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Feodor Chaliapin: The First People’s Artist of the Soviet Republic

On June 29, 1922, Chaliapin left Russia during his official tour of Western Europe.

Feodor Ivanovich Chaliapin (1873-1938)

On June 29, 1922, Feodor Chaliapin, one of the greatest opera singers of 20th century, left Russia during his official tour of Western Europe. Although he would never return again, he remained a Russian citizen to the end of his days.

Feodor Chaliapin

Born into a peasant family, twenty-one-year-old Chaliapin created a sensation with his debut in 1895 and soon became one of the most popular singers not only in Russia, but worldwide.

Young Chaliapin

In addition to his magnificent voice, Chaliapin hypnotized the audience with his dramatic stage presence. He created many different characters. Some of his best parts were playing Ivan the Terrible in “Maid of Pskov”, Mephistopheles in “Faust”, and Susanin in “Ivan Susanin.”

Feodor Chaliapin as Mephistopheles in “Faust” (Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, 1906)

Everyone in the USSR knew and adored Chaliapin. Many dreamed about attending his concerts at the Mariinsky Theater or Bolshoi Theatre, which were always booked out.

Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

The Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

Feodor Chaliapin as Tsar Boris Godunov (Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, 1921)

Vladimir Stasov, a famous Russian critic, 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.”

Feodor Chaliapin as the Varangian Guest in “Sadko” (Russian Private Opera, Moscow, 1897)

In 1899, Chaliapin conquered the international audience with his performance in one of the world’s most famous opera houses the La Scala in Milan. Chaliapin’s talent soon received global acclaim, performing in Rome, Monte Carlo, France, Berlin, New York and London.

Notwithstanding the worldwide recognition, the singer retained the wild, unaffected personality of his youth when he was the shoeless, hungry son of a Russian peasant.

Feodor Chaliapin as Eryomka in “The Power of Evil” (Zimin’s Private Opera, Moscow, 1916)

After the revolution, Chaliapin left Russia and settled down in Paris, as he could no longer live under the overwhelming new Communist regime.

Stalin was furious and did everything he could to pressure the singer to return home. He condemned Chaliapin as an “anti-revolutionary” and deprived him of all his property in Russia, including his title of “The First People’s Artist of the Soviet Republic.”

Maxim Gorky, a prominent Russian author, was a close friend of Chaliapin. Allegedly, Stalin induced Gorky to write the following letter to Chaliapin:

“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.”

Maxim Gorky and Feodor Chaliapin

Chaliapin missed home, but he was worried about 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.

Feodor Chaliapin died on April 12, 1938, in Paris. His remains were reburied in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, beside Russia’s most honored cultural figures.

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