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Nikita Khrushchev (in Russian pronounced Khru-shchOF with the long ‘o’ sound, for those who don’t know) is one of those deeply controversial characters of Russian history. He led a de-Stalinization campaign after wresting power behind the scenes in the first years following Stalin’s death. The Stalinists were never happy about that and they had their revenge when power was wrested back from Khrushchev’s hands in 1964. While Khrushchev acted in a Stalinist manner with his rivals in the mid-50s – having his main rival Lavrenty Beria shot in a basement – those who deposed him a decade later behaved in a Khrushchevian manner: They put him out to pasture in his beautiful dacha in the woods outside of Moscow and left him alone, even letting him write his memoirs (although they could be published only when smuggled to the West).
I have an incredibly tenuous, but deeply memorable, real connection to Khrushchev. I was working as a freelance consultant and translator for ABC News in 1990, and we went out to the famed dacha to interview Khrushchev’s son Sergei about the changes then happening in Russia. I wasn’t much needed on that little trip, because Sergei spoke very good English. In fact, within a year he emigrated to the United States where he took up teaching positions in various East Coast universities. However, before the TV crew got down to the business of filming and interviewing Sergei, there were a few moments of chit chat. I exchanged a few words with Sergei and the conversation went quickly to the beauty of an artifact that stood, or hung, right in the entryway. This was a gorgeous old burka, a traditional Georgian coat that had been given as a gift to Nikita on some state occasion. The family kept it, surely because of its beauty, for all those years afterwards. And then Sergei said to me, “Why don’t you put it on?” And he went to pull if off the stand on which it hung. He put it over my shoulders, a photographer snapped a photo or two (which I have never seen), everyone laughed and declared it a beautiful fit, and then Sergei removed it from my shoulders and put it back on the rack. From there everybody got down to work.
Even now, 25 years later, I can still feel the weight of that burka on my shoulders. For me it was an intimate moment spent with Khrushchev, a moment almost inside the man who brought as much change to Russia as any other individual who ever lived. (For the record: Burkas can be black or white, but my burka, Khrushchev’s burka, was white and looked precisely like the one on this man’s shoulders in a photo I found on the internet.)
Khrushchev had a huge impact on Russian culture. It wasn’t always good. One of his most famous moves was to shut down an exhibit of nonconformist art in 1962. As he walked through the exhibit he grew increasingly angry and shouted obscenities at the artists, threatening to deport them. Not one of his better days. But Khrushchev also unleashed The Thaw, that short-lived, but powerful era in Soviet history which gave rise to a completely new attitude, style and content in Russian culture. The nonconformist art that Khrushchev so hated was made possible by his radical change in government policy. In just a few short years, Soviet theater, literature, painting, film and every other form of art were transformed. The spirit of youth flooded into a cultural territory that had been dominated by the old and the gray.
Folks in the West know Khrushchev as a bit of a caricature for the threat he made to “bury the West” and for the – very possibly apocryphal – incident when he “banged” his shoe on a table at the U.N. Wikipedia gives you some info on that.
But Khrushchev was not a caricature. He was a man of flesh and blood and conscience. I will not dig too deeply into the complicated catacombs of the latter, for historians have broken more pens, typewriters and computers on that one than I have time to deal with at the present moment. But it is a fact that Khrushchev was a figure who fully encompassed the dark and the light of his age.
That is precisely why the great sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, when creating the monument for Khrushchev’s grave, enclosed a very sympathetic image of the leader’s head in a twisted, unsymmetrical jungle, if you will, of black and white blocks.
Neizvestny, by the way, was one of those artists whose work Khrushchev lambasted in 1960. He called his sculptures degenerate and accused him of distorting the faces of the Soviet people. One applauds the Khrushchev family for asking Neizvestny to create the sculpture for the grave site, and one sees Neizvestny’s grace in the beautiful, human, realistic (not “distorted”) rendition of Khrushchev in a moment of peace and repose. So much has been written about this that it can easily slip into cliche. But when you stand before the monument, as I did yesterday, one sees nothing but the beauty and the quiet power of the work.
I happened to pass by Khrushchev’s monument at the Novodevichy Cemetery yesterday because I was attending the funeral of the great Soviet-Russian filmmaker Eldar Ryazanov, a man I admired deeply and who was a cherished family friend.
Arguably, no single artist defined the Soviet experience from the period of the The Thaw until the present day better than Ryazanov (1927-2015). It is received wisdom that his best films were made between 1956 and the late 1970s, and that his work was of less interest from the 1980s on. People are going to argue that until they are blue in the face. That statement will remain with us, and it will remain without a definitive answer. As such, I have no interest getting into that. I mention it because it’s there, but the magnitude, the impact, the contribution made by Ryazanov to his nation from his first film in the the 1950s until his last in 2007 is, frankly, incalculable.
I don’t think Russians of the last 50-60 years loved anyone with the love and respect that they had for Ryazanov. When with him, I saw crowds of people – whether on foot or in cars – come to a dead stop when they saw him coming. I once felt as though I were following Moses through the Red Sea as Ryazanov stopped heavy traffic on a four-lane road merely by stepping into the flow of cars. He didn’t bother to look first, he didn’t bother to hold up his hand. He just stepped off the curb and went, and cars on all sides respectfully came to a stop to let him – and us with him – pass. If you know Russian traffic, you know this simply does not happen. Russian drivers do not stop for anyone. They did for Ryazanov.
I will have plenty of opportunities to write more about Eldar Ryazanov. I will seek them out.
But today, the day after we laid him to rest, I want to keep it simple. I want to share a few words that others have spoken in his regard. The phrase I have heard most often is, “the end of an era.” Every one who said that felt compelled to admit that this is a clichéd phrase, but that, in regards to Ryazanov, it is quite simply the truth.
The playwright and director Sergei Kokovkin wrote to me that “an entire continent has sailed away from us.”
The actress Tatyana Dogileva echoed many when she said at the public farewell that Ryazanov had educated and fine-tuned the conscience of several generations of Russians.
Also speaking at the public farewell, Lia Akhedzhakova, one of Ryazanov’s favorite actresses, told how Ryazanov freed her to speak the truth openly and forcefully. “He taught me to open my mouth and to tell the truth,” she said.
Radio personality Ksenia Larina wrote, “Ryazanov valued freedom ferociously, because he knew what life was like for an artist without freedom: not one of his Soviet-period films escaped the censor’s scissors.”
The journalist Alexander Timofeevsky wrote, “”Ryazanov is being mourned in Moscow as [Hans Christian] Andersen was mourned in Copenhagen, as [Antoni] Gaudi in Barcelona.”
My wife, Oksana Mysina, who acted for Ryazanov in his penultimate film, called him the “conscience of the nation.”
As for me, I was incapable of looking at Ryazanov without seeing a whole nation. He was that big. His aura was that full and strong. This has nothing to do with his famous love for food. (He loved his food and, more importantly, he loved his appetite. He recognized it as an expression of his prodigious love for life and anything that sustained it.) It has everything to do with the magnitude of the phenomenon that was Eldar Ryazanov. He was as simple and as down-to-earth as anyone you can possibly imagine. He was approachable, he was generous and kind. And yet he had a full knowledge of his importance, and of the responsibility he carried as a man in whom an entire nation saw itself reflected.
Ryazanov’s first feature film, the classic Carnival Night, came into being, in large part, because of Nikita Khrushchev. Ryazanov told the story about how he, a fairly successful documentary filmmaker (he made seven documentary films between 1950 and 1955), became a maker of feature films. One day in 1955 he was called into the office of Ivan Pyryev, a legendary Soviet film director who was appointed the head of Mosfilm Studios in 1954. Pyryev told Ryazanov that if he didn’t produce a good comedy in short order, he would be fired. The word had come down from on high: We want a comedy. But there was no one in the stable of Soviet directors capable of making one. There was, however, this documentary director Ryazanov, whose sense of humor and purpose was already legendary. It was Pyryev’s belief and his hunch that Ryazanov might be the answer to the problem. Indeed, Carnival Night was a monstrous hit, easily becoming the most popular film of the year. As it tells the story of a New Year celebration with wit, intelligence and affection – as well as with some pointedly barbed political statements – it has continued to be shown with regularity every New Year right down to our own time.
Ryazanov now rests about 50 yards away from Khrushchev. Look at the middle photo in the block above. You’ll see a red wall in the back. Ryazanov’s plot of earth is located just beyond that, a little to the right.
As the Russians say: May the earth be down to him.