Arkady Raikin is one of those rare figures that most every culture has a handful of over its history – someone that everyone knows (or claims to know) intimately and loves absolutely unconditionally. I’m thinking of people like Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour… In Russian culture I would hazard to say that the unqualified love and respect which Russians have for Raikin (1911-1987) is only rivaled by the affection that they feel for the great poet Alexander Pushkin. Raikin was a comic actor, although calling him that is a bit like calling Everest a mere mountain. It’s true, but… He was a one-man theater, but our impressions of that genre tend towards the image of a cute eccentric busking on the streets. Raikin filled 1,000-seat theaters in the Soviet Union for four or five decades. His television programs were the most beloved of his time and in reruns today they remain as popular as ever. Raikin was a master of comedy, a master of mask, a master of quick change artistry. While households in the United States were howling at the antics of Lucy Ball or Jackie Gleason in the new medium of comic television, Raikin was delighting homebound audiences from the Polar Circle to Central Asia, from Sakhalin Island in the Far East to the Baltic States in the West. Raikin’s skits were hilarious – I saw him perform live in 1979 in Leningrad and I’ll never forget the way an entire auditorium groaned with laughter for two hours straight – but they were also thought-provoking, wise and often just a little bit melancholic. They were the stuff of life’s paradoxes in miniature. The photos here are of a bust that stands in the foyer of the Satirikon Theater in Moscow. This venue, run by Arkady’s son Konstantin Raikin, is the heir to a theater Arkady ran in Leningrad for decades. He moved to Moscow in the late 1980s, but never really had a chance to do anything there before he died.
The bust in the Satirikon’s foyer is small but elegant. It does what any good sculpted image of a human does – it changes depending upon the angle at which you view it. Look at the top photo above and you see a rather inscrutable face, a hard, chiseled profile that doesn’t quite let you in on what Raikin might be thinking. But look at the photo immediately below, taken from the opposite side – there’s the slightest bit of a smile and a real twinkle in that right eye.
In the theater’s foyer there are also several exhibits of costumes and scripts and masks that Raikin used thoughout his career. Below are photos of two booths holding some of his masks. Behind the faceless fake foreheads you see photos of what Raikin looked like in some of his most famous guises.