, that they mourn for themselves today -- as I do. God bless you, Sasha.