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Prominent Russians: Lyudmila Gurchenko

November 12, 1935 – March 30, 2011
Lyudmila Gurchenko Lyudmila Gurchenko

Lyudmila Gurchenko was one of the greatest and brightest Soviet dramatic actresses of the 20th century. The iconic actress was also extremely popular in the USSR and in Russia due to her enormous talent in singing. She starred in such landmark films of Soviet cinema as Carnival Night, Railway Station for Two and many others.

Little actress

Lyudmila Gurchenko was born in the town of Kharkov (now Ukraine). She was born when her mother was still at school. Her father was a miner, but he had to resign due to health problems. To make ends meet her mother accompanied her husband, who was an accordionist, in various performances in kindergartens and schools. The little girl was a born actress. Guests who visited their home enjoyed her bright performances and give her treats. For five and a half years, Lyudmila, or Lyusya, like many other children, was taken good care of.

The war

But suddenly her happy childhood was disturbed. “War! War!” She heard this word from everywhere. She didn’t understand what war was and why everybody was so scared of it. But soon Lyucya learned and saw for herself the horrors of war, the bombings and the bloodshed. Kharkov was totally ruined. Soon Lyucya’s father volunteered for the army. Her mother was twenty-four years-old. On the one hand, she couldn’t understand how to survive without her husband. On the other hand, she respected her husband’s noble impulse to defend his motherland.

Lyudmila Gurchenko with parents Lyudmila Gurchenko with parents

A German military unit was neighboring Lyucya’s house. She watched the soldiers every day. They were marching, playing games while resting and eating. She, like all locals, was starving, and the smell of food was so tempting. One day, despite her fear,  she went there and started singing. The soldiers laughed and gave her some soup. That was how the little girl saved herself and her mother during the years of German occupation.

On the 23rd of August in 1943, the Soviet Red Army liberated Kharkov. In September, Lyucya entered school. It was a Ukrainian school, where all disciplines were taught in Ukrainian. Soon Lyucya got used to it. Her mother was lucky to get a job in the cinema. There she worked as soloist for a jazz orchestra, which traditionally played before the movies. There was a lack of films at that time, but Lyucya was so fond of cinema, that she reputedly watched the same movies fifty times, and sometimes even more!

In 1944, Lyusya entered the music school she had dreamed of for so long.

Peaceful life

Soon her father returned home. Lyusya went through so many severe ordeals during the war, that her father seemed a stranger to her. But soon everything returned to normal.

The  Carnival Night The Carnival Night

In 1953 Lyudmila Gurchenko moved to Moscow and entered the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography. Her teachers were the legendary Sergey Gerasimov (director) and Tamara Makarova (actress). She studied with huge enthusiasm and graduated from the course as a brilliant dramatic actress. In 1956 Gurchenko became famous overnight at 21 after she starred in young Eldar Ryazanov's directorial debut The  Carnival Night.  Throughout the next two years she toured the entire country with her Carnival Night, attracting huge crowds of fans. Soon she was accused of receiving compensation for her shows that was above state-set wages. She became the target of highly critical articles in several influential Soviet periodicals devoted to her financial wrong-doing and her alleged lack of patriotism.

In 1958 the release of another movie with Lyudmila, Girl with the Guitar, caused a wave of criticism. It was shot mostly before these articles were published. The musical was not recommended for wide distribution and was a box-office flop. This, in the eyes of the establishment, further justified branding Lyudmila a one-hit wonder, not worthy of serious movie roles. According to the customs of the time, such branding effectively meant banning Lyudmila from cinema and theater for years. Gurchenko fell into years of oblivion. No one took her seriously. For the next two decades Lyudmila struggled to get leading roles in new movies, while making a living by travelling all over the country with her stand-up acts and musical numbers.

Girl with the Guitar Girl with the Guitar

In 1958 Gurchenko married Boris Andronikashvili. She was deeply in love and in 1959 gave birth to her only child, Maria. But Boris left them. Years passed, full of tears and many professional difficulties. Her life seemed to have turned to dust and ashes. In 1962 she met her second husband, Aleksandr Fadeev. He was an actor. He ruined their marriage by drinking heavily. Gurchenko recalls that only music saved her life that time. Her life was full of failures and long-lasting depression seemed never to come to an end. She left the Sovremennik Theater, and tried herself in three more theaters, but in vain.

The August of 1969 was the most terrible for Lyudmila. She couldn’t fight the depression any more. She was dying. One day she decided to phone the famous singer and actor Mark Bernes. He did everything he could to make her talent flourish. Again singing and music saved her life.

New life

Railway Station for Two Railway Station for Two

From 1973 onwards, Gurchenko returned to widespread public attention. In 1976 she became the People’s Artist of the USSR. Finally, in 1979 she landed a role in Andrey Konchalovsky's Siberiade and in 1982 in Railway Station for Two, once again by Eldar Ryazanov, who by then had become one of the USSR's most popular and prolific directors. The role of waitress Vera in this touching film became Gurchenko's long-awaited comeback as a superstar of Soviet film. She starred in several more movies and TV shows. In 2000, she was awarded the 4th Degree Order for Service to the Motherland, one of the highest civil decorations in post-Soviet Russia. To her last breath Lyudmila Gurchenko performed in theater performances and concerts.

She was a born actress and over the years proved her talent to gain people’s true love and admiration.

Written by Tatiana Klevantseva for RT

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