Obituary: Yuri Nikulin

Not only was Yuri Nikulin one of the most-honoured artistes of the Moscow State Circus, he was also a film star in his native country, and was eventually appointed director of the circus, a position he held from 1984 until his death.

In the ring, Nikulin presented a phlegmatic character, slow and unsmiling, and to many in the West his personality was reminiscent of the great silent film comedian Buster Keaton. Rich in mimicry, doleful of expression, Nikulin was hailed as "a brainy clown" outside Russia, simple in style and gentle with children, with a reddened nose and eyes lined in black his only vestiges of make-up, so different to the grotesques of Western circuses.

Although he worked extensively in Western Europe and America and Canada, his one appearance in England was from 20 May to 1 July 1961, when he was featured in the Moscow State Circus staged at the Wembley Empire Pool by the impresario Tom Arnold. Nikulin, along with his partner Mikhail Shuidin, assisted the favourite clown of the Soviet Union, Karandash.

Karandash, who held the title of "People's Artiste of the USSR", had led the development of Russian clowning away from the coarse buffoonery generally expected, to a simpler and more naturalistic form of humour. Both Oleg Popov, now the most famous of all Russian circus clowns, and Nikulin started their clown careers as assistants to the great Karandash.

Nikulin, who was born in Smolensk in 1921, studied to be a clown at the famous Moscow State Circus school and like Popov joined the circus itself under Karandash's guidance in 1950. Popov had the distinction of being in the very first Russian circus to tour the West in 1956, being hailed as a young comic genius following his appearances in Manchester and London.

Nikulin followed in 1961, and was so highly regarded by the Soviet authorities that he was allowed to go on tours of the Russian circus to Australia and New Zealand (in 1965 and 1974), to the United States and Canada (1967/68), France (1969/70) and even to Finland (1977).

Nikulin's path to fame was a long and difficult one. He had once dreamed of becoming a cinema actor, but had not been accepted by the Institute of Cinematography in Russia. When he became a clown, he teamed up with Mikhail Shuidin and they together revived the popular comic characters Pat and Patashon in the ring.

Nikulin and Shuidin first met each other after the Second World War. Nikulin spent part of the time during the war on the border with Finland, as senior sergeant in artillery reconnaissance, and was awarded some of the Soviet Union's highest honours, among them the Hero of Socialist Labour and the Order of Lenin. Shuidin was the commander of a T-34 tank, and both of them had seen hard fighting and gained valuable experience of life at its most tough.

When they met at the circus clown studio at the Moscow Circus, they found it staffed with excellent trainers who passed on to pupils all the creative experience and traditions of the Soviet circus, learning most from Karandash. Nikulin and Shuidin were quick to master the main principals which Karandash stressed in his teaching - that a good clown must first and foremost be a skilled dramatic actor, sincere and honest in his art.

From their debut in the autumn of 1950, they were established as a popular clown duo, and Nikulin's own personal popularity grew immensely when he made a successful screen debut in the film A Girl with a Guitar, playing the comic role of a pyrotechnist, in 1958. This was followed by roles in Yasha Toporkov, Nadya's Charges, The Dog Barbos and The Unusual Cross, Men of Affairs and other films. His roles in the films When the Trees Were Tall and Hore, Mukhtar!, showed new facets of Nikulin's talents as an actor. In 1967 he starred in Caucasian Prisoner, playing the leader of an incompetent trio of crooks and in Diamond Arm (1968) he played a mild-mannered man who gets caught up in a diamond- smuggling scheme. He also starred in the gloomy - yet widely acclaimed - film, Twenty Days Without War, in 1977.

His typical film roles portrayed him as a slightly silly, average person, witty but never mean-spirited, and in the West he has been compared with Cantinflas and Fernandel as well as Jacques Tati. He was also to become the star of many television shows and to children in the Soviet Union he was known simply as "Uncle Yuri". Many of his most famous lines in films became part of the national culture. He had a vast private collection of jokes, with newspapers frequently printing the best of them.

Nikulin's popularity from the circus ring to the big screen and television spanned the generations, from little children to their grandparents, helping to create for him a universal appeal considered rare in the Soviet Union. Earlier this summer, Nikulin himself said: "I'm sure that humour helps people survive the difficulties of life. Laughter helps those who are suffering."

Despite his film success, Nikulin returned to the Old Circus Building in Moscow to become its Artistic Director from 1982 to 1984, after which he was appointed its overall director, working hard to reinvigorate the popularity of the most-loved of Russian entertainments. He remained in this post long after most would have retired and last December, the circus held a grand celebration in honour of his 75th birthday. A sprained ankle prevented the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, from performing a planned trapeze act in homage to Nikulin.

Nikulin and Shuidin enriched the art of contemporary circus clowning in the Soviet Circus through their skills as satirists, mastering the techniques and skill of the dramatic actor to reveal the inner world, the psychological depths of human characters. This was the distinctive and novel feature which gave their duo in the arena such impact and appeal not only in Russia but around the world.

D. Nevil

Yuri Nikulin, clown and actor: born Smolensk 18 December 1921; married (one son); died Moscow 21 August 1997.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US