Lyudmila Gurchenko2017 918
After Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin's "cult of personality" at the 20th party congress in February 1956, political and cultural life in the Soviet Union underwent many changes. One of the first films to benefit from "the thaw" was Eldar Ryazanov's musical-comedy Carnival Night (1956), starring Lyudmila Gurchenko.
The 21-year-old Gurchenko herself attracted a cult of personality with her sparkling performance as an enthusiastic member of a Soviet youth group (Komsomol) who is planning a fun-filled New Year's Eve celebration at the "house of culture". She is pitted against a pompous middle-aged bureaucrat who wants to make the occasion serious and educational by inserting communist slogans into the show. Tired of socialist realist films, which were required to glorify the revolution and the power of the collective, audiences hungry for comedies and musicals flocked to Carnival Night, and Gurchenko, with her sweet lyric soprano voice – the Soviet equivalent of Jane Powell, MGM's soubrette – became extremely popular.
You can watch or download Carnival Night (Карнавальная ночь, 1956) with English sub:
Born in Ukraine, where much of her childhood was spent under German occupation, Gurchenko moved to Moscow in 1954 to study at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) under Tamara Makarova. After her triumph in Carnival Night, Gurchenko toured Russia with a show that included songs from the film. However, at the same time, there were some rumblings among the party leaders that Gurchenko's style was "too western and out of line with Soviet standards", forgetting that one of Stalin's favourite films was the musical Jazz Comedy (1934). In addition, a newspaper accused Gurchenko of accepting cash from admirers to supplement her state-set salary, and questioned her patriotism when she refused to become a KGB informer.
Unfortunately, the first film of the most satisfying period of her career, Aleksei German's Twenty Days Without War (1976), in which she played the falsely optimistic ex-wife of a war correspondent, was banned during Leonid Brezhnev's epoch of stagnation, presumably because of its anti-war theme that stresses the difference between those who experienced the fighting and those at home who needed romantic and heroic illusions. By the time it was released in 1981, Gurchenko had gained international exposure in Andrei Konchalovsky's three-hour plus epic Siberiade (1979), which depicted the lives of two families, one rich and one poor, in a Siberian village from 1909 to 1969. Winner of the special jury prize at Cannes, it starred Nikita Mikhalkov (the director's actor-director brother) as a flamboyant oilman in love with a free-spirited Gurchenko, from the richer family.
You can watch or download Twenty Days Without War (Двадцать дней без войны, 1976) with English sub:
You can watch or download Siberiade (Сибириада, 1979) with English sub:
Mikhalkov then directed Gurchenko in Five Evenings (1979), based on the 1959 play by Alexander Volodin, in which she played a lonely middle-aged woman who is visited by a man with whom she was romantically involved just before war broke out. Their attempt to rekindle their relationship takes place over five evenings characterised by revelations and vicissitudes. Disillusioned, she says at one point: "I do not believe blindly any more", in reference to the character's previously rigid communist views.
You can watch or download Five Evenings (Пять вечеров, 1979) with English sub:
In 1983, a year after the death of Brezhnev, Gurchenko received the title of People's Artist of the USSR, the highest honour that could be bestowed on a performer. In the same year, she starred in Her Beauty Secrets (1983), based on Karel Capek's play The Makropulos Secret, in which she portrayed a diva who, with the help of a secret formula, has been able to live for more than 300 years and keep her beauty. Ironically, it became known that Gurchenko herself had had a series of facelifts.
At the same time, she was reunited with Ryazanov, who had, since Carnival Night, become Russia's most successful and prolific comedy director, for A Railway Station for Two (1983). The role of the sassy waitress in a station cafe who becomes romantically involved with one of her customers remains one of her most memorable.
You can watch or download A Railway Station for Two (Вокзал для двоих, 1983) with English sub:
She continued to act on stage, in films and on television into her 70s. In 2000, she was awarded the 4th Degree Order for Service to the Motherland. (The 3rd and 2nd degrees are awarded to only a few extremely distinguished individuals, and the 1st degree is nominally held by a serving president.) Gurchenko is survived by her fifth husband, Sergei Senin, and her daughter Maria, from her first marriage.
Text The Guardian, 2011