(No. 24/2004 - December 2004)
Editor: Fran Bock

Arkady Raikin was one of the greatest of Russian entertainers - what we in the United States would call an emcee and stand-up comedian. He specialized in satire, and headed the State Theaters of Satirical Sketches in Leningrad and in Moscow.

We thank Vitaly Charny for this sketch of another noteworthy Jew with roots in Belarus.

This article is copyrighted by Vitaly Charny.

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Arkady Raikin, 1911-1987

by Vitaly Charny

On September 10, 2001 - what would have been Arkady Raikin's 90th birthday - Russia issued an individual postage stamp featuring his portrait. This genius of entertainment was unrivaled in parody, a sharp master of ceremonies and eloquent elocutionist of monologues and sketches. Among a multitude of other things, Raikin created a gallery of satirical and lyric characters and headed the state's theatre of satirical sketches in Leningrad and then in Moscow from 1987.

Countless expressions from his stories and skits have become staples in the vocabulary of ordinary Russians because of his unparalleled satire and humor. When at loss for words, someone needs only to pronounce: "As Raikin used to say" and his implications will be understood immediately.

The social status of a public figure may often be identified through the jokes made about him or her. When Michail Gorbachev commenced the Perestroika, for example, a popular joke proclaimed that that while before there were only two famous Raikins (Arkady and his son Konstantin, also a renowned actor), a Holy Trinity of Raikin entertainers emerged - Raikin the Father, Raikin the Son, and Raikin the Husband. Raikin means Raika's, a derogatory version of the name of Gorbachev's wife, Raisa. Therefore it means in Russian the same as Raikin the father, Raikin the son and Raika's husband.

Raikin the Father contributed to Russian political history as well as to the entertainment world, given that the parents of Vladimir Putin, the future president of the Russian Federation, met for the first time at one of his concerts.

Raikin once recalled: "My grandfather on my father's side was born in a small shtetl forgotten in the woods of Belarus, and up to the end of his days talked in an unimaginable mix of Yiddish, Russian, Belarussian and German. Grandfather lived by tradition with excessive and demonstrative pedantry. Being the domestic despot, he strove for both his children and grandchildren to live by the way of the Old Testament. Through his persistence, even I began to study in a private Jewish school. On holidays, observing tradition, father went to a synagogue. He did not go in such a devout fashion as the grandfather and did not force us children to go. Sometimes I accompanied him (mum seldom went to a synagogue). I remember how the cantor would show off his strong voice. But I did not understand the words at all and missed their meaning." The Raikins in Belarus lived in the towns of Bobruisk and Koidanov, which could be considered a small shtetl compared to the cities where Arkady grew up.

Arkady Raikin was born in Riga to a family of a Jewish timber dealer. Riga was a large Baltic Sea port and industrial city, which offered many more opportunities in the way of business and education for Jews than did the Pale of Settlement. In 1922 the Raikin family moved to Petrograd (St. Petersburg). During his school days, Raikin was fond of theatre, engaged in amateur performances. From 1929 he worked as a laboratory technician in an Okhtinsky chemical plant.

It wasn't until 1935 that Raikin graduated from Leningrad Theatrical School, contrary to the desires of his parents. After graduation he was assigned as an actor to Leningrad Theatre of Young Workers. Simultaneously with his work at the theatre, Arkady Raikin debuted at cinema, beginning this career in 1938 with the films "Fiery Years" and "Doctor Kalyuzhny." Yet it was the concert stage that became his calling. First he acted in small vaudeville numbers, later becoming a stand up comedian and master of ceremonies. Recognition came in Moscow during November 1939 when he won the 1st All-Russian competition of performers. That same year he was accepted into the troupe of the Leningrad Variety Theatre, becoming its art director in 1942.

Not only was Arkady's own family unhappy about his career as a stand up comedian, but so was the family of his future wife, Ruth Ioffe. Her father was a renowned physician and her uncle, Abram Ioffe, was a world famous physicist (commemorated on Russian stamp of 1980). Nevertheless they made a good family and brought up two talented children - a son Konstantin and a daughter Ekaterina who followed their father into showbiz.

During WWII, Raikin and his colleagues gave concerts at the front lines. Among the many famous authors who worked for his theater was a Jewish engineer from Odessa, Mikhail Zhvanetsky, who was to earn his place among the most famous Russian comedian writers and performers. Zhvanetsky used to say: "Now it is easy to say whatever you want and there are many who do. But at that time, Raikin was the only one who wasn't afraid to say a bit more than the rest." Raikin raised the plank of freedom in self-expression inch by inch with a subtle relentlessness.

The predecessor of theater Satyricon was founded in 1939 as the Leningrad Theater of Miniatures, which earned its reputation as the Theater of Raykin. In 1982 the theater moved to Moscow, after becoming the State Theater of Miniatures. It presented sitcom-type comedies on the theatrical stage. In Moscow they were housed in a structure built as a standard movie theater and not completely fitted out for stage performances. Major reconstruction was required, and the opening delayed until June 4, 1987, when the first show debuted - Peace to Your House.

Satyricon building as seen on Russian pre-stamped envelope of 1989

In December 1987 Arkady Raykin died. The theater began a new chapter of its history as Arkady Raykin Satyricon, headed by his son, Konstantin Raikin, who had worked there from 1981. The repertoire of the theater became more diverse and was no longer built around one actor as it had been during the life of its founder. In the last few years Satyricon staged Shakespeare and Moliere, Brecht and Kafka, Crommelynck and Goldman, Goldoni, Rostand and also Kundera, Murdoch and Zuskind.

After his first and the last performances in the USA in 1987, newspapers wrote: "Raikin is more than a name. For a long time, he consciously helped people survive, be better and more open."

This ingenious actor was a legend of his time and country. Millions of people laughed and cried as they were contented and afflicted together with Raikin's heroes, with whom they could so closely identify. Oblivious officials did not realize that the peoples' laughter was targeted at them, a rebellion against their oppressive system. By saying what others were too afraid to say yet desperate to hear, Raikin helped generations of Russians pull through terrible times and not lose their compassion and hope for a better future.

Both cities where Raikin worked, Moscow and St. Petersburg, issued special cancellation for first day of the commemorative stamp issue.

Copyright 2004 Belarus SIG and Vitaly Charny

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