A recent nighttime stroll down Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main thoroughfare, brought me upon this plaque honoring the Soviet film director Sergei Bondarchuk (1920-1994). There are dozens of reasons to know and love Bondarchuk and his films, but I think most would agree that one particular reason stands out above all others – his film of War and Peace (1967). The mass battle scenes amazed even Hollywood at the time (War and Peace won the 1968 Oscar for best film in a foreign language) and Bondarchuk’s own performance of Pierre Bezukhov, one of Tolstoy’s key protagonists, was iconic. Even when I look at the pictures of Bondarchuk’s sculpted image here, I see a slightly older Pierre more than I see Bondarchuk.
Bondarchuk liked big. The majority of his nine films were of the kind that would attract epithets such as “sweeping,” “grand” and “grandiose.” Beyond War and Peace, his other epic-sized films included Waterloo (1970), They Fought for their Homeland (1975), the two-part Red Bells about the Mexican Revolution (1982-83), Boris Godunov (1986), and Quiet Flows the Don (1994). Waterloo, following the highly successful War and Peace, was produced by the powerful Italian producer Dino De Laurentis and it starred Rod Steiger as Napoleon, Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington, and Orson Welles as Louis XVIII. You will notice that Bondarchuk had a soft spot for war and revolution…. I don’t know whether that specifically was the reason why he was so popular with the Soviet authorities or not. But he was. His list of awards on Russian Wikipedia runs 4 times as long as his list of films, and only a handful of those were from outside Russia. Bondarchuk was one of the most celebrated official artists of the second half of the Soviet period.
It would appear that the resounding success of War and Peace is what put Bondarchuk into the elite block of apartments at Tverskaya Street 9, just a stone’s throw or two from the Kremlin. The plaque informs us that he moved into the building in 1968 and remained there until his death in 1994. In the Soviet period, of course, apartments were handed out to people by the government. You didn’t get an apartment in the neighborhood of the Kremlin for nothing.
Bondarchuk was the originator of a large dynasty that continues to affect Russian film, art and public discourse today. Among his two sons and two daughters, plus numerous in-laws and grandchildren, there number some six actors and directors, a composer and a television host. Of them all his son Fyodor, from Sergei’s third marriage, is the most successful. He made his name as a music video director and then produced several popular blockbuster-type films in the 2000s.
Careful and knowledgeable readers will notice in the photo that follows immediately that the Bondarchuk apartment house stands on the intersection of Tverskaya Street and Bryusov Lane. Bryusov Lane is also an important address for many important Russian cultural figures, including Vsevolod Meyerhold and numerous actors of the Bolshoi Theater and the Moscow Art Theater. You can actually see the elevator shaft of Meyerhold’s building in the distance in the last photo below. But I get ahead of myself…
Sergei Bondarchuk was born in what was called “the” Ukraine at the time, in the small village of Byelozyorka. Against his father’s wishes, he began taking steps to become an actor in the late 1930s. He studied acting in Rostov-on-Don from 1938 to 1941, breaking off his education to volunteer for the Red Army after Germany attacked the Soviet Union. He debuted as an actor on the stages of Taganrog, the city famed for being Anton Chekhov’s hometown. After the war, Bondarchuk graduated from the cinema institute (1948) and made his debut as an actor that same year, performing in the hugely popular film The Young Guard. Throughout his career he performed in approximately 40 films.