The killer crown craze is one of the creepiest things in the news of late, with sightings having allegedly reached Russia. But don’t let them taint the memories of the good old clowns. Thankfully, the Russian cultural tradition is rich in the latter, whether they are here to make you laugh, contemplate life or lip-sync to Bulgarian songs.
Karandash (also known as Caran d’Ache) is a character played by actor Mikhail Rumyantsev, and couldn’t be further from “killer”. At the beginning of his career Rumyantsev was inspired by Charlie Chaplin, but as he grew more popular Karandash became quite unique – a comical if slightly sad individual, very short (Rumyantsev was just 142 cm), in an oversized suit and a hat, clumsy and awkward, and constantly finding himself in ridiculous situations.
Slava Polunin is a household name in the Russian clown tradition. Now aged 66, he is one of the founders of the Litsedei pantomime theatre in St Petersburg, as well numerous other projects and sketches, including Diabolo, co-produced with Terry Gilliam. His classic shows like Slava’s Snowshow and Asisyai Revue are world-renowned and sell out pretty quickly with every new tour. The audiences loves his mix of clownery and performance, which is both funny and touching. “The clown brings us anarchy, freedom and intuition,” Polunin has remarked “It’s a very Russian combination.”
Yuri Kuklachev is the founder of Moscow’s Cat Theatre and a clown – although his performances always include cats. Performing for nearly 40 years now, he says he builds his performances around the cats’ personalities by seeing what they like and can do. He was accused of animal rights abuse by a Russian blogger in 2009 but was later acquitted in court.
Yuri Nikulin and Mikhail Shuydin
Yuri Nikulin is a famous Soviet actor who’s also well known as a clown. He started as Karandash’s assistant, and it was during this time that he met Mikhail Shuydin, with whom he formed a clown duo. Most of their performances were built around the differences in their dispositions. Each sketch plays out so — a serious and phlegmatic Nikulin is usually bothered and annoyed by the rowdy prankster Shuydin, and hilarity ensues. Both wore minimal makeup and donned suits with cropped trousers and oversized shoes. Moreover, some of their performances were actually aimed at adults and not children, such as the Alcoholics sketch.
Oleg Popov accumulated many awards over his clown career and his traditional outfit of floppy checkered newsboy cap and wide striped trousers are as recognisable for many Russians as that of Karandash’s oversized suit. Popov was once nicknamed the “Sunshine clown” by a French journalist, for a performance in which he tried to catch a sunbeam, and the name stuck, becoming a symbol of his sunny and joyful disposition. The classic sketch also happened to be the last one that he ever performed on stage before he died earlier last week.
Leonid Yengibarov is widely recognised in Russia as one of the founders of the country’s philosophical clown pantomime. Rather than make you laugh, his character – a sad poetic clown and mime – aimed to make you smile as you got lost in deep philosophical reflections. For a while, his performances were met with mixed reviews — many complained, saying they watched clowns to be entertained and not be “forced to contemplate”. However, nowadays he is viewed with adoration as one of the classic Russian clowns.
Robert Gorodetsky is author of one of the most famous sketches in Russian clownery – the Blue Canary, originally performed by the Litsedei theatre. Based on a song by Bulgarian duo Maria Koseva and Nikolay Tomov, the sketch quickly became synonymous with Russian theatre, as well as the clown tradition in general.