Poet's chilling Soviet diary
Victoria Fyodorova is as American as apple pie -- and at the same time as Russian as pelmeny mashenka.m This beautiful Russian actress became famous in the United States in 1975 when she came here to search for her naval officer father, who had been expelled from wartime Moscow just prior to her birth. Victoria's mother had been jailed for treason, then released to care for her daughter nine years later, after the death of Stalin. Victoria found her father, then stayed on, and married Frederick Pouy, a Pan Am airline pilot. They have one son and live in suburban Connecticut.
Now Mrs. Pouy and her husband are lunching at New York's famous Russian Tea Room. They are in town to help promote one of the "World" series, "Yulya's Diary" (PBS, Tuesday, 9-10 p.m., check local listing for premiere and repeats). It is a dramatized documentary about Leningrad's "second culture," more particularly a poet named Yulya Voznesenskaya.
The interviewer suggests that Victoria Fyodorova choose her favorite Russian dish and she orders pelmeny mashenka,m which she explains is chopped ham and veal dumplings in a broth with dill and mustard sauce and a side order of sour cream. This tall, slim, blond beauty is dressed like a stylish young suburban housewife in mauve plaid skirt, cowl-necked sweater, and navy blue blazer. She looks a little like a combination of the vivacious Melina Mercouri and the cool Dina Merrill.
As we wait for the order to be served in the upstairs room of this balletomane's hangout next door to Carnegie Hall, Victoria explains that she has had no trouble adjusting to American food and the American lifestyle," she says meaningfully and launches into an all-out defense of American democracy vs. Russian communism.
"All the time in Russia they show in progapanda how bad the whole thing is in America. They show the worst areas with windows broken and people on the sidewalks. They don't show that your city has beautiful houses and beautiful restaurants. Only the worst.
"I really feel strongly about this country. I love it and appreciate a lot what you just take for granted. I would like to do something for this society, try somehow to reach people and participate, not just be a watcher. That's why I am acting in this television show."
"Yulya's Diary," in which actress Fyodorova plays the role of the Russian poet, features many actual members of Russia's so-called "second culture" -- poets, writers, artists, musicians whose work cannot get published because it isn't "properly" politically partisan. The role doesn't give Victoria much of a chance to emote, but nevertheless she emanates strength and character on screen, just as she does in person. The one-hour program, even in its slightly disjointed form, presents a shocking picture of the restraints on artistic freedom that exist in Russia today -- with seemingly little hope for improvement in the future. Much of the content is smuggled film and most of the dialogue is straight from the pages of the real "Yulya's Diary."
"Every poet has a right to contact his readers," the poet writes. "I and my friends will go on demanding that right." However, in the film's shattering climax, it is revealed that Yulya has now been released from prison and has applied to leave for the West.
Victoria Fyodorova believes that the TV show is important because too many people in America do not realize how unpleasant and hopeless life is in Eastern Europe. She worries about the possibility of an American shift to the left. "It would be disastrous. America is the strongest society in the world, and you must be the leader. You just cannot give up that leadership because if you do, all the countries around you will go to pieces. Then the other side will pick up the pieces and build another society, their society. We are going in the wrong direction. We must show that we are strong. Why are other countries always taking advantage of America? Because we are too liberal. We are too polite. We are a very civilized country. But we should not take it any more. . . ."
Husband Frederick Pouy breaks in smilingly: "As you can see, Vickie is very independent. Her mother is visiting us now, and she walks around with her hands over her ears because she is frightened when her daughter talks politics so openly. Vickie would like a return to the czarist days. I jokingly said to her the other day that her politics have become only slightly to the left of Ivan the Terrible. She is a very much independent-minded. She has strong feelings. And she wants to try to awaken the American spirit much in the way of Solzhenitsyn. . . ."
Responds Victoria: "I don't have to awaken it -- I feel it is here already in the process of waking up."
How is it that Victoria feels free to be so open about her anti-Russian feelings? Other emigres like Nureyev and Baryshnikov keep political silence, mainly to protect members of their families still in Russia.
"I don't say negative things about Russia. I say negative things about the Soviet government. I was born with a very stubborn streak. My mother will be going back and she is capable of taking care of herself. I just cannot be indifferent."
The food arrives and Victoria shows the interviewer how to add dollops of sour cream to the delicious dumpling soup. As we dine, he explains that during the recent Kennedy Airport contretempts concerning the return of the wife of defecting ballet dancer Gudunov, she had wanted to get on the detained plane and talk to the ballerina. "I paced the floor, couldn't sleep. I kept saying, 'Why don't we go in there and pull her out.' Finally I told my husband enough is enough, just like the Americans must say. I feel I have to do something. Fred just happened to be flying that day and I asked him to take me the Pan Am building. The security people refused to let me try to talk to her. But I felt very good because at least I knew that I tried to do something."
Victoria believes that the Russians will use NBC for propaganda purposes during the 1980 Olympics. And she believes that the KGB will probably succeed in insulating the public from the dissidents.
"The people of the Soviet Union still fear that they will be punished for talking to foreigners. Foreigners wil leave and they will have to stay right there. So, they will be very careful.
"NBC will never be allowed to show the bad side. They will show all the gardens, clean streets, beautiful subway; museums. . . . But the rest, the ugliness, the way people live in nine meters of space, with one kitchen and one bathroom for three families . . . never. And the fear and the terrible KGB control. It is bad but there will not be a change very soon -- the military power is too strong for that. Few people believe in communism in Russia any more -- it's just a machine that started to work and it's working now only with guns behind it."
Can artists do anything to change things if open political activity is ruled out?
"The 'second culture' and dissident artists are such a small part. But you can't insulate people from art. People are demanding something more than official art, something for their spirit, their souls. Only a few hundred people. . . . What can they do? My friends who are actors don't want to leave. When you are an established person in the acting profession and doing something, it's very hard to start again. A musician, a painter, a dancer -- it's all right, you can start again easy. But, if you're an actress a poet, a writer -- you're losing 90 percent of your skill without language."
Is there anything Americans can do to ease the lack of artistic freedom in Russia today?
"A lot. Talk about them. Show them you care. The main thing is communication. 'Yulva' is the kind of thing that can call attention to the way things are. . . ."
Victoria would like to do more TV, "But, with my accent, I must play a Russian all the time." Her autobiography, "The Admiral's Daughter," published last year by Delacorte, would make a fine film -- but she refuses to sell the rights unless she plays herself in it. And so far the major studios and producers have been thinking of it only as a star vehicle. "I will wait," she says determinedly.
Is there any role in particular, other than the role in her own autobiography , that she would like to play in America?
"Yes," she closes her eyes in a kind of dramatic ecstasy. "It was my dream in Russia to play Natalia in Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot." It is still a character I would like to play. I can do it in English but i'm not sure anybody is interested. . . ."
Victoria has very little contact with the Russian emigre subculture which grows larger here every day. "I just couldn't afford to speak Russian when I first came here. I had to speak English to learn it. Then I was pregnant and had a son, so I didn't have much time. But now, I want to do more, see more, take more of a part in America. I would like to work for the Voice of America, too, so I could tell my message to Russians. They will believe me. I have the reputation in Russia of being a very honest person. It doesn't matter where I am. . . . I must speak out for freedom . . . the kind of freedom which cannot be found in Russia now."