For Moscow Circus, Privatization Is No Laughing Matter

Igor Yashnikov, also known as Harry the Clown, says circus performers had few worries in the Soviet era.
Igor Yashnikov, also known as Harry the Clown, says circus performers had few worries in the Soviet era. "We didn't think about money or salary . . . and then came the market" economy. (By Anton Troianovski For The Washington Post)
By Anton Troianovski
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 29, 2007

MOSCOW -- Wandering backstage at the Great Moscow State Circus is like stepping into a strange childhood dream.

The clown sneaks a cigarette. An elephant greets a visitor with a raised front leg and an upturned trunk. The gymnasts and jugglers rehearse together in the small practice ring, lofting up rings, pins and a 12-year-old girl.

At this Soviet-era palace of the circus arts, there is also something else in the air: the fear that 15 years after the collapse of a state that poured almost limitless resources into making the Russian circus perhaps the best in the world, this way of life is disappearing.

"We didn't worry about anything, never stopped to think about anything," said Igor Yashnikov, 44, better known as Harry the Clown, recalling his early days in a circus troupe in Russia's Arctic north. "We didn't think about money or salary . . . and then came the market" economy.

The Moscow State Circus -- Russia's largest circus with a fixed venue for its performances -- is still drawing crowds. It reported 63 sellouts at its 3,000-seat arena for its holiday program this past winter.

But in April, a government decree included the circus on a list of hundreds of government-owned establishments to be privatized in 2008. Circus officials express concern that the move will leave the 36-year-old concrete-and-glass monolith in the hands of a bidder with different plans for what to do with the lucrative piece of Moscow real estate.

In the meantime, the circus is losing performers to higher-paying foreign shows such as Cirque du Soleil, while many potential members choose more lucrative careers in Russia's new economy. Those who remain are fiercely devoted to keeping the traditional Soviet ideal of the circus alive, even as popular culture and the economy grow increasingly inhospitable to it.

The upside-down body of Pavel Saprykin, 19, looks like the letter T with his legs forming a single horizontal line. His parents told him: "We can't help you with anything, you have to get everywhere yourself." So he came to Moscow from his home town in southwestern Russia to enter the country's sole remaining circus school. "Slowly," he said before breaking off the interview to go back to work, "I'm getting somewhere."

Circus troupes here are divided between performers like Saprykin who joined on their own and members of illustrious circus "dynasties" who inherited the craft as a family tradition.

"You may know that in Moscow there is a Durov Street," said Yuri Durov, 52, in his smoky, windowless studio. Durov's great-grandfather, Vladimir, began the dynasty, pioneering a Pavlovian, more humane method of training circus animals. Yuri has picked up his predecessors' mantle and, he says, become the only trainer in the world who can make an elephant crawl backwards under another one perched on two stools.

Upstairs in dressing room 23, Alexandra Levitskaya, 19, takes a break with fellow gymnast Vladlena Ananyeva, who just finished a spectacular act on a trapeze. Both are members of dynasties, which Ananyeva, 21, describes as a dying breed. "We're still holding on," she said proudly.

For those who do, stints abroad and moonlighting in nightclubs and casinos have become a way of life.

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