On June 2, 1927, the pro-government “Komsomolskaya Pravda” newspaper published a poem by the renowned “proletariat” poet Vladimir Mayakovsky “Mister People’s Artist”, featuring an appalling slander of Russia’s greatest opera singer Feodor Chaliapin, accusing him of being a bourgeois artist. The denouncing poem was a bitter start of the massive persecution campaign against the singer by the Soviet authorities, which had forever closed the way back for Chaliapin to his beloved Russia.
The pretext for Mayakovsky’s outburst was a letter of a Russian priest published in the emigrant media, expressing gratitude for the donation of 5000 francs Chaliapin had made to support starving emigrant children. In the single-minded Soviet Union such a gesture was predictably interpreted as financial aid to the bourgeois émigrés, and Chaliapin was relieved of the greatest honor, the People’s Artist title he’d been awarded in 1918. The outcry of the “Working Artist” magazine represented the general Soviet response to Chaliapin’s gesture, “How can we keep quiet? For how long will we stand mockery and humiliation of this court minion ‘People’s Artist’? Why not admit that there is no place among true people of art, among proud holders of the People’s Artist title for people-chameleons, reclaimed people, like mister Chaliapin?”
Chaliapin spent the rest of his days in Paris, still retaining Russian citizenship, and was buried in France. Parisian authorities had so much piety toward his talent they allowed him a place in one of the cemeteries and engraved, “Here lies the genius of the Russian Land” on his tombstone. None of his relatives were allowed out of Soviet Russia to attend the funeral. It was not until 1984 that Chaliapin’s relics were brought back to Russia, but so strong the prejudice against the great singer was, the reburial was very hasty and discreet to avoid “unnecessary fuss”.
In his lifetime Chaliapin’s relations with Soviet Russia was very contradictory. His perfectionism and attention to detail were presented by the Soviet authorities as fastidiousness and willfulness; the large incomes he received for his outstanding talent evoked bitter grudge and entailed a more desirable explanation that this money had been earned unjustly. Invited to head the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters, he was humiliated by the communal services at his house, and had all of his property confiscated, down to the wine collection. Very open and enthusiastic about the revolution at the beginning – Chaliapin honestly thought that socialism would bring freedom for creative people. He was bitterly disillusioned at the end, “I noticed that openness and sincerity so likable in the first socialists lacked in their new breed. Their mendacity strikes the eyes wherever you look. They lie at meetings, in newspapers, at all institutions and organizations.” At the same time, when asked by a journalist if he accepted socialism, he responded, “What does it mean – accept? How can one not accept Russia?”
Though deprived of all his honors and practically driven out of the country, Chaliapin kept receiving messages from writer Maxim Gorky and director Vladimir Nemitrovich-Danchenko, who voiced requests from the Soviet authorities and Joseph Stalin himself to come back to Russia and give performances in exchange for restitution. Chaliapin, however, though deeply in love with Russia and forever a Russian citizen, well foresaw his imminent fate; in a letter to his daughter he wrote, “I am known to be a notorious criminal back there, and in such cases, negotiations are not the option (with the authorities). Once I am there – they’ll send me off to the Solovki, no matter how hard I try to look for excuses. And I am too old for so challenging an adventure.”