(Valeria Paikova’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 10/28; Photo: Russia Beyond the Headlines.)

Vsevolod Meyerhold was a personality of great contradictions, and one of the movers and shakers in 20th century theater. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he influenced the art of performance as much as Fyodor Dostoevsky influenced the world of literature.

Six O’clock in the morning had never looked so bad as on June 20, 1939, when acclaimed Russian theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold received a knock on his door. The 65-year-old artist looked at his wife, actress Zinaida Reich, in bewilderment. They didn’t expect any surprise guests at this time of day. Meyerhold opened the door and let three people in. They presented the director with a search warrant and an order for his arrest. It was a done deal.

However, all of this could have been resolved in a different way, had Meyerhold listened to his friend Konstantin Stanislavsky’s most successful student, Mikhail Chekhov. The nephew of the playwright Anton Chekhov didn’t accept the Bolshevik revolution, was allergic to the communist regime and fled to the west. In his memoirs, he recalled his meeting with Meyerhold in Berlin in 1930. 

“I tried to convey my feelings to him, or rather my premonitions, about his terrible end, if he went back to the Soviet Union,” Chekhov said. “From my gymnasium years, I’ve carried a revolution in my soul and always in its extreme, radical forms. I know you are right and my end will be the one you say. But I will return to the Soviet Union. Why? – Out of sheer honesty,” Meyerhold told Chekhov.

Meyerhold made his life’s work in the arts as an actor, director, teacher and a maverick reformer. He was a complex human being, not easily reduced to a footnote of theater chitchat. According to Sergei Eisenstein (the genius director behind ‘Battleship Potemkin’), Meyerhold was in some ways a better actor than Charlie Chaplin.

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