Rostislav Yankovsky, “I feel myself to be the head of a dynasty more than ever before”
[b]Taking the stage in his dinner jacket, he paused to allow the applauding audience to express its feelings of devotion and esteem on the occasion of his 80th birthday. With inimitable dignity, particular to the famous theatre and cinema family of Yankovsky, he accepted the congratulations. The celebrations were generous, as they always are for People’s Artistes. He has earned the right to hear praise, being part of the country’s heritage [/b]The event took place in his native Russian Theatre — as the renowned Maxim Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre is known. Among the guests were state officials, ambassadors, Yankovsky’s colleagues and, of course, the Yankovsky dynasty from Belarus and Russia: from Minsk, Saratov and Moscow… Congratulations from various theatres were lively, with playwrights, screenwriters and performers sharing their greetings in their typically creative manner.
The event took place in his native Russian Theatre — as the renowned Maxim Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre is known. Among the guests were state officials, ambassadors, Yankovsky’s colleagues and, of course, the Yankovsky dynasty from Belarus and Russia: from Minsk, Saratov and Moscow… Congratulations from various theatres were lively, with playwrights, screenwriters and performers sharing their greetings in their typically creative manner.
We chatted with Mr. Yankovsky about his life a few weeks before the solemn event, finding time in his routine. He was rehearsing Sergey Kovalchik’s new play, Pan Kohanku, from 10.30am-2pm. Yankovsky plays the protagonist, magnate Karol Stanisław — the last of the Radziwills, famous for his extravagance and wit and known as Pan Kohanku. The performance is based on young playwright Alexander Kureichik’s story.
Even in his old age, Rostislav Yankovsky is still amazingly charming. He looks like an elderly English gentleman at least ten years younger than his real age. I recall researching a big article with a colleague, to mark Yankovsky’s 70th birthday (resulting in articles in issues 9 and 10, in 2001). I could hardly resist the desire to pay my compliment to Rostislav but later considered that actors of his standing remain untouched by age. This is especially apparent when he begins talking. Listening to his voice brings so much pleasure. Moreover, his face is smooth, with twinkling eyes and a body that seems to stretch and unfold. Yankovsky is a very clever man and an interesting storyteller.
“Pan Kohanku is a story about the Radziwill dynasty, rather than the tale of one member. Naturally, it was written to reflect certain historical facts. The protagonist is an unusual, impulsive figure, powerful and mighty; he could have become the king. He looked after his men, ensuring they lived decently. I admire Kohanku for wanting to teach them ‘to fly’ rather than just dig the land. He invented various machines and was undoubtedly talented. He travelled a great deal and, during the summer, sanded roads with salt to use bears to pull his sleigh,” explains Yankovsky, on his way to the make-up room. He offers an excuse for being late: together with Bela Masumyan [also a People’s Artiste of Belarus — author] they were discussing costumes. We enter his make-up room and Yankovsky sits down, leaning close to several framed photos.
“This is my grandson Ivan, Vladimir’s son.” [Vladimir is his youngest son — a famous music video and film director — author]
“Every time I enter the room, I chat to this photo — asking if he has anything to say to me. While being made up, waiting for my turn on the stage, I say, “Well, Ivan, do you think it’s easy to act?”
“Was he named in honour of his grandfather?” I ask, knowing the answer.
“Yes. He was named in honour of my father, Ivan Yankovsky,” he notes. On the wall is a photo from the remote 1930s, in a big glass frame: it shows his father and mother and a young Yankovsky. As some people say — it’s a family icon. I imagine Rostislav at four years old and recollect the great pleasure that Yankovsky experienced during our last meeting, when talking of his childhood. He remembered his first ‘role’ — as a Polish priest. My eyes fall on Ivan’s photo and I wonder what will impress this boy and push to his first ‘role’.
I remember myself well at the age of four or five. We lived in Odessa. I still recall our first New Year tree — and Christmas. These were warm, wonderful holidays… My grandma took me to a Roman Catholic church for the Christmas service and I was struck by its magnificence. The moulding and stained-glass windows, strict rows of pews and the aroma of candles, the organ and the music… I was so impressed that, on coming home, I began pretending to be a priest, swinging the whirligig like a censer. I sang something obscure with a melody rather like a Latin prayer, as I’d heard in the church. Meanwhile, our neighbour Riva arrived and asked grandma: “Did a priest visit you? A rabbi has come to us.” She was forced to explain that it was just me playing!
Tracing the life of Rostislav Yankovsky, you might doubt the power of parental example in influencing choice of profession (or genetic predisposition). According to logic, Rostislav should have become a military officer, like his father. Being the elder son, he adored his father who was a gentleman by birth, becoming a staff-captain of the Life Guards of the Semenovksy Regiment [Tsar’s Army regiment — author]. He later served in the Red Army but was persecuted in the 1930s. Rostislav remembers well his happiness on seeing his father return home from camp. The family was forced to move from Odessa to Rybinsk, where his father worked in the technical department ‘for provision’ at the water reserve, which was newly built at that time. Rostislav had the chance to become a pilot, studying for some time at the summer flight school, and could have become a professional sportsman, being a Tajikistani junior boxing champion. However, he preferred the acting life, making choices to bring him to the professional stage. His first real theatre job was during the war, in the 1940s in Dzhezkazgan (Northern Kazakhstan) — where his family lived at that time.
The Kazakh theatre came to our town, with ‘Girl Zhebek’ performed in the Kazakh language. Everybody can understand drama. I watched the performance from behind the scenes and saw yurtas on stage — actors in national costumes who spoke in Kazakh and then returned behind the scenes holding bows and arrows. Some of them were holding their children by the hands, others put their children on the potty and others offered drinks. There was a huge difference between their stage performance and real life behind the scenes. I was bewitched…
I have always been impressed by the way actors express themselves not just in words but in their body language and facial expressions. They can say so much without speaking at all, proving the rich nuances of our psyche and the power of their talent. This talent pushed Yankovsky towards his world of dreams, towards the beautiful illusions of theatre and cinema. During the Second World War years, refugees were starving, living in sharp contrast to the fantasy world portrayed so often on stage. The performances gave them hope. They could imagine the war ending, bringing peace and happiness. Indeed, this happened for Rostislav Yankovsky. Through sport, he met Nina Cheishvili — a sprint record-holder in Tajikistan. After three years of courting, this ‘beauty, runner and Komsomol member’ became his wife. Even today, her eminent husband calls her his treasure, an actor’s wife, a real wife, his one and only…
Nina is a wonderful teacher. She taught geography at school and adores children. She used to take her students — boys and girls — on walking tours. She also played basketball and fenced with them. She took our sons, Igor and Vladimir, to various competitions. They love her a lot and, even today, share all their secrets with her. She has an open soul and is so easy-going. I love talking to her. You can’t help but love Nina. Besides, she is very clever and knows how to deal with my bad moods. She knows that, on the eve of an opening night, it’s best to leave me alone.
In the early 1950s, Rostislav worked as a motor pool dispatcher and was noticed taking part in amateur dramatics. He was invited to join the Leninabad Drama Theatre. He graduated from the theatre studio there and worked at the theatre for six years. Later, he received an offer from Belarusfilm Studio to try a film test… and went to Minsk.
As a young actor, I was ready to take any role. I’d even play a locomotive on stage! I loved and still love the stage, gaining great enjoyment from performing — especially from rehearsals, where you learn so much about a character, perfecting your dialogue; it’s very important. The role isn’t set until the final run-throughs. After this, you don’t need your director. Your internal spirit takes over, bringing something that no director can inspire…
Which are Yankovsky’s favourite roles? As he said once, a self-respecting actor doesn’t have a favourite role. All his roles are his children: one is pitied more, the other less, but he loves each equally.
There is one role which took more effort. I would even say, it was born from tension. I recollect it more often than others. There are failures, but I would never curse a role. We all have flops…
Today, Rostislav Yankovsky still performs with the Russian Theatre, where he has been working for more than 50 years. He plays in Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman, Before Sunset by Gerhart Hauptmann, and The Imaginary Invalid by Jean-Baptiste Moliere… One of his latest outstanding roles is that of General Groznov in Truth is Good, but Happiness is Better by Alexander Ostrovsky (less than a year since opening night). I’ve seen the play and enjoyed the psychological implications — characteristic of Yankovsky; he builds relationships with his stage partners in a masterly fashion.
Actors are like monkeys. We should grab you by the tail, drawing you into the action so that nothing else exists. Interaction with one’s fellow actors is vital, founded in rehearsals. There’s no point being on stage without this connection. You need to know who you are working with, living the role from the inside. This is the Russian theatre school — the same in America and in Belarus — as expounded by Chekhov. Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and Nicholson have all learned Stanislavsky School techniques, which give birth to real actors!
Yankovsky adheres to the same school and has long been faultless in all of his roles. Nevertheless, receiving complimentary words, he always knocks on wood.
How has he been feeling in the run up to his birthday? Does he have a message for us?
I don’t want to talk about myself. A lot has been said already. There has even been a big book about myself, published as part of the series ‘Lives of Outstanding People from Belarus’. Talking about my relatives is a different matter. They are absolutely wonderful. Not only because they are my family but because each of them is talented professionally and personally. I feel myself to be the head of a dynasty more than ever before. Rather than repeat myself, I’ll talk about my wife, parents, brothers, children and grandchildren.
Family is a powerful thing. I’d like my grandchildren to be there for each other, always remembering those who have passed away and thinking of those who live today. I pray to the Lord that he teaches us to look after each other unselfishly. If you learn to do this, you can show character. You can learn to do this but, luckily, my own parents taught me from an early age… Sometimes, I’m asked if I’m happy and if there is such a thing as happiness. I always say that anyone with a theatrical family like me, with a wife that he loves, children, grandchildren, and brothers, united not only by family ties, but by something more — love and good relationships, ‘infected’ with a passion for art and the theatre, which is like a charming drug, has all he could desire. If we, the Yankovskys, bear this wonderful last name, what else is there to dream about? Why shouldn’t we be happy? We are! There is happiness and good and love. It doesn’t come from above, it takes work. If you work hard, you’ll receive happiness and love.
Yankovsky again looks at Ivan’s photo. I try to read the thoughts of his grandfather, asking, “Perhaps, he will also become an artist?”
Rostislav smiles, “Why not! Perhaps! The profession is great, although very hard. To achieve something, one should not simply work but rather sweat one’s guts out. If you have talent, you should work even harder, so as not to waste this talent.”
Yankovsky tells me that his ideal birthday celebration involved seeing the faces of all his relatives and close friends in the audience. However, the wave of influenza made him fear that some would feel unwell and be unable to come. Of course, Rostislav is nervous of people’s expectations of him, since he is called ‘the country’s destiny’. “I am not afraid of inflated words and I like Belarus — how can I not love it? It is the motherland of my father and I have lived here for half a century. I always miss Belarus if I’m absent for a long while. When I come home from abroad, I always say to Nina, “Look, how beautiful it is here!”
On this optimistic note, we conclude and I thank Rostislav for finding time for me. He says, “You haven’t seen everything in my make-up room. There, above the table, is a real antique — a tragic mask from Greece. These are a couple of Veniamin Marshak’s caricatures of myself.” Yankovsky admires the hand of the artist, saying, “He grasped my essence, indeed.” I quietly go into raptures over my interlocutor. He is so likeable and I wish him, above all else, good health. As his son, Vladimir Yankovsky, has commented, his father already has everything else.
By Valentina Zhdanovich
P.S. During the evening, one thought never left me: I felt a wave of love from the audience for the hero of this holiday. I felt the energy of their kindness and their open-minded interest in his theatrical and personal life. It was rather like being part of large theatrical family, emanating warmth and comfort. Those performing on stage are clearly inspired by the arts; I was being welcomed into their world, able to view the genuine solemnity without which no holiday (or theatrical art) is possible.