Eda Urusova, born Yevdokia Urusova in 1908 in Moscow, died in 1996 in the building you see here. Her family, which by then consisted of Urusova, her son Yury Unkovsky and his wife, occupied the first-floor apartment, two windows of which you see immediately below in the lower left corner. I know that because my wife Oksana (often) and I (occasionally) dropped by and said hello through the windows. The address is 6 Chistoprudny Lane not far from Pushkin Square, but it is one of those almost invisible buildings in Moscow that is set way back from the street, deep into a courtyard that is probably 150 yards or more from the street it officially stands on.
Eda Urusova was an extraordinary woman who lived an extraordinary – by which I mean to say extraordinarily difficult – life. I wrote a bit about her in one of my old Moscow Times TheaterPlus blogs in 2009. Much of what I’ll write about her here comes from stories my wife tells. Oksana performed with Urusova in Boris Lvov-Anokhin’s production of Michael Redgrave’s dramatization of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers from 1993 to Urusova’s death in 1996. The two became close and Oksana often went to see Urusova at home, where she was essentially confined because she could no longer walk. The theater had to send a car with a healthy driver who could help get her seated in the front seat and then drive her to the theater where they would wheel her to the stage in her wheel chair. She performed in her wheelchair in The Aspern Papers. I’ll get to the reasons for that in a moment, but I want to begin with something else.
Urusova once told Oksana how easy it was for her to get into the theater when she was still a young girl. You see, her uncle, I believe it was, was the great playright Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin. So all she had to do was to go up the box office, share this information, and they would let her in.
If you know Russian history at all you know the Urusova family name was one of the most prominent in Russian public life from the late 17th century. It is a family of princes and princesses and it included many major government figures, lawyers and public activists. Eda Urusova – for everyone called Yevdokia “Eda” for most of her life – was a direct descendant. She was also related to the popular 19th century writers Yevgenia Tur (Yelizaveta Salias-de-Turnemir, nee Sukhovo-Kobylina) and Yevgeny Salias. In short, Urusova was born into the hot cauldron of great Russian culture.
For the record, it also turned out that Oksana had a curious connection to Urusova. Once she began rehearsing with the famous actress in late 1992 or early 1993, her mother recalled an old family legend, that one of their ancestors had been a serf violinist in the serf orchestra of one of the Urusovs in the 19th century.
Urusova and her husband Mikhail Unkovsky were the star actors at the relatively new Yermolova Theater in the mid-1930s. If one didn’t star in one of the theater’s shows, the other did. They often played leads in tandem. That fairy-tale story began to crumble in May 1938, when Unkovsky, who was also from a famous family – his grandfather was an admiral – was arrested. Urusova was arrested a month later, on June 17, as the theater was setting out from Moscow to Leningrad on a tour. The arrest took place right on the platform of the Leningrad Train Station. Unkovsky, whose legs were amputated because of severe frostbite, died in Siberia in 1940. Urusova would spend the next 17 years – from age 30 to 47 – in the labor camps (technically speaking, 13 years in actual labor camps, four years in exile in Norilsk). As she later put it, her profession saved her life. Being one of Moscow’s most popular actors, she was invited to perform in various labor camp theaters, thus allowing her to avoid hard labor in impossible conditions. Throughout her life of prison and exile she performed with several great Russian actors, including Innokenty Smoktunovsky (who was not a prisoner) and Georgy Zhzhyonov (who, like Urusova spent 17 years in the camps). She also crossed paths with the great children’s theater director Natalya Sats. The nature of these theaters meant that very little information about Urusova’s work was preserved for posterity. For those interested, there is a book by Natalia Kuziakina, Theater in the Solovki Prison Camp about one such theater, though not one that Urusova worked in. Urusova’s “easy” life in the camps was definitely a matter of degree, however. By the time she returned to Moscow around 1955, she was barely able to walk, her legs and feet having suffered terrible frostbite, to say nothing of the fact that she looked 15 or 20 years older than her actual age. She went from playing lead romantic roles in the late 1930s to playing bit parts of grandmothers after resuming her career at the Yermolova.
The tragedy of Urusova’s life was also her triumph, of course. She was an extraordinarily strong, wise woman. She bore the cross of a stolen life with great dignity. Virtually forgotten by directors and audiences by the end of her life, she was brought back for a powerful swan song in The Aspern Papers. Lvov-Anokhin had known and admired her for decades and he staged The Aspern Papers specifically to give Urusova a role commensurate to her neglected talent.
Oksana recalls one story Urusova told about her time in exile in Norilsk. This is where she not only worked with Zhzhyonov and Smoktunovsky (who came there voluntarily to avoid being arrested for having been a prisoner-of-war during World War II), but lived with them in the same dormitory. Urusova told how the bitter cold winds of up to -50 C were so strong that they had to string a cord from the dorm to the theater so that the actors would have something to hang onto and would not be blown away on their short trip to work.
Another note Oksana recalls: Urusova told how the peasants in the labor camp where she first arrived in 1938 immediately gave her advice that saved her life. They told her, “Never go out and cut forest wood. It is too difficult. We know how to do it, you don’t. You will not survive.” As a result, Urusova was able to convince the guards that watched the prisoners at work to allow her to be the group’s storyteller, if you will. She would sit next to the great bonfire they built in the frozen woods each day, and in her booming, actor’s voice, she would retell for everyone in hearing distance all of Russian literature that she could remember by heart – including Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and virtually all of Pushkin’s poetry.
At my request Oksana just now recalled for me Urusova’s last performance. Urusova had recently fallen and had broken her hand and leg, causing a long layoff between performances, to say nothing of causing a great deal of pain. She mustered all her strength and made it through the entire play without a single problem. When the time came for her final words to be spoken – something along the lines of “We all die sooner or later” – Urusova, with her broken hand, tossed a bouquet she was holding high over her head as if it were a glass of champagne, and added her own final lines: “But I’m a long way off from that!” Oksana said the entire hall burst into applause. Unable to perform again, she died a few months later.
Urusova’s son Yury Unkovsky was born shortly before his parents were taken away from him, and for all intents and purposes he first saw his mother when he was 17 or 18 years old. It was a wound he never quite got over. His love for her and the way he doted on her in her old age was quite touching. Shortly before he died a few years ago he published a book Eda Urusova: Actress from a Princely Family.