On June 29, 1922, Feodor Chaliapin, one of the greatest opera singers of 20th century, left Russia as part of an official tour of Western Europe. Although he would never return again, he remained a Russian citizen to the end of his life.
Chaliapin created a sensation with his debut in 1895 at the age of twenty-one, and he soon became one of the most celebrated singers throughout Russia and the world. In addition to his magnificent voice, he was renowned for his intense acting and overwhelming stage presence. He created a wide range of characters and some of his best parts were playing Ivan the Terrible in “Maid of Pskov”, Mephistopheles in “Faust”, Susanin in “Ivan Susanin” and many more. In all his performances he mesmerized the audience with his dramatic presence on stage.
A well-respected critic Vladimir Stasov, after seeing Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “Sadko” described his reaction: “...the Viking himself suddenly appears, looking as if his bones had been hacked from the cliffs. There he stands, immense... His gigantic voice, the prodigious eloquence of his singing, the Herculean movements of his body and arms, as if a statue had been given life and movement, the look under his thick frowning brow: all this was so new, so powerfully and deeply real that I could not help asking myself, completely stunned, ‘But who is this, who is it? What actor? Where can one find people like that in Moscow? What amazing people!’ And suddenly in the interval I found out that it was none other than Chaliapin.”
Chaliapin conquered the international audience, performing in one of the world’s most famous opera houses the La Scala in Milan in 1899. Chaliapin’s talent soon received worldwide acclaim, performing in Rome, Monte Carlo, France, Berlin, New York and London. Chaliapin was adored in the USSR; it was a dream for many to attend his concerts at the Mariinsky Theater, which was constantly booked out.
After the revolution Chaliapin found the harsh realities of everyday life under the new Communist regime overwhelming and left Russia and settled down in Paris. He was denounced as an “anti-revolutionary” and deprived of all his Russian property. The Soviet government, as part of its campaign to pressure him into returning to Russia, stripped him of his title of “The First People’s Artist of the Soviet Republic”.
A close friend of Chaliapin, prominent Russian author Maxim Gorky, who was allegedly prodded by Joseph Stalin, attempted to persuade the singer to return home. In 1928 Gorky wrote him a letter: “There is talk about you performing in Rome? I will come and listen. Everyone wants to see you back in Moscow. Stalin, Voroshilov and many others told me so.” By this time Stalin himself announced that he was not against Chaliapin returning to Russia. But the singer was afraid of the consequences of his return and the public’s reaction. He was afraid of being prosecuted as the “enemy of the people” and being sent away to a labor camp.
In later life, Chaliapin especially missed home. He gradually lost the zest for life and stopped performing. In 1937 the singer was diagnosed with leukemia. Feodor Chaliapin died on April 12, 1938 in Paris. In 1984 at his children’s request his remains were reburied in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, alongside Russia’s most revered cultural figures.