One of the proudest boasts in any realm of the performing arts in Soviet times, be it acting, music, ballet or comedy, is the accolade of “Narodny Artist” or “People’s Artist”. Imbued with a sense of duty and service, it’s a title that has far more significance and gravitas than “Academy Award winner” or “Hollywood star”. It also contains a linguistic contradiction – because when you say “people”, which people are you talking about? In Soviet times, a blurring of distinctions of nationality and identity was encouraged, using the ubiquity of the (enforced) state language – Russian – to paper over the cracks. But now many Soviet-era “narodny” artists want to claim a very different and definite identity.
Ada Rogovtseva is one of these hallowed stars: People’s Artist of the Soviet Republic of Ukraine (1967) and People’s Artist of the USSR (1978). Born in Hlukhiv, in what was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, in 1937 and a cherished fixture of film and television, these are just two of her many awards: her Russian-language Wikipedia page lists 17 quasi-militaristic decorations under her name. Her status is a reflection of her dozens of prominent theater roles from 1959 onwards and appearances in more than 100 film and TV productions. Perhaps her most famous role is Maria in Hail, Mary!, a 1970 Soviet drama set in 1919 during the civil war, about a Soviet revolutionary who later goes on to work in an intelligence school. A fan site explains the appeal of her performances: “The screen heroines she plays are soulful, proud women who are, at heart, aristocratic.” (“Aristocratic” here means “haughty” or “self-possessed”.)
Had things worked out differently, on 18 March Rogovtseva would have had an opening night on stage with a play in Kharkhiv. Instead, she is at home in Kyiv. She lists her activities as “being there for people who need food or somewhere to have a wash – or for anyone who needs a hug”. One of the actors she was due to appear alongside in the play has been killed. Her grandson and son-in-law are on the frontline. Her daughter is working in a volunteer center. Speaking recently to Variety, she added her name to the list of Ukrainian film industry stars who are calling for a boycott of Russian culture: “I consider the screening of Russian films at festivals now completely unacceptable. This country sows death.” Also on the list: Lubomir Hosejko, critic and author of History of Ukrainian Cinema; Sergey Bukovsky, director of Spell Your Name (executive-produced by Steven Spielberg) and Mykhailo Ilenko, actor and director. These industry figures have left Ukraine, but Rogovtseva refuses to go.
Three weeks ago she was interviewed by CurrentTimeTV, a Russian-language channel based in Prague and linked to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, and explained why she won’t speak Russian publicly ever again: “It is on principle. I am from a Russian-speaking family. I worked in Russian theatre. I have worked a lot in Russia. But when your land and your family are attacked, you do not want to use the language of the people who are responsible for what is happening on your land.”
She added: “Putin is not human. People cannot think like that, act like that. It is diabolical. Ukrainians are being treated as enemies, as wild animals. I don’t understand how a person can destroy others simply because of their own imaginings which have no bearing on reality.”
This is symbolic of the choices around identity and allegiance that will have to be made by many in the world of art and culture. A Russian troll website listing “enemies and traitors” includes figures such as the novelist Boris Akunin and singer Boris Grebenschikov. The Russian ballerina Olga Smirnova has defected from the Bolshoi to the National Ballet in Amsterdam. Opera singer Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev have faced cultural boycotts.
In the TV interview Rogovtseva was asked whether she had contacted the Russian co-stars she has worked with to tell them what is happening in Ukraine. “It’s impossible,” she replied. “No one returns my calls. It doesn’t matter what you say to them, they’re zombified. They have decided we are animals.”
It’s hard to understand the mental gymnastics that will be required here. Are Russian viewers supposed to “forget” the stars of stage and screen they have loved for decades, often performers they feel they know intimately?
Rogovsteva’s impact on three generations of viewers is huge. Her best-known roles include The Taming of the Fire (1972), a film about the Soviet space industry based on actual events. She played Natalia Bashkirtseva, the wife of a rocket scientist. Her portrayal of “a woman in love with a genius” was so moving that the real-life cosmonaut Georgy Shonin, a contemporary of Gagarin, famously said of her: “When you are up in space, you think of a woman like her, a heroine, and your soul feels lighter.”
Rogovtseva became a household name with the TV show Eternal Call. It ran for 10 years from 1973 and traced the 20th-century fate of the Savelyevs, a family from Siberia. She played Anna Kaftanova and had to be talked into the role: she had just given birth and ended up bringing her daughter, Katya, on set with her.
Over the next 40 years Rogovtseva worked continuously on stage and screen, making at least one film every year, latterly more in Ukrainian than in Russian. In one year (2008), she appeared in 11 films. And she is far from retirement. In 2020, she played a grandmother in the Ukrainian TV series Early Swallows and in 2021 she appeared as a former opera singer in the miniseries Draw Me My Momther.
Now it’s impossible to know when or whether she will act again. She quoted the Ukrainian poet Lesya Ukrainka: “’A cloud moves freely across the sky, slowly, and we are free.’ But there is nothing free about the sky above us now.”