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16 March is the birthday of Solomon Mikhoels

16 March is the birthday of Solomon Mikhoels

Solomon Mikhoels is a prominent Soviet theatre actor, teacher, director and public figure, laureate of numerous national awards and prizes.

Biography

Solomon Mikhoels (born Shloyme Vovsi) was born in a Jewish family in Dinaburg (now Daugavpils) on the 16th of March 1890. Until the age of 13 he went to a heder, a traditional Jewish religious elementary school. After the graduation he started his self-education, including learning Russian.

Solomon was dreaming about a theatre career since he was a child; at the age of 9 he ever wrote his first play, but had to quit his dream at the insistence of his father. As the actor remembered later, his father thought that he should be occupied with something more useful for the society – to become a doctor, or a lawyer. Mikhoels graduated from the secondary school in Riga, studied at Kiev institute of commerce and he also studied law in Saint Petersburg.

Theatrical and Public Activities

Soon after the October Revolution Solomon Mikhoels joined the Jewish Theatre Workshop which was organized in Petrograd. Since 1919 he acted actively. The play “The Blind” by Maurice Maeterlinck was one of Solomon’s works in which he managed to demonstrate his talent. Later the workshop established the Moscow State Jewish Theatre. In 1929 after the successful tour around Europe, Mikhoels became the director of the theatre.

Shakespeare’s King Lear is considered the best role of Solomon Mikhoels. The actor always tried to thoroughly analyse the character he was going to play, and to understand it from a philosophical point of view. He was so good at this that very often directors accepted this ideas, and moreover, they even stepped back, and the theatre stopped being director’s but became purely actor’s.

Theatrical and Public Activities

Edward Gordon Craig, an English actor and director, one of the most distinguished modernist theatre practitioners went to one of the first presentations of the play “King Lear”. That’s what he said about Mikhoels’s acting: “I was going to the theatre with unveiled distrust, and even asked Mikhoels to give me the place from which I could leave earlier, but I immediately understand that I mustn’t leave this play. It’s clear now why there is no real Shakespeare in English theatre – there is no such an actor as Mikhoels there”.

Apart from his work at the theatre, Mikhoels was also involved in public activity, and he was respected not only in the USSR but also in the world Jewish community. During World War II he headed Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee founded in 1942. The main task of this organization was to attract political and financial support for the USSR fight with Germany.

In 1943 Mikhoels together with other members of the committees made a seven-month tour around the USA, Mexico, Canada and Great Britain. During the tour he met a lot of prominent people: Thomas Mann, Theodore Dreiser, Marc Chagall, Albert Einstein and many others. Mikhoels ran meetings to raise money to support the Soviet Army. He so much impressed people with his talent that they usually donated large sums of money.

Solomon Mikhoels and Albert Einstein

In 1943 after his performance at Carnegie-Hall, the crowd overwhelmed with his speech rushed to the stage.  The stage ruined under the people’s weight, and Mikhoels fell down and broke his leg.  The rest of his American tour he spent in a wheelchair and on crutches. After the performance, Marc Chagall said: “I have seen performances made on squares, at stadiums, circuses by major modern directors, but such a spectacle as anti-fascist meeting in New York in 1943 could be directed only by Mikhoels.”.  

Death

Solomon Mikhoels died on January 12, 1948 in Minsk. According to the official version, the actor died in a road accident – hit-and-run car accident. The government organized his funeral; the Moscow State Jewish Theatre was named after Mikhoels. However, later it was found out that Solomon Mikhoels’s death was assassinated by the USSR security services on Stalin’s order. Mikhoels turned out to be a victim of the anti-Semitic campaign at the beginning of the 1950s.  It was claimed that he was a Jewish nationalist and conspirator against Stalin. After Stalin’s death in 1953 in the newspaper “Pravda” there was an article with the disclaimer of all accusations towards the actor.

 

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