The Incredible Story of the Soviet Actor Who Repented on the Stage

The Soviets did everything to turn the celebration of Easter into a feast of blasphemy...but they failed to account for the power of the Gospel

Originally appeared at: The Catalogue of Good Deeds

This wonderful story with the participation of the once famous actor Alexander Rostovtsev happened about a century ago. Soviet Union. A campaign of religion eradication was in full swing throughout the country. Atheistic authority was inventive: take alone theatrical performances right on Easter night (!), where the characters of the Holy Scripture were depicted mockingly! But somehow during one of those plays an unprecedented event took place …

First, it’s right to tell from whom we know about this story. It was described in The Sun Is Playing by Vasily Nikiforov-Volgin, a remarkable Russian writer  (1900 / 1901-1941). The story was included in Woe Unto Your Motherland story-book, published in the thirties of the twentieth century. It is important that in 27 stories included in the story-book, Vasily Nikiforov-Volgin describes what he saw and experienced himself – the dramatic events of the revolution, the civil war, the post-war period, the fate of the clergy, the times of godlessness and militant atheism …

So here is this incredible story:

The fight against Easter matins was planned in a great scale. Throughout whole Passion Week, bright huge posters were placed in prominent and busy places of the city:

Prior to the performance, a brass band passed through the streets of the city to entice the audience. In front of the orchestra, a hefty guy in a priestly robe carrying some kind of church banner with a poster depicting Christ in a top hat. Komsomol members with torches walked along the sides. The city trembled. A crowd was going to the theater. Over the entrance, the red letters Christ in a Tailcoat burned with red lights. A radio rumbled throughout the wide theater square – a lecture “on the vile role of Christianity in the history of peoples” was broadcast from Moscow.

At the end of the lecture, a Komsomol choir was lined up on the steps of the entrance. To the sounds of accordions, the choir started to sing loudly:

I have little benefit from prayer
My candle is off.
I don’t need Elijah the Prophet
Give me the lamp of Lenin!

The crowd screeched, burst out laughing, and yelled with a forest roar:

There are three old bag ladies
And two old infirm men.
The church is empty –
You can’t collect a five-kopeck coin.

– More! Boost it! Give something more tough!

Oh, my egg is not split,
A lot of God’s nonsense is talked to us!

– It’s weak! Sing about the Mother of God!

At this time, an Easter cross procession came out of a small church near the theater. It was dark there. People are not visible, – only candles, quietly walking through the air, and singing with a distant spring splash:

– “The angels in heaven, O Christ our Savior, sing of Thy resurrection”.

Upon seeing the cross procession, the Komsomol choir hyped up even more, began to jump, whooping and whistling:

Hey apple roll,
After all, the road is slippery.
Komsomol Easter
Embarrassed all the saints.

Easter candles stopped at the church gates and sang:

– Christ is risen from the dead…

The large theater hall was crowded.

The first act depicted an altar. On the decorative altar there were bottles of wine, decanters with tinctures, snacks. At the altar, on high restaurant stools, priests sat in full vestments and clinked church chalices. The artist, dressed in a deacon’s vestment, played on the accordion. Nuns sat on the floor, playing with cards. The hall was torn with laughter. Some of the viewers felt bad. He was led out of the hall, and he rumbled like an animal and, giggling, nodded to the stage, with his face distorted and white. This made the audience laugh even harder.

In the intermission they said:

– This is nothing compared with what is to come! Wait a minute … Rostovtsev will go out in the second action, so everyone will be crazy out of laughter!

In the second act, under the whirlwinds of ecstatic applause, the famous Alexander Rostovtsev appeared on the stage.

He was in a long white tunic, with the perfect Christ makeup. He carried the golden Gospel.

During the play, the artist was supposed to read from this book two gospel verses from the Beatitudes.

Slowly and solemnly, he went up to the analogion, put the Gospel and said with impressive voice:

– Let us attend!

The audience was quiet.

Rostovtsev began to read:

– “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted…”

It was necessary to stop here. Here it was supposed to pronounce a monologue, revealing and terrible in its blasphemy, concluding it with the words:

– Give me the tailcoat and top hat!

But this did not happen. Rostovtsev suddenly stopped talking. The silence became so long that they began to hoosh behind the curtains to the artist, wave their hands, prompting words, but he stood, as if in a lunacy stupor, and did not hear anything.

Finally, he trembles and looks with kind of fear at the open Gospel. His hands nervously tug on a tunic. Convulsions pass over his face. He lowers his eyes to the book and at first in a whisper, and then louder and louder begins to read further:

– “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy…”

Perhaps the power of his wonderful voice, or the charm of his artistic name, or the night longing for these persecuted and humiliated words of the Sermon on the Mount, or the image of the living Christ came before eyes, caused by the sacrilegious transformation of the artist influenced people – there was such silence in the theater that one could hear how it rang with a mosquito buzz.

And the words of Christ went like Easter candles around the church into this silence:

– “Ye are the light of the world… love your enemies… and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you…”

Rostovtsev read the entire chapter, and no one in the audience moved. Excited quick steps were heard behind the curtains and there was a loud whisper. They assured that the artist was joking, this was his favorite technique, and then he would hit the public in such a way that everything will turn into a cheerful and dancing smoke!

But on the stage, something even more unexpected happened, which later almost the entire Soviet country spoke about.

Rostovtsev made a clear, slow sign of the cross and said:

– Lord, remember me when thou comest into Thy Kingdom!..

He still wanted to say something more, but at this time the curtain was lowered.

A few minutes later it was announced:

– Due to the unexpected illness of Comrade Rostovtsev, our performance today will not take place.

Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds

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