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.
Things were different when the circus was a darling of the Soviet establishment. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was its highest-ranking aficionado, and in his day, the Moscow State Circus reserved a special box that was frequented by the top brass of the Communist Party. Flush with funds, the circus became known for putting on lavish acts.
Such performances have had to be scaled down. To win the right to pick its own performers and run its own acts, the Moscow State Circus broke away in the 1990s from the state circus company that oversees and finances scores of shows across the country. The cost of this independence is that the government now subsidizes only 10 percent of the troupe's budget, leaving it in the very un-Soviet position of having to cover most of its operations with its own revenue. Yet because it is still government-owned, the circus lacks certain capitalist advantages, such as the right to rent out its venue for special events.
Nevertheless, spokeswoman Emilia Borovik says, the circus is fighting the government decision to privatize it as part of Russia's effort to sell off Soviet-era state property that does not fulfill an official function. She argues that whoever buys the property will hardly be interested in keeping the circus alive. More likely, she says, a new owner would build a 20-story hotel in its place with the six mechanically interchangeable circus rings kept intact as novelty items.
Officials at the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography, which oversees circuses, did not return requests for comment about the April 29 privatization decree.
The Moscow State Circus is the only circus included on the list. Its main competitor in Moscow, the Nikulin Circus on Tsvetnoy Boulevard, is on safer ground: It is privately run by the son of a late star clown.
But Vladimir Sergunin, chief strategist for the state circus company, sees the Moscow State Circus's predicament as fitting into a trend in which the circus has become less of an art form and more of a business that is being steadily marginalized in Russian culture.
"The connection between the generations is broken, the tradition has collapsed, and so the circus artists who remain will feel very sorry and drink a lot of vodka and regret that it all ended so ingloriously," Sergunin said.
The circus's 500 performers are very much aware of these uncertainties. Shortly before going back out into the arena for a finale, Natasha Maximova, a veteran acrobat who became an illusionist after suffering an injury in 1996, said that privatizing the circus would be tantamount to "throwing us out on the street."
"This is our work, our life. . . . It is our swamp in which we turn, twist and simmer," she said. "Where will we all go?"