Georgi Zhzhyonov was a popular Russian actor who survived 18 years of imprisonment under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. He was born Georgi Stepanovich Zhzhonov on March 22, 1915, in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd), Russia. He was the seventh of ten children of Stepan Philippovich Zhzhonov and Maria Fedorovna Shchelkina. In 1921 his father was arrested and imprisoned for opposition to the communists. The Zhzhonov family lived on Bolshoi Prospekt of the Vasilevsky Ostrov in the historic center of St. Petersburg, near the “Petrogradets” stadium sports center. There young Zhzhonov took arduous physical training, specializing in acrobatics. In 1930, Zhzhonov graduated from a secondary school with advanced course of mathematics. He borrowed his elder brother’s ID in order to pass the admission to Acrobatic class at the Leningrad Circus School, where he was admitted as “Boris” Zhzhonov and studied for two years. He was forgiven for his innocent forgery, because of his excellence in acrobatics. He was noticed by a cinematographer during his acrobatic performances at the Leningrad Circus and was cast for the leading role as Pavel Vetrov in ‘Oshibka Geroya’ (1932), a silent film directed by Eduard Ioganson, where his partner was Yefim Kopelyan. From 1932-1935, Zhzhonov studied under Sergey Gerasimov at the Leningrad Theater and Film Institute, where his classmate was Arkadi Rajkin. Zhzhonov continued his film career in the classic film Chapayev (1934), where he played a cameo role alongside Boris Babochkin. Then he worked again with director Eduard Ioganson in Nasledny prints respubliki (1934). In 1935 Zhzhonov graduated from the class of Sergey Gerasimov and his film career looked good. At that time, after the popular Leningrad governor, Sergei Kirov, was murdered, Joseph Stalin started extermination of Russian intellectuals. Zhzhenov’s elder brother, Boris, was falsely accused of “anti-Soviet activity”, and was executed in prison. The entire family of Zhzhonovs (father, mother, five sisters and two surviving brothers) were exiled to Siberian part of Kazakhstan. Georgi Zhzhonov refused to obey. At age 20 he was already recognized as a brilliant actor, and his film career was at stake. The Lenfilm Studio petitioned to postpone his exile, because he was cast by Sergey Gerasimov for a supporting role in ‘Komsomolsk’ (1938). His exile sentence was postponed and he joined the cast and crew on a train to the filming location at the city of Komsomolsk-on Amur on the Pacific Far East. On the train he met an American diplomat, who treated Zhzhonov to a taste of American cigarettes and they had a friendly conversation. That was enough for the Soviet secret police to arrest him on false accusations of spying for America. Zhzhonov was forcefully separated from his wife, young actress Yevgeniya Golynchik, and was taken to the KGB prison in Leningrad. There he was tortured, humiliated, blackmailed and exiled to Kolyma in Siberia from 1938 to 1945. In 1945 he was allowed to work in Magadan Zapolyarny Drama Theatre in Siberia. In 1947 he came to Moscow, but he was banned from living in the Soviet Capital. He was arrested again on false accusations and was exiled to Norilsk in Northern Siberia. There he worked at the Zapolyarny Drama Theatre together with his friend Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy. Zhzhonov lived in exile until the death of Joseph Stalin. In 1955, after 18 years of imprisonment and exile, Georgi Zhzhonov was allowed to return to his home town of Leningrad. There he was cleared of all previous charges of “anti-Soviet activity and spying for America” and was allowed to work as an actor in Leningrad. He also received official clearance for work in film. He returned to acting at the Theatre of Lensoveta and other theatres in Leningrad during 1955-1968. Zhzhonov became known after a role in ‘Beregis avtomobilya’ (Watch out for Automobile 1966) by director Eldar Ryazanov. From 1968-2005 he lived in Moscow and worked on stage and in film. He was best known for the leading role as Western spy “Resident” in the eponymous film-trilogy from director Venyamin Dorman, and also for the leading role in ‘Ekipazh’ (1980) from director Aleksandr Mitta. Zhzhonov himself regarded his work with actor-director Mikhail Kozakov in the TV movie ‘Vsya korolevskaya rat’ (All the King’s Men 1972). The first episode was already filmed with Pavel Luspekayev in the leading role as Senator Stark, but Luspekayev suddenly died during filming. In a fierce competition with other renown actors the role was won by Zhzhonov. His masterful acting in the leading role as Senator Stark was praised by the author Robert Penn Warren. Georgi Zhzhonov wrote an autobiographical story of his Gulag prison-camp experience, which was praised by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and was published in Russia. He was awarded the State Prize of the USSR, and was honored with the title of the People’s Artist of the USSR. He also received the ‘Nika Award’ for lifelong career. Zhzhonov spent his 90th birthday on stage, acting at the Russian Army Theatre. Later that day, he was invited to the Kremlin for reception of the highest civilian decoration of Russia. During a conversation that followed, President Putin admitted that Zhzhonov’s popular film roles had prompted him to become an intelligence officer. Zhzhonov replied with dark humor: “Just don’t arrest me again.” Georgi Zhzhonov died on December 8, 2005, and was laid to rest in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, Russia.
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