Decades of mirth
Belarusian clown duo known in the USSR and abroad
By Yulia Smirnova
“In Yemen, our circus troupe gave performances separately for men and for women, while all our artistes had to wear chaste Adidas sports suits,” says Fiodor Gulevich. “In Japan — my favourite country — audience applaud in an unusual way, only sustaining their clapping while you face front. As soon as you move, they stop!”
Mr. Gulevich has many stories to tell, as has his partner, Alexander Voronetsky. The first Belarusian clowns entertained audiences worldwide for many years. Fiodor was born in 1952, in Molodechno, and lived in the Bykhov District. His childhood was full of outrageous activities, including artistic gymnastics, dancing and boxing. Aged 13, he caught the eye of Semen Chapovsky, who ran a circus studio. The former circus artist was visiting Molodechno with his wife, to recuperate, and watched some local amateur performances. It was Chapovsky who spotted clown potential in Gulevich and Voronetsky.
Fiodor recalls that he’d never been to the circus, so his trip to Minsk with Mr. Chapovsky was a revelation. The boys squeezed into his old Moskvich car. “There were 6-7 of us but, amazingly, we fitted! Eight boys and the teacher himself was our record.”
Having watched professional circus performances, Fiodor was hooked. He tells us, “Sasha and I even gave up boxing because Chapovsky explained that the beating to our ears would damage our vestibular apparatus and prevent us from balancing on a wire. Eventually, only 12 of us remained from 150. We were among them, staying at the studio for 2 years.”
Of course, Gulevich and Voronetsky became clowns and were known as the most funny in their genre. Fiodor continues, “The studio took us to perform at Palaces of Culture and in the fields, entertaining farm machinery operators. We gained experience and won two festivals: the All-Belarusian, and then the All-Union. After these victories, Sasha and I were invited to Soyuzgostsirk (State Circus).”
In 1969, Fiodor and Sasha went on their first big tour, visiting Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov, Tashkent and Dushanbe. “In 1973, our famous circus act — Gorshki (Pots) — was born: juggling cast-iron kettles with the help of oven forks. We’d only presented classic clownery until then but wanted to create a circus act with national colour,” explains Fiodor. Juggler Yury Biryukov suggested the idea while on tour in Minsk. “At first, we made sham pots, from paper-mache. However, they flew badly, so we tried real pots; this worked well. Then, Sasha suggested that we play the pots like drums.”
Their success was officially recognised and, in 1979, Fiodor received the title of Honoured Artist, aged just 27! “Encyclopaedias say that I’m registered as a People’s Artist of the Belarusian SSR but it isn’t true. They wanted to award to me this title but the Soviet Union collapsed. In Moscow, the documents had already been prepared and sent to Minsk; the matter depended only on the Decree of the Supreme Soviet. At that time, we were working abroad, when the USSR disintegrated, so I eventually gave up on the idea.”
In 1999, Fiodor and his wife went to the USA, following their daughter, who moved there in 1998. In 2007, after his divorce, Fiodor returned and now lives in Sevastopol.