Rakhil Messerer – a silent film star
by Azary Messerer
She appeared in films under the name of Ra Messerer. In the family she was often called Ra, and I knew this name long before I learnt of the ancient God of the Sun in Egypt. She had in fact been like the sun, radiating kindness and wisdom to all those around her.
Rakhil was born on March 4, 1902 in Vilna, the largest center of Jewish culture at the time. Jews comprised 51% per cent of its population. But Rakhil could not remember Vilna (now Vilnius), because her family moved to Moscow when she was only two years old. Quoting her mother, Ra told me that among her ancestors on the maternal line there were Vilna’s “tzadiks” — sages and healers. Since her mother’s name was Shabad, perhaps relating to Tsemakh Chabad (1864-1935), a physician and a major public figure of Vilna. In the Jewish Encyclopaedia, I read that he was the prototype of the famous Dr. Doolittle. What a pity that I did not ask Kornei Chukovsky (who wrote Dr. Doolittle’s Russian version) about this when I was lucky enough to have interviewed him in the late 60’s in Peredelkino.
Apparently, Rakhil showed great ability in childhood, and despite the limitations imposed on the Jews she was admitted to the prestigious Moscow classic school founded by the Duchess of Lviv. Director of the school was her daughter, the Princess of Lviv and it was said that the girls “learn from the princes and the princesses.” As a girl Rakhil loved music lessons most of all — she sang in the school choir — and she also liked to study the Russian language. Her Russian language teacher was a former populist1, who had been imprisoned for some time for his revolutionary activities. He gave her only the perfect score for grammar and speech at school. I have met only a few people in my life with such a perfect command of Russian language. Most of them studied before the revolution in private schools, and Rakhil was one of them.
WATCH a clip of screen shots from films with Rakhil Messerer
Alas, the sound film was invented after Rakhil’s cinematic career had ended. Where many actresses were forced to leave the profession because of poor speech, her speaking abilities would have kept her in good stead.
Her education at school was interrupted by the Revolution of 1917. These were the hungry, cold years, and Rakhil at a very tender age had to help her mother take care of her younger sisters and brothers. Rakhil’s younger sister Elizabeth (who also became an actress) wrote in her diaries:
“In our family Ra enjoyed great prestige as an elder sister and mother’s ‘Assistant Principal’. I remember that when I was little she combed my hair, took me out for walks and, when we visited friends, I would look up to her and wait for her nod of approval before asking for something. After our mother’s early death she became like a mother for our youngest brother Alexander, who at the time was only 13 years old (Rakhil was 27).” At present Alexander has remained “the last of the Mohicans” in the Messerer family at the age of 93 and has teenage great grandchildren.
Rakhil often made important decisions that determined the fate of her siblings. For example, she was the only one in the family who knew about Asaf’s passionate desire to study ballet. He was afraid to speak about his plans with his father, knowing that, for all his love for the theater, he would not approve of such a decision. Rakhil said to Osia (as she called Asaf) “if you love ballet so much, then you should study it.” Asaf enrolled in a private ballet school at 16 years of age and achieved such phenomenal success that within two years he was admitted to the Bolshoi Theater’s graduation class. This is when Rakhil decided that her younger sister Sulamith had all the inclinations to follow in the footsteps of her brother Asaf. She took Mita, as she was called in the family, to take entrance examination at the Choreographic School and even made her a pretty tutu. So both renowned artists chose ballet as a life career, partly thanks to Rakhil.
Rakhil was well aware of her siblings’ creativity; they would often give home performances staged by their elder brother Azary who later became a famous actor and director. Rakhil herself also played an active role in these performances and decided early to devote herself to art.
At nineteen, Rakhil was admitted to the Institute of Cinematography shortly after its foundation. During the entrance exam, the chairman of the examinations committee, Lev Kuleshov asked her to perform a sketch — to catch a butterfly. Rakhil for a long time was creeping up to imaginary butterflies with the imaginary scoop net, failing to catch them. In the end, she started to cry with vexation so convincingly that the examiners themselves were almost in tears.
Along with Lev Kuleshov, she studied under such renowned directors and teachers as Jacob Protazanov and Dziga Vertov. Among her classmates there were future celebrity filmmakers like Ivan Pyrjev, Boris Barnet, and Vera Maretskaya with whom she developed a long-term friendship. Students of VGIK gathered in the house of the Messerers, and had dancing parties with charades and masquerades. A soulmate of the company in her student years was her classmate Vladimir Plisetski — a witty, charming athlete. She met him at equestrian lessons. An excellent rider, he helped her master this skill important for a film actress.
At one of the parties he had brought along his older brother Mikhail. It so happened that both brothers were infatuated with beautiful Rakhil — it was a love triangle. But it was Mikhail who would eventually win her heart, and they got married. Eventually, Vladimir left the cinema, became a gymnast, an acrobat and an entertainer; he performed in Claudia Shulzhenko’s show. During the war, he joined the front as a volunteer, heroically distinguished himself as a scout, having been dropped many times behind the front line with a parachute. Vladimir died in December 1941, during one of these desperately daring operations.
Rakhil’s career could be called an overnight success. The great director Protazanov thought she was an exotic, biblical-type beauty (huge, sad eyes, raven black hair, and dark complexion) and gave her starring roles filmed in the new studio Uzbekfilm, which opened in Tashkent. There, she co-starred in the movies “Second wife” (1927), “Leprous” (1928), “The Valley of Tears” (1929) and others. These films were a great success, and Rakhil’s sad eyes stared off posters in many cinemas throughout the country. She played tragic heroines. Today, these films are still relevant, as their main theme was the liberation of women of the East from the yoke of Muslim Sharia law. For example, in the beginning of the film “The Second wife”, Ra appears veiled — humble, downtrodden; by the end of the film, having experienced many disasters, she decides to revolt against the unhappy marriage and cruel relatives. These days, watching on TV women of Iran and Afghanistan, fighting for their rights, I am often reminded of Ra in her films shot in Uzbekistan.
There is no doubt that Rakhil was a talented actress; she was able to reach and touch her audience. And I find these movies particularly painful, because I know that Rakhil’s life poised many severe tests for her, not unlike the lives of the heroines she played.
Apart from Tashkent, she worked on films set in the Altai mountains, in Kalmykia and in Kiev, where she starred in the film “The daughter of a rabbi”. It should be noted there were no stuntmen used in films at that time and actors had to do all the tricks themselves. Having already mastered the art of horse-riding, Rakhil now learned how to ride a motorcycle. In general, she was remarkably multi-skilled: staging plays, dancing, and, most importantly, taking bold decisions. Her courage and resourcefulness would help her survive the most testing trials in her life.
In 1925, Rakhil gave birth to a daughter, Maya. Rakhil continued to act in films in Tashkent and in Moscow, at the Mosfilm Studios. Occasionally, she brought Maya on set. Four-year-old Maya attended the premiere of the movie “Leprous”. During the film’s climax, the heroine is thrown under the horse’s hooves by bassmachis. Maya was in hysterics. Rakhil tried desperately to calm her down, saying that it was just a movie and not a real life. Yet Maya kept screaming, “But, Mommy, they killed you! They killed you!”
Rakhil with Alexander (left) and Maya (right)
With the birth of the second child Alexander, Rakhil was forced to leave the cinema. Her husband was appointed manager of mines Arktikugol and Consul of the USSR in the Norwegian arctic island of Spitsbergen, where he managed the production of coal. There were numerous articles written about this project including a book by the prominent poet-futurist Vadim Shershenevich. This book describes dramatic events: ships breaking through the ice and weathering severe storms on their way to Spitsbergen (located at 78 degrees north latitude). A steamer “Malygin” was squeezed by the blocks of ice, while a ship “Ruslan” got covered by ice and sank, with only a few on board managing to escape. Miners worked under dangerous conditions in permafrost, in continuing darkness.
In 1932, Rakhil arrived at Svalbard2 with her baby Alik and a seven-year-old Maya on the last departing ship: they endured monstrous gales and storms, as all transportation was cut off for the next six months. It was soon revealed that Arktikugol, the organization responsible for the welfare of the workers and the polar explorers in Svalbard, had failed to deliver blankets. Rakhil, together with some other wives of miners began to sew quilts from materials available in storerooms, deciding not to wait for the next delivery that would take six more months.
She worked as a telephone operator. But her time there was marked by her ability to bring some joy and laughter into the lives of the Soviet Arctic colony workers. She organized amateur concerts. Under her direction, an opera was staged, the “Little Mermaid”, where Maya played the role of the mermaid. Those in the audience could not have guessed that they were witnessing the debut of one of the greatest Russian performers of all time. The Prima Ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya. The family would often remember Pushkin’s phrase that she uttered with naivete of a child: “And what is money, I do not know.”
Rakhil with Mikhail Plisetsky and their children (Alik and Maya)
75 years later, Rakhil’s younger son Azari (who became a well-known ballet teacher and choreographer) visited Spitsbergen. In the museum of Barentsburg he saw photos of his father and banknotes issued for internal use in Svalbard with the facsimile signature of his father, M. E. Plisetski. These are now a numismatic rarity. Azari added to the museum’s collection an inscribed miner’s lamp, donated to his father by the miners of Barentsburg.
Rakhil, having returned back from the Arctic, led relatively peaceful life for about two years. Mikhail Plisetsky was awarded medals and honors for his work, among them, an “Emka,” car, one of the first Soviet made cars. Academician Otto Schmidt, who headed the General Directorate of the Northern Sea Route, appointed him as a general manager of the trust “Arktikugol” and they were also given an apartment in the centre of Moscow. This was the height of “good life” and bestowed official prestige on the family.
One remarkable event took place in January 1935: a special performance organized by the Messerer family. On that day actors and theatergoers crowded at the entrance of the MKHAT 2 theatre. The tumult was so great that the ushers had to stand outside the front doors in order to allow entry only to those with invitations.
The famous Messerer Five
The famous Messerer Five was comprised of three sisters and two brothers. The show included excerpts from the films in which Rakhil starred. Sulamith and Asaf performed the pas de deux from “Don Quixote” and their best solo. Azary and Elizabeth played scenes from several classic and contemporary plays and performed parodies on Stanislavsky, Nemirovich-Danchenko, Alisa Koonen, and others. The evening proved to be an enormous success.
But the fearful atmosphere in Moscow had already started to manifest itself, and the so-called Great Terror, unleashed by Stalin, soon was in force. Rakhil’s husband Mikhail was arrested on April 30, 1937, when Rakhil was seven months pregnant. In her autobiography, Maya Plisetskaya describes in detail the scene of the arrest. Maya was then 11-years-old, and she was told that her father was “urgently summoned back” to Spitsbergen.
Later, Maya told me how she vividly remembered her father’s hands, his long thin fingers with a scar from the sword fight (he had fought in the Civil War on the side of the Reds). She paused, then added that every day she sees in her mind’s eye how they broke her father’s hands… I could not believe her and asked, “Do you really mean every day?” “Yes, and often at night,” she replied. I thought later that such powerful emotions must have been channelled into her work as a great ballerina and a tragic actress.
For Stalin and his henchmen it was not difficult to concoct a reason for the arrest and to eliminate any person, no matter how famous or well-regarded by the state in the past. Maya was not correct, writing that the reason for her father’s arrest was the visit in 1934 to the USSR of his older brother Lester Plesent, who had immigrated to America before World War I. Half a century after his arrest, in 1992-93 to be exact, Alexander, Rakhil’s younger brother, gained access to the records of the interrogations of Mikhail Plisetsky. In the dossier No. 13060 (consisting of 12 volumes) the name of his American brother never appeared. But other reasons concocted by the investigators stand very clear from the yellowish pages: he was too loyal to his close friends when they experienced hard times. In Svalbard, Michael hired R.V. Pickel who was considered to be officially in disgrace for his close links to the “deviationist” Zinoviev. Later, in 1936, Pickel “made a confession” at the famous public mock trial of Zinoviev, Kamenev and others. In particular, he acknowledged his “participation in an assassination attempt on Stalin’s life.” Soon after the trial he was shot and all those associated with him were also arrested. Michail Plisetsky rejected the monstrous accusations made against him for a long time, but in mid-July, unexpectedly, he signed a confession. And there was a reason for this incredible act: on July 13, 1937, Rakhil gave birth to Azari. On July 22, Rakhil returned with him home from the hospital. And on July 23 there was a telephone call and a voice on the other side said, “Do not ask who is calling but tell us — who was born?” Rakhil, frightened out of her wits, replied, “A boy.”
That dreadful call was most likely made from the dungeon where Michael Plisetsky was being interrogated. The interrogators would use anything personal information or of emotional nature to squeeze a confession from the victims. Soon after they began to arrest “wives of the enemies of the people.” In the early spring of 1938, Rakhil and baby Azari were taken away and later shipped to a labour camp.
On that day, Rakhil bought some flowers and was about to go out with children to see the ballet “Sleeping Beauty” at the Bolshoi, with Asaf and Sulamith in the lead roles. When the secret police came for her, she told Maya to go with Alik by themselves, to give the flowers to Mita and Asaf and tell them that she was urgently “summoned to her husband to Spitsbergen” together with the baby.
Even before the performance had started, Sulamith learned that the children came to the 16th official entrance by themselves. She wrote in her memoir: “I do not remember how I danced; I recall only my brother whispering in my ear ‘Keep dancing, keep dancing, maybe nothing bad has happened…'”
During the intermission Mita called Rakhil. Her terrible fears were confirmed: Rakhil and little Azari were arrested. Sulamith took Maya to live with her, and Asaf took Alik who was a year older than his own son Boris.
Rakhil was jailed in a cavernous circular cell in the notorious Butyrskaya prison along with dozens of other mothers, many with screaming babies. Inmates would try their best to support each other morally. They would sing a lullaby in the Butyrskaya that Rakhil would later recall:
Early in the morning, at dawn,
Come the guards.
The children stand roll-call.
The sun would rise.
A thin ray
On a moist wall,
And touch the tiny prisoner,
But the gloomy abode
Will not brighten.
Who will return the rosy cheeks
To my little sun?
Behind bars and locks
Days last a year.
Children cry and even mothers
But the new generation is nurtured,
With hearts like steel;
My child, never believe
Your father was a traitor.
The last lines sound a discordant note to the dark lyricism of the poem. However, they reflect Rakhil’s credo. She was a frail little woman, but with the strength of character not unlike a hardened soldier. Her investigators soon realized that she was a hard nut to crack. She did not make any compromises and denied that she knew anything about the alleged “crime” of her husband. In her case it was recorded “she denies everything, but most probably she knew all about it”.
After Butyrskaya prison Rakhil and Azari were sent to the Gulag or rather to the so-called “Algeria” — Russian acronym for Akmolinskiy Camp for the wives of traitors. They were transported in cattle cars packed with political prisoners and ordinary criminals. Rakhil learnt from a gypsy woman who slept with one of the guards that they were being taken to Kazakhstan. Cold winds whistled through the cracks in the walls of the carriages. The prisoners suffered from terrible thirst, as they were fed salty dried fish without water to drink. But even more she was tormented by the thought of not being able to let her close ones know about her whereabouts. To remedy this, she had put to use something she learnt from jailbirds.
On a piece of paper Rakhil wrote a few lines with matches: “We’re moving in the direction of Karaganda, to the camp in Akmolinsky region. The child is with me…” She also wrote down her family’s address in Moscow: “Dzerzhinsky Str., Building 23, Apt. 3 “. Rakhil folded the paper triangle and sealed it with crumbs of black bread. When the train stopped at one of the stations, Rakhil stood up on the plank and through the barred window saw two signal women standing on the tracks. She waved to them and threw the letter. One of the women immediately turned away, but the other one followed the flying piece of paper with her eyes and nodded to Rakhil.
When Rakhil described this moment to me, it seemed like a slow motion scene: a flying piece of paper and the long gaze of a woman following it. What a scene for a movie!
And the kind soul did not nod in vain. The letter arrived! Sulamith decided that God spoke to her to help her save her sister. She put on her best suit and attached to it the “Honorary Award” she had just received (a rarity at that time). She made her way to the reception of the Cheka office and begged for the permission to visit her sister and at least bring her child home. Then, permission in hand, she undertook an arduous journey of thousands of miles to the “Algeria” camp.
On learning of her sister’s visit Rakhil was stuck dumb. When she recovered, she realized that Sulamith wanted to take Azari away. Although she wanted him free, but she also knew that this could lead to her own premature death at the camps. As a nursing mother she was able to avoid hard labour duties at the camp. As they had to communicate in front of the camp’s commandant, the sisters understood each other’s predicament without words. At the end of the meeting Mita said that the boy was still too weak to withstand a long journey home and asked for permission to send food parcels to them. Mita was granted permission to send parcels, and she headed back to Moscow, to try to further alleviate the fate of her sister.
Could she somehow reduce the sentence or rescue Rakhil and Azari from the Gulag altogether? Alas, there was little hope. In Moscow there was a rumor that at one reception in the Kremlin after the concert, Stalin proposed a toast to Rakhil’s brother Asaf Messerer. Was this true? Many years later in New York I asked Asaf about this incident and he confirmed it. He and ballerina Olga Lepeshinskaya were regarded as the leading pair at the Bolshoi and were occasionally invited to participate in concerts in the Kremlin. One day after such a concert, Asaf and a group of artists were sitting at a banquet table talking, when he suddenly felt ill at ease: it seemed that everyone was staring at him. He turned back and saw Stalin standing behind him. Asaf was about to get up when Stalin patted him on the shoulder and said: “Great dancing. Very high jump! Here you are,” and he pointed to Lepeshinskaya, “she is like a dragonfly, and you — you are like an “orlik” [an eagle]”. At that moment Voroshilov interrupted Stalin and he was momentarily distracted, but soon after he came back to Asaf, raised his glass and said that he drinks to his health. Asaf was stunned by this manifestation of the “royal favor” and was not sure how to respond. But Stalin already moved away.
The family asked Asaf to help Rakhil since he received such high praise from Stalin. Shortly thereafter Asaf was invited to organize a festive concert in the club of the NKVD. Ironically, this club is located on the same street as infamous Lubyanka prison. At that time it played a considerable role in the cultural life of Moscow. The Club belonged to a most powerful (and wealthy) organization, had a huge hall for performances, and only the absolutely best of the artistic elite were invited to perform. Once you were invited, it was unthinkable to refuse.
In early 1939 Asaf was sitting at the NKVD Club at the premiere of a performance that he had directed. He began talking to his neighbour and learned that this person was working under no other than the Deputy Secretary of NKVD. Asaf, who had so convincingly played heroic roles on the stage, was in reality very shy. One can imagine how hard it would have been for him to take such a bold step as to ask the man to talk to his chief and arrange a meeting to discuss a personal matter. He suggested that it would be better if his sister went to the meeting as she would be more familiar with the case. Perhaps the success of his production and the fact that Asaf was greeted with a standing ovation when he came onto the stage had an effect as the neighbor did arrange an audience for Mita with the Deputy Secretary (who was later also shot as the purges began to take their toll on the perpetrators as well).
Sulamith eloquently described him all the tribulations of Rakhil and her baby and achieved the unimaginable: Rakhil’s camp sentence was replaced by an exile in Kazakhstan, namely in the town of Chimkent. Moreover, Mita was allowed to go to the camp and personally help to relocate her sister to her place of exile!
Chimkent was the farthest Central Asian town in the region, where, during long summer days people suffered from scorching heat exacerbated by myriads of flies. In addition to the local Kazakh population, there were many exiles, among them people like Rakhil, widowed women with children. There was a cultural club where Rakhil immediately set up and organized a ballet troupe. Although she had not had professional ballet education, she attended numerous performances and rehearsals at the Bolshoi and the Ballet School and knew popular dances, such as the Dance of Little Swans. Later, Maya Plisetskaya participated in one performance when she visited her mother during holidays.
Rakhil with Maya, Alex and Azari
Beautiful and still young, Rakhil attracted many local men who wanted to marry her, but she believed that her beloved husband would return one day and did not reciprocate their intentions. Once she received a parcel with chocolates “Mishka in the North” which she apparently had not tasted before. The originator of this brand, also of the chocolates “Squirrel” brand, was a famous theater director Natalia Sats, whose husband, before he was arrested and shot, was the Minister for food production in the country. She once jokingly told me during an interview that people would remember her because of these chocolates. So, Rakhil decided that Mita had sent those candies as a sign that her Mikhail (Mishka is short for Mikhail) had returned to Spitsbergen, and she might soon see him. Like many other women, she did not understand the meaning of the monstrous Stalin’s sentence “Ten years incommunicado,” which actually meant death by a firing squad. By this time Mikhail Plisetsky had already been shot. Only four decades later, Rakhil received the documentary evidence of her husband’s death and the subsequent rehabilitation:
“Dear Rakhil Mikhaylovna!” — a certain A. Nikonov, head of the secretariat of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR, wrote in 1989, “Enclosed is the information you requested: Mikhail Emmanuilovich Plisetsky, born in 1899, member of the CPSU (Bolshevik) from 1919, until his arrest, manager of the Trust “Arctic Coal” was unjustly sentenced to death on Jan. 8, 1938, on false charges of espionage and sabotage by involvement in the anti-Soviet terrorist organization. The sentence was carried out. This happened immediately after the verdict, on January 8, 1938… Further investigation carried out in 1955-56, showed that M. E. Plisetsky was wrongly convicted…” The execution by firing squad was sanctioned by Zhdanov, Molotov, Kaganovich and Voroshilov. Their names appear on the title page of the so-called “Stalin’s hit list”. We know now the place of the execution and the burial site, the notorious NKVD “Kommunarka”, near Moscow.
Mikhail died in the prime of his life, without any idea that his daughter Maya Plisetskaya would be destined to become a world-famous ballerina. Rakhil forever remained single and hated the bloody Stalinist regime, which deprived her and her children of a father, a regime that destroyed millions of lives… She taught this hatred for the injustice to mankind, and also she inculcated the will to Maya and to her sons, and to us, her relatives, to stand up to Stalin and his henchmen.
Rakhil returned to Moscow two months before the start of the World War II and moved with Sulamith and her husband to where Maya lived, a tiny two-room communal apartment in Schepkinsky Proezd, behind the Bolshoi Theater. Rakhil and Azari slept on a camp bed that was unfolded at night-time near the door. However, such conditions seemed to her a veritable paradise after the camp conditions and the miserable hovels in Chimkent where she spent years.
She was also happy to see her daughter’s triumph at a ballet school concert. Maya Plisetskaya believes that this “Impromptu” performance staged by Leonid Yakobson was of a particular importance in her career as she “transformed from a novice ballet student into an independent, mature and a daring professional ballerina.” A few months after the start of the war, Rakhil and the children evacuated to Sverdlovsk, in the Urals, where she managed, with great difficulty, to get a job of a registrar at a local health clinic that enabled her to receive coupons to buy food for the children. Rakhil gave me a packet of letters she received from her relatives who were scattered throughout the country during the war. Unfortunately, letters from Rakhil are missing, but letters from her loved ones survive and demonstrate that she was the major link between all family members; her boundless wisdom and compassion helped them to endure hardships. I was especially moved by the letters from her father Mikhail Borisovich to his son, my father, Emmanuel Messerer, who died during a German bombing raid when he was on duty patrolling the roof of a Moscow home. This tragedy was concealed from my grandfather. The letters were returned to him with a stamp of “unknown addressee” and he begged Rakhil to explain the silence from Nulia, as they called my father. Rakhil tried to pacify him and distract him in her letters, blaming the inefficiency of postal services in wartime.
In a letter from Elizabeth on February 16, 1942, it is apparent that Rakhil tried to send a parcel to her older brother Mattaniy, a Professor, who languished in Gulag. Rakhilinka, my sunshine. I’ve shed many tears when reading your letter. How awful to learn about our great misfortune, the loss of our beloved Nulia. I won’t ask you for details, not to aggravate the matter….Also I am deeply disturbed to read about the plight of Mattaniy. What can we do? Two days ago I received a postcard from him. He asked me to send him a parcel. He asks for some sugar, rusks and tobacco. It is very painful. I feel real pain when I think of him. I can send him a food parcel, except for the sugar. But they allow parcels to be sent only to the front and not within the country. Perhaps you will have better luck in sending it? I will still try… Do keep in touch; it is such joy to receive letters from you.”
And here is an excerpt from Asaf’s letter who was evacuated into Kuibyshev where he managed the Bolshoi Theatre troupe: “Dear Rakhilinka. I received your letter asking about accommodation in Kuibyshev. The housing issue is very tough here. It is almost impossible to find a room, and the only way is to move into the hostel of the Bolshoi Theater. I think I will be able to organize this, but, please, keep in mind that there are 20-25 people living in one room… Also I am very concerned about the epidemic of typhus. Firstly, you can get infected on the train, and secondly, it might be difficult to gain the entry to Kuibyshev.”
Rakhil wanted to move to Kuibyshev because of Maya who missed on her ballet lessons for one year and it was important for her to continue her studies. But soon Rakhil learnt that part of the troupe had returned to Moscow and, according to rumors, the ballet school classes resumed. She took a great to let her sixteen-year old daughter go to Moscow, despite the dangers and perils of coming to the capital without a special pass. She wanted Maya to join Sulamith who had been invited to participate in the first Moscow ballet performances during the war. Fortunately, Maya was able to enter the graduation class and soon she began to perform in The Bolshoi as the theatre was in need of soloists at that time.
Sulamith with Maya
I remember Rakhil immediately after the war. Her sons, who studied at the Bolshoi Ballet School, spent summers at a summer camp, in Polenovo, near famous Tarusa. Rakhil got a job there. I was also taken to this camp though I was only 6 years old. It was the first time for me to be away from home for three months and, thanks to Rakhil, this experience was not so traumatic. She treated me like a mother as I sought her comfort after every boyish conflict.
Since then, all my life, I loved her as a second mother. When our communal apartment was renovated, I asked to live with Rakhil in their communal apartment at Schepkinsky Proezd. The family accepted me despite the congestion, and I slept on the bed between two famous ballerinas — Maya and Sulamith. Mom’s brother, who lived with us, joked that from an early age, I showed a great promise with women. I did not understand of course what he meant.
In the 60’s, Sulamith started taking long trips abroad, mostly to Japan, where she founded the first classical ballet school, naming it after Tchaikovsky. She left her son Mikhail with Rakhil, knowing that her sister would take good care of him and look after his education. There was never a limit to Rakhil’s motherly love for everyone. (Recently Mikhail Messerer has been appointed the chief choreographer of the Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg and continues to work as a teacher at the Royal Ballet in London).
A film director Basil Katanyan, Maya Plisetskaya’s friend, who often visited her in her house wrote in his book Touching the Idols: “I am very fond of her mother, Rakhil Mikhailovna, such a decent, good woman. I admire her gift to do many things at once: cooking, cleaning, etc., with every family member having a different schedule. Maya goes to ballet classes and her garments have to be ironed. Alex comes home from rehearsals, the junior needs help with his homework … She is always responsive and expeditious.”
Boris Pevzner, the nephew of Rakhil’s husband recalls:
“My mother, Mikhail’s first cousin, was a good friend of Rakhil; and after Misha’s arrest, their relations became even closer. During the war, at the end of 1943, we moved to Moscow and often visited Rara, as my mother called her, at the house behind the Bolshoi. I remember that in one room, where Maya lived, there hung on a long hoop a rather modernistic lampshade made by her, and in the other room, toy railway cars, made by seven year old Azari, ran on the floor. After we moved to Leningrad, I would visit Rakhil whenever I came to Moscow, even after the death of my mother in 1964. She always met me with great hospitality, and I felt her kindred warmth. If I was lucky, and Maya was dancing on that day, Rakhil would take me with her to see the ballet. Because of her, I saw the four famous ballets of Shchedrin — Plisetskaya: Carmen suite, Anna Karenina, Seagul, and The Lady with a lap dog. She took a keen interest in my family, and in my life. I felt that it was a true interest, that the more she learned about her relatives, the fuller her life became. She will always stay in my memory as a very energetic and kind person, with a warm smile.
Rakhil was fully involved in all aspects of her children’s life: the triumphs on the stage as well as their turbulent times. Rakhil deeply felt for Maya’s troubles in the 50’s, for example. Maya wrote that at the time she was on the verge of a suicide: for six years, the KGB suspected her of spying because of her one brief meeting with a British diplomat. She was not allowed to travel abroad. British, American, and French impresarios demanded Maya to be included in the Bolshoi Ballet tours, but the Goskoncert always announced at the last minute that, for one reason or another, she allegedly could not go. Thanks to her mother’s moral support, Maya survived this terrible period. She also writes that together with her husband, a prominent composer Rodion Shchedrin, they managed to secure a small apartment in 1958 largely due to the efforts of her mother whose “personality, although gentle, showed determination in the extreme.” And it is true that for the sake of her children, Rakhil was ready to fight any bureaucratic obstacles till the end.
WATCH a clip with Maya Plisetskaya dance in the “Dying Swan”
In the 70’s, there was a fierce struggle between two camps at the Bolshoi Theater, the one of Maya Plisetskaya, and the other of Yuri Grigorovich, the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, an authoritarian figure who managed the Bolshoi ballet and who would not allow leading choreographers to take part in the production of ballet performances. This animosity had an impact on the ballet careers of both Maya’s brothers: Azari and Alexander. Grigorovich, in every way he could, hampered their progress in the theater, and they were forced to leave Moscow for a long period. Rakhil suffered a great deal from this separation from them. And, of course, the worst tragedy in her life was the early death of her son Alexander Plisetsky, who suffered from heart disease. He did not survive to take up the invitation from a well-known surgeon in America who promised to perform surgery on him. He died during surgery at a Moscow hospital. Rakhil’s health rapidly deteriorated after this tragedy.
Rakhil’s life was full of great sadnesses as well as great joys. She never missed a single performance in which her children Maya, Alexander and Azari participated. Rakhil would sit in the front row, alongside her younger brother, Alexander, next to the famous Lily Brik (the muse of the poet Mayakovsky) wearing one of her beautiful black dresses, smiling at the many admirers of her children who came to pay their respects during intermissions. Sometimes she would give them family photographs signing “A memento from Maya’s mother.”
Towards the end of her life, Rakhil got the opportunity to travel. She stayed in England with her sister Sulamith, who was awarded an OBE for her contribution to British culture. She spent six months in Cuba, where Azari worked, as well as time in France and Spain. In her ninetieth year she came to America, accompanied by her brother Alexander, who tenderly looked after her, and actually helped extend her life.
In the US they lived in a beautiful house that belonged to Mr Stanley Plesent, Rakhil’s husband’s nephew. The house was located on the beach at Larchmont, one of the most beautiful suburbs of New York. In the mornings and the evenings, she always looked beautiful and majestic even in her old age, sitting in the front garden, with neighbors passing by and stopping to exchange a few words with her. They called her “The Queen of Larchmont”. The two Plesent brothers, Stanley and Manny, carefully preserved the relics of their father Lester’s visit to Moscow in 1934: a book about the labor feat on Spitsbergen with a patriotic inscription by Mikhail Plisetsky, and a ritual tallis that was given to Lester before he left Moscow. And of course, they cherish the photos of Rakhil made during her visit to America.
Rakhil died at the age of 91 and was buried in the family grave at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, at the start of the famous Cherry Orchard avenue. Her brother, the acclaimed MKhAT actor Azary, was the first to be buried there in 1937. Rakhil named her youngest son, who was born the same year, after him. This family tomb is located next to the graves of Chekhov, Levitan, Stanislavsky, and Gogol. And nowadays, just like at the nearby graves of these cultural icons of Russia, there are flowers placed on her grave by some unknown person. It seems that to this day Muscovites still remember Rakhil.
Clips from films starring Sulamith Messerer:
- Member of a 19th-century socialist movement in Russia who believed that political propaganda among the peasantry would lead to the awakening of the masses and, through their influence, to the liberalization of the Tsarist regime. (www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/403562/Narodnik
- Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean north of mainland Europe, about midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole