Nonna Mordyukova: Star of 'The Commissar', cause célèbre of glasnost cinema

Over fifty years, Nonna Mordyukova was one of the Soviet Union's most popular actresses, usually epitomising women facing difficult situations, but equally able to play comedy. She was recognised with state prizes, but also starred in the greatest cause célèbre of glasnost cinema.

Alexander Askoldov wrote Kommissar (The Commissar, 1967) specially for Mordyukova, and as a Red Army officer who falls pregnant and is billeted with a Jewish family, she brilliantly balances the character's militaristic strength and the vulnerability of a mother-to-be. However, rising Soviet anti-Semitism coincided with the Six-Day War and, when the director refused to remove Mordyukova's horrific premonition of the Holocaust, the film was canned. Twenty years later, glasnost's "unshelving" committee still refused to release it, until Askoldov shamed it into action. The film was internationally hailed and Mordyu-kova won several awards (none in her homeland), although it remains Askoldov's only film.

Mordyukova, named Noyabrina after the month of her, and the Soviet state's, birth, was the eldest child in the large family of a Donetsk collective farm chairwoman. "Nonna" entered Moscow's state film school in 1946, ironically starring in a dramatisation of Alexander Fadeyev's novel Molodiya gvardiya ("The Young Guard"), about a group of teenage partisans in Donetsk. In 1948 the director Sergei Gerasimov filmed the story, with many of the students, including Mordyukova, reprising their roles to win Stalin Prizes for their débuts. That year she married her co-star Vyacheslav Tikhonov and had a son, Vladimir, who later became a drug addict and died.

Mordyukova again drew on her childhood for Vozvrashchenie Vasiliya Bortnikova ("The Return of Vasili Bortnikov", 1952), an idealised view of a collective farm. Though the role was small, it gave her a chance to work with the old master Vsevolod Pudovkin.

In 1960 Budimir Metalnikov wrote Prostaya istoriya ("A Simple Story") for her. Again, her childhood was germane, as the story concerned a young widow who is suddenly made head of an under-performing collective farm. Mordyukova's transformation from grief, through to a hard-won victory, was one of her best performances. Two years later, in Predsedatel ("The Chairman"), she crossed the political border, and was equally compelling, to play the boorish wife of a non-collective farmer who has a child by a Nazi.

But Mordyukova was also at home in comedy, usually broad, as an officious caretaker in the massively popular slapstick-satire Brilliantova ruka ("Diamond Arm", 1968), or the tedious hausfrau in Zhenitba Balzaminova ("Balzaminov's Wedding", 1965).

With her solid, no-nonsense appearance, Mordyukova's "Soviet Everywoman" persona became so well loved that, in Rodnya ("Kinfolk", 1981), the director Nikita Mikhalkov knew she would win sympathy for the slightly pitiable provincial matriarch.

After Mama (1999), the story of a mother reuniting her children after a failed attempt to escape the Soviet Union, Mordyukova retired to avoid typecasting. Despite her successes (in 1992 Vladimir Putin awarded her the Order for Service to the Fatherland), it was only after complaints of poverty that she was given an apartment in Moscow. Nevertheless, summing up her outlook and those of many of her characters, her memoirs were entitled Ne plach, kazachka ("Don't Cry, Cossack Woman").

John Riley

Noyabrina Viktorovna Mordyukova, actress: born Konstantinovskaya, Soviet Union 25 November 1925; married 1948 Vyacheslav Tikhonov (one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1963); died Moscow 6 July 2008.

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