The Soviet people’s shrink Former news anchor and television announcer Igor Kirillov is dead. He was a media icon to Russians for decades.
Legendary Soviet news anchor Igor Kirillov died in Moscow on October 30. He was 89 years old. For more than two decades, Kirillov hosted Vremya — a nightly news program viewed religiously throughout the entire USSR — and in doing so became a Soviet institution. Like hundreds of millions of others, journalist Ekaterina Barabash experienced Kirillov live and on the air. At Meduza’s request, she reflects on the man and his broadcasts.
“This is Moscow speaking.” How many times did we hear those words? Thousands? Millions? Too many to count. Igor Leonidovich Kirillov manifested in our homes at nine o’clock every night, and with his unmistakable voice, brought us to terms with stark Soviet life.
Vremya broadcasts started with a splash: composer Georgy Sviridov’s grandiose orchestral piece “Time, Forward!” Then, half an hour later, they floated away to the sweetly sung melody of Marie Laforet’s “Manchester et Liverpool,” which introduced the weather forecast. In between was Kirillov.
Back then, the Soviet Central Television news anchors were our liaisons to the wider world. And while we knew that the only true words spoken during Vremya were a few bits from the weather forecast and the “This is Moscow speaking” opener, it was ill-advised ever to skip it. Why? First, if you were capable of reading between the lines, you could glean something useful. And second, there was Igor Kirillov.
Kirillov dreamed of being a filmmaker. After graduating from the Mikhail Semyonovich Shchepkin Higher Theatre Institute, he spent two years acting at the Drama and Comedy Theater (which later became the illustrious Taganka Theatre). Following that stint, he brought fresh ideas to the world of television. Those ideas went unwanted. But Kirillov himself was put to use, first as an assistant director, and soon thereafter as a news anchor. At the time, the news anchor corps was entirely female, but it was decided that Kirillov would dismantle the matriarchy, so to speak. In the end, he dismantled it in such a way that the words “news anchor” and “Kirillov” became synonyms.
Yuri Levitan, a then-living radio broadcast legend, set the bar for Kirillov, and he set it high. In the popular subconsciousness, Levitan’s voice was forever associated with World War II. If Levitan was the voice of the war, Kirillov would become the voice of peace.
Given Levitan’s status as an icon and a broadcasting paragon, it’s unsurprising that a young Kirillov began his career as a Levitan-emulator. In time though, Kirillov developed his own distinctive style. Where Levitan’s voice was quintessentially official, Kirillov managed to craft a confiding, compassionate tone — accompanied, of course, by the requisite Soviet formality and dispassion.
Vremya became something akin to a Kirillov-hosted benefit concert, set with a mission to instill popular confidence in the party line. You might say he was our shared on-call shrink. He could have said anything, and it would have been impossible not to have believed him. He seemed incapable of deceit — despite the fact that he was (for the most part) reading off out-and-out lies.
Mr. Kirillov likely understood it all, but for us he was Gorky’s Luka from the play The Lower Depths. Only where Luka transfixed a single character (the Actor) with the promise of а small corner of paradise, Kirillov managed to transfix a 250-million-person nation. He was a world-class professional: he knew the extent of his charms and, without fail, used them to soften the lies subtly that he was made to utter.
To be a news presenter on Soviet television was to be like a soldier: the slightest hint of any private sentiment was off-limits. For more than thirty years, Kirillov filled the airwaves with the stuff he had to — stuff that had to be checked, had to be double-checked, and had to be stamped with approval by whomever had to do so. Did he know that he was spreading lies? In an interview with Meduza, Kirillov gave us this much: “We had a sort of simplistic role, such that we didn’t express our own ideas, but rather the ideas of the party, the ideas of the country’s leadership. That was the essence of it.”
When Soviet power was crumbling and leaks and recriminations started flying among servants of the party, Kirillov emerged equally beyond reproach and beyond reproaching. This is likely because he radiated such professional integrity that no one anywhere would have ever dared call him a stooge. Or maybe it’s because he understood that the further away he stayed from the brass, the safer he’d be. Time again Kirillov declined to host concerts held at the Kremlin. Those were gigs well beyond the scope of his job — a job which boiled down to the prosaic recitation of official news. Beyond what was required for his work, Kirillov did not want relations with the powers-that-were.
Kirillov signed off from Vremya forever on December 30, 1989, at a time when the country was clamoring for fresh faces and new voices. Then, in early 1990, he was unexpectedly invited to host the television show Look. Kirillov had been off the air, and as someone accustomed to a decades-long massive audience reach, must have felt a void. Alexander Lyubimov, one of the founders of ViD, Vzglyad’s young and independent television network, found a niche for Kirillov well-suited to his skills: Igor Leonidovich read out advertisements. It turned out to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. Vzglyad stood on more reliable, solid ground thanks to its eminent on-air host, and Kirillov seemed magically to have grown younger overnight.
Mr. Kirillov led the Victory Day Parade for many years (until around 2006). Post-Vremya, having shed his old official-ness, but still with his silvery baritone, he continued to show up on a variety of television programs. That baritone voice is with us now forever — a keepsake of an enormous, vanished nation.
Translation by Rob Viano