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Prominent Russians: The Durovs

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The Durov family, animal-trainers and clowns, talented naturalists, outstanding satirists and public figures, have put great effort into establishing the Russian circus as a true art form.

Vladimir Durov (25 June 1863 - 8 August 1934)

Anatoly Durov Senior (1864 - 1916)

Anatoly Durov Junior (1887- 1928)

Nadezhda Durova (1783 - 1866), Vladimir Leonidovich Durov’s grandaunt.

Vladimir Durov (16 April 1909 - 1972), grandson of Vladimir Durov Senior

Natalya Durova (13 April 1934 - 27 September 2007), granddaughter of the legendary animal trainer Vladimir Durov.

Anatoly Durov Junior was one of the greatest and world-renowned animal trainers of the 20th century.

 The mother of Anatoly Anatolievich, Teresa Stadler (Tereza Durova) was of German decent. She was a talented circus horse rider and owned the Bavarian Circus. Long and successful tours influenced her to remain in Russia for life. Anatoly Durov’s father was born of an old noble family, from which he broke in order to join a traveling troupe.

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 Anatoly Senior and Vladimir Durov were the first of the Durov clan to become famous as circus entertainers. They were truly great artists in their field and spurned their aristocratic roots to become the most famous circus performers in Russia. Anatoly concentrated on clowning and satire, while Vladimir turned his attention to animal taming, developing a revolutionary technique that based the training of his charges on a system of rewards rather than punishments. He spent a lot of time studying the movements of the different species he trained and developed acts and tricks that exploited and extended the animals' natural behavior. The technique was famously used to teach sea lions to “juggle” by working with the movement they use in the wild to toss and swallow fish.

Vladimir Durov was the fourth child and eldest son of Leonid Dmitrievich Durov (1832-1867), a hereditary Lord of the Province of Moscow, who was an officer in the Moscow police. Vladimir Durov had three elder sisters: Margarita, among whose descendants is Lev Durov, the famous Russian actor, Lyudmila and a younger sister, Valentina. Vladimir’s mother, Maria Dmitrievna Durova (1833-1866), probably suffered from complications caused by Valentina’s birth: she died soon after, in 1866. Vladimir was only three years old at the time. Devastated, Vladimir’s father began to drink himself to death. He suffered from hallucinations and died a year later, in 1867. Vladimir and Anatoly were put in the care of their godfather, Nikolay Zakharovich Zakharov, a wealthy and brilliant lawyer and occasional playwright, whose work had been produced

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successfully at the Maly Theater in Moscow. (He was also an inveterate gambler, who eventually committed suicide over a gambling debt.) Zakharov sent Vladimir and Anatoly to a military academy. Likely it was at the academy that Anatoly developed his lifelong loathing for all forms of authority. The brothers much preferred circus acrobatics to academic studies and military exercises. This passion eventually led to their being expelled from the academy. Left to their own devices, Vladimir and Anatoly used the money their godfather had given them to hire as their teacher Angelo Briatore, an Italian acrobat from the troupe of Carl Magnus Hinné. Briatore taught them the basics of acrobatics in the old way.

 Around 1878, Otto Kleist, a balagan acrobat, taught Vladimir and Anatoly a trapeze act. The following year, the brothers made their performing debut in the fairgrounds of Weinstok in Tver, a city north of Moscow. They also worked with Rinaldo, a magician, before finally joining the Robinson-Nicolet troupe, a significant step up, given that the troupe worked in circuses. They left Robinson-Nicolet in 1881, after Anatoly had an argument with his employers, the first of many arguments that would plague Anatoly’s career. It was probably also because of Anatoly's temperament that the brothers separated.

 After leaving Robinson-Nicolet, Vladimir found work as a groom and assistant animal trainer in Hugo Winkler’s menagerie, which had settled on Tsvetnoy Boulevard in Moscow. It was there that he learned how to work with animals, eventually becoming a capable trainer of small animals. In 1884, following in the footsteps of his brother, who had developed a successful show combining clowning with farm animals, which was common in the nineteenth century, Vladimir began performing as a clown, using, like his brother, animals as partners.

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When, around 1884, their godfather saw the brothers perform, he suggested they resume their education. Anatoly paid no heed to the advice, but Vladimir did: he went back to school, graduated from a teachers’ college, and audited the classes of neurophysiologist Sechenov, “the father of Russian physiology,” who, with Pavlov, studied animal reflexes. In 1887, he returned to the ring and made his debut as a full-fledged clown-satirist and animal trainer at the Salamonsky Circus on Tsvetnoy Boulevard in Moscow, Russia’s most prestigious circus. Vladimir, wittier and more creative than his brother, became in time the more successful of the two; his talent as an animal trainer was also a significant factor in his success. Anatoly's increased use of animals in his act was mostly an attempt to keep pace with his brother. Like Vladimir, Anatoly lectured on animal psychology, but unlike his brother, he was not taken seriously in scientific circles.

Anatoly Junior made his circus debut in 1914. He appeared in the circus of the Nikitin brothers in the city of Ryazan, but his real fame came in the years following the Revolution. The younger Anatoly Durov performed with a large and varied group of animals, achieving fascinating results. At the same time, his commentary was always biting and topical. In 1921 he went on a tour abroad. In Serbia, he performed in the city of Subotica in the variety show Alhambra; in the city of Zagreb in the Music Hall; in the city of Sarajevo in the Wintergarten. In November 1921, he signed a contract for performances in the cities of Graz and Vienna, Austria with the international circus Orpheus for 500,000 kronor plus railroad travel expenses.

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In 1922-1923 “Durovmania” hit Italy. Anatoly toured throughout the country, performing in Rome, Milan, Padua, Genoa, Bari, Venice, Bologna and many more cities. Anatoly Anatolievich Durov also gave a private performance at the royal villa of Queen Elena. The Durov’s dog Petit lived in the queen's apartment for three days. As a sign of appreciation and acknowledgment, Queen Elena granted Anatoly Durov a golden cigarette case and a letter of thanks.

After his tours across Europe and the US, Anatoly Durov returned to Soviet Russia and founded an entertainment program that gained international recognition. In 1926 he settled in the city of Taganrog, where he founded The Taganrog Animal Theater of Anatoly Durov. Anatoly Durov died an early death from a hunting accident in 1928. His nephews, Vladimir Grigorievich Durov (1909-1972) and Yury Vladimirovich Durov (1909-1971) continued in his footsteps. Both became People's Artists of the USSR.

The Durov Museum in the city of Taganrog features materials dedicated to the founder of the Soviet Circus, Anatoly Anatolievich Durov, including documents and personal belongings of the Durov clan.

Vladimir Durov was actually related to the famous Nadezhda Durova who started Russia's most renowned dynasty of animal tamers. Nadezhda Durova was also famous for her love of animals and the menagerie of pets and strays she kept at her country house.

Nadezhda was born into the Russian nobility towards the end of the 17th century and was determined from an early age not to suffer the stultifying and restrictive fate of her fellow females. In 1806 she left home on the back of her favorite mount, Alkide, and, dressed as a man, she joined the army under the name of Aleksandr Sokolov. She served in the Mariupol and Lithuanian cavalry regiments, fought bravely and was even responsible for saving an officer's life. For this brave act she was awarded a St. George’s Cross by Emperor Aleksandr I himself and was promoted to the rank of officer. She later became a hero of the 1812 Napoleonic War with and will forever be known as Russia's first female officer. Her autobiography was championed by Pushkin himself. Nadezhda Durova started the country's greatest family of animal tamers with her great-grandsons Vladimir and Anatoly.

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This dynasty was kept alive by Natalya Durova, who ran the Durov Animal Theater until she died in 2007. An outstanding animal trainer, Natalya spent more than 60 years of her life working with animals, many of which were considered absolutely untamable. Her bright talent manifested itself at an early age, when the four-year-old girl first took to the circus arena with her father. Together they performed for soldiers on the frontlines and at the age of nine Natalya was awarded with a Guards’ badge, presented to her by Marshal Zhukov.

Today the Durov Animal Theater is a much-loved and genuinely unique Moscow institution that has been enchanting and amazing children for almost a century. It was founded in 1912. The dynasty was kept by Vladimir Durov, grandson of Vladimir. He was a man whom Muscovites have known as Dedushka (Grandpa) Durov for generations. Durov loathed cruelty to animals and shunned traditional circus training methods, choosing to enhance his animals' natural behavior on stage and coax them to perform by handing out rewards rather than punishments. Entirely eccentric and decidedly surreal at times, the theater's performances always involved a bewildering array of mostly domestic animals and drew in crowds of delighted school children.

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In 1958 the Belgian press announced the coming tour of Vladimir Durov. He was greeted warmly by his audiences. His animals appeared in newspapers and magazines, on TV and in newsreels. According to the many  hardened reporters covering the story, the "master trainer and his amazing caravanserai," were “a sensation under the Big Top.” Each and every act was magnificent: the elephant giving the juggling seal the correct time, the flying mice, the jumping foxes, the cocks and cats. In the finale Durov released hundreds of doves. His success was unprecedented: the audience rose as one man, the ovation was thunderous. "Nothing is impossible as far as Durov is concerned. Not a single animal can hope to escape his thoughtful eye, and there is reason to believe that he will one day make goldfish jump through a hoop and flies march around on their hind legs!" This was how Durov was presented to Belgium's radio listeners.

The press described each of Durov's acts in detail. "Durov fires a pistol, but the dove sitting on the barrel doesn't even fly away. His fox and hen play happily together. There are a cat and rats that live in peace and friendship. Durov has turned all the old accepted maxims upside down. He has pushed back the boundaries of what we consider to be reasonable and understandable. His choice of animals for his troupe is fantastic. Durov's hippopotamus even does somersaults."

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Not many knew the unusual and nearly tragic story of Malysh ("Baby") the Hippo that had previously occurred in Italy. The circus arena in Rome is slanted. Durov entered with Baby. He spoke to the hippo through a microphone. Baby became nervous. He was not used to the strange sound of a human voice coming over a microphone. The animal did not recognize it as the live, kind voice of its trainer. Baby did his act badly. The slanting floor made his tricks more difficult and he tired quickly. Durov recalls that he should have stopped the act at that point, that he was wrong in urging the animal on. Baby suddenly became angry; he lowered his head and made a dash for Durov. It took nerves of steel and great patience to calm the enraged hippo. The flattering words of praise in newspaper reviews are a tribute to the trainer's courage and love for his chosen profession: "As I watched Baby, I sensed in him a love for adventure. Of course, it was still too dangerous to take him out for walks, but he was always ready to explore the circus corridors and was even eager to climb the stairs to the upper floors. I put this inborn curiosity to use, encouraging it with kind words and tasty tidbits. Once, Baby fell head over heels and landed on his stomach. He was very frightened. But I calmed him with the magic word "Brave," which all my animals know. Repeating this day after day and gradually increasing the range of his movements, I taught Baby to do somersaults in the ring." The impossible had been achieved! Audiences took Baby to their hearts; they recognized him on his walks in the cities of the world. After watching one of the performances, Gianni Rodari, the well-known Italian author, wrote an article entitled "The Lunik of All Circuses Has Arrived from Moscow." "Vladimir Durov's Noah's ark is but one of the impossible acts which the Moscow Circus is presenting around the world and has now brought to Italy. His acts are a study in rhythm, high spirits and innovation."

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The theater today offers a fantastic and bewildering array of performances including goats, horses, bears, wild boars, pigeons, camels, cats, dogs and mice! Although modern attitudes to animal welfare may nonetheless condemn the use of bears, tigers and hippopotami for performances, there's no denying the obvious affection for the animals and concern for their well-being. Equally commendable is the commitment, also established by Vladimir Durov, to keep theater tickets no more expensive than a loaf of bread. And, all that aside, it's a rare child that wouldn't be thrilled to see the chimpanzees' tea party, Fenya the monkey trying on hats or Tishka the raccoon doing her laundry.

 No member of the Durov dynasty has ever been seen brandishing a stick or a whip. The animal actors perform freely, mischievously and even with obvious pleasure. Herein lies not only the secret of their training, which is based on encouraging their natural instincts and habits, but of the humane nature of the art.

Written by Tatyana Klevantseva, RT

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