This is a story brought back to me by an old photo album I received from Vatican a long time ago. After opening it for no reason I recalled a unique event I had chanced to be a part of: Soviet Circus actors parading before John Paul II.
It happened on March 23, 1982. This was the first occasion that common Soviet folk could make contact the Pope on comparable terms. For me this event is not just a source of personal pride but represents a share of the dignity and achievements of our generation that are often grossly misunderstood nowadays. We were the first ‘unofficial’ Soviet group to step over the threshold of Vatican. Administrators in the Vatican office were very much the same as those to be found in any Soviet establishment: everyone was running around with typewriters printing, people talking and making noise. The only difference was all of them were wearing robes.
I was in charge of a group of Soviet circus actors on a four-month tour across Italy, including Turin, Bologna, Livorno, Padua, Rome, and Milan. While in Rome, we were approached by a Vatican representative, Don Franco. He invited us to attend an audience with Pope John Paul II – the first after he had been wounded in a recent assassination attempt. We of course had to consult the Soviet Embassy in Italy. While the Vatican as an independent state naturally had no diplomatic relationships with the Soviet Union at the time, the question of our audience still had to be decided via Moscow. For four days from dawn to dusk we sat together with the Soviet Ambassador waiting for a response from Moscow, until one morning the Vatican representatives appeared insisting that we come to the Vatican. So there was me and the Soviet Attaché for Culture taking an Embassy car to visit a Cardinal there in Vatican to find out that the idea to have the Russian circus as guests for the Pope’s first public audience after the assassination attempt was a personal wish of His Holiness himself! We did have our political concerns. We said very clearly that we could only appear before the Pope if he did not touch politics in his speech before the 50 thousand people he was to address. Otherwise we would have to leave. They immediately understood we were specifically referring to the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, and the Cardinal said we need not worry.
The Vatican had an even more critical concern of its own! Animals are not allowed on St Peter’s Square in the Pope’s presence. But all our best performances involved animals! We had Merdenov’s cavalry, a tamed bear, and a lot of things like these. But the rules did not allow it. They especially objected to the horses. I explained desperately that tricks with horses were our pride, and talked up the skills of our jockeys a lot. The Holy See promised to give a final answer in the evening. When evening came, a Vatican representative came to inform us that the Pope had given his approval and we were to get ready for the show.
Meanwhile an approval from Moscow came, and on March 23, 1982 we headed to St Peter’s along with horses, bears, and what not. The Pope spoke in seven languages and did not say a word about politics. Before we started the show, he greeted every member of the group one by one. As his small armored limo approached us, for a moment we were startled: everyone before kissed the Pope’s hand, but we were Soviet citizens and atheists. Could it be possible for us to do that? John Paul came out of the car saying: “Zdravstvuyte, artisty Moskovskogo Tsirka!” and greeted us with his two hands outstretched. He had already solved this dilemma on our behalf.
And then our actors appeared, starting with the cavalry. We immediately felt the genuine excitement of the crowd – an air of joy! No-one present ever imagined what they saw: Soviet people entertaining them on horseback wearing their large felt burkas! The Pope observed every number. He especially liked A dancing bear called Mashka. And we were very happy to participate in such an event as the Pope’s first public appearance. We were asked not to leave after we finished. So we waited while he was treating the sick. He touched everyone and said something, but once in a while he would turn his head to see if we were still there.
Then he came to us and said, “Have you noticed the way people received you?” He also said he was very glad we came, and that he likes Russians a lot. While he was speaking I forgot he was the Pope, he was fantastically friendly. There was the sense of miracle. The wish to live, and to believe in something. The world seemed to have changed.
© DE I / DESILLUSIONIST ¹-1. SOVIET CIRCUS IN VATIKAN