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Great European Lives: Victoria Fyodorova

Russian-American actress and author Victoria Fyodorova (1946 - 2012), UK, 28th September 1979. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the great life of soviet Russian-American actress and author Victoria Fyodorova.

‘For all I knew Poludino was the world, and was like every other place in the world,’ wrote Victoria Fyodorova of the village in northern Kazakhstan where she grew up with her mother Alexandra, a brother Yuri, ten years older, and a sister Nina, five years her senior. It was a simple life: Alexandra worked as a bookkeeper for a local planning office and the children would collect firewood for the stove to ward off the cold of the freezing winters. Victoria’s earliest memories were of days alone in the house when Alexandra was at work and her siblings at school, long hours in which she would dream up and act out fantasies, laying the foundations for her career as a Soviet film star.

Yet even in her most far-fetched fantasies she could never have dreamed up the truth of her own life and background. If ever there was a child of the Cold War it was Victoria Fyodorova. She was defined by it before she was even born and symbolised the divide between east and west that dominated the second half of the 20th century.

She was ten years old when she learned that her glamorous Aunt Zoya, who had begun to visit from Moscow since returning from working a long way away, was not in fact her aunt but her mother. She hadn’t been away working either: she had been in prison.

Zoya Fyodorova was among the first great Soviet film stars, one of the most famous faces in the country during the 1930s and 1940s. A favourite of Stalin’s, Zoya enjoyed privileges that included an apartment on Moscow’s prestigious Gorky Street and the opportunity to attend glamorous diplomatic events. Indeed, her presence was encouraged by a regime keen to flaunt its cultural heroes and show that whatever Hollywood could do Russia could match.

Jackson R. Tate was a pilot with the US Navy who in 1944 was working as a military attaché at the US embassy in Moscow. When he was introduced to Zoya at an embassy function he was smitten, the feeling was mutual and the pair struck up a passionate relationship they did their best to keep secret. Nothing was secret in Stalin’s Russia, however, especially when it came to the nation’s leading film star and a lover who was the product of everything the Soviet regime despised. The KGB warned Tate on several occasions to end the relationship but the couple met as often as they could.

For Stalin, the burgeoning romance was too much to bear and as soon as the war was over, he ordered Tate out of the country. The last time the couple saw each other was VE Day on May 8, 1945, when the streets of Moscow were filled with joyful citizens greeting a new era of world peace and cooperation.

They were given no opportunity to say goodbye and although Tate wrote letter after letter for the next few years he received no response. Eventually a bundle of post was returned to him, his correspondence unopened and marked ‘not known at this address’ with a note advising him that Zoya was now married to a composer, had two children and Tate should stop harassing her. None of which was true.

What Tate couldn’t have known was that while he returned to the US and a new posting in California, Zoya was under surveillance by the NKVD. He also couldn’t have known that she was pregnant with his child.

When Zoya gave birth to a daughter during the freezing January of 1946 she already had a name in mind, Viktoria, after the date on which the child had been conceived: May 8, 1945, VE Day. Within weeks of Viktoria’s birth, however, half a dozen NKVD agents burst into Zoya’s apartment, took her to Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison, questioned her for several days, charged her with espionage and sentenced her to 25 years in a labour camp. Found guilty by association, Zoya’s sister Maria was sentenced to ten years, while her other sister Alexandra was exiled to Poludino in Kazakhstan with custody of Zoya’s child.

After the death of Stalin in 1953 Zoya, having served almost eight years of her sentence, was released from prison. After a further two years of receiving visits from ‘Aunt Zoya’, Viktoria learned the truth about her mother. The pair returned to Moscow hoping to repair the damage from their separation and build a life together.

Zoya’s rehabilitation during the de-Stalinification process under Khrushchev meant she could restart her screen career. Viktoria would visit her at the studios and on location and when she graduated from school at the age of 16 it was almost inevitable she would enrol at the Moscow School of Dramatic Arts. A year later she landed her first film role as the love interest in the patriotic coming-of-age story Goodbye, Boys, launching a career that, while it never scaled the heights of her mother’s, made Viktoria famous across the Eastern Bloc.

As she grew older Viktoria noticed how evasive her mother would become whenever she asked about her father, whom she’d been told was a Soviet fighter pilot killed in the war. Finally Zoya, realising there was a chance of Viktoria finding out the truth through studio gossip, not only told her the full story but vowed they would trace Jackson Tate together.

All they needed was a go-between. Irene Kirk would go on to be a professor of Russian literature at the University of Connecticut, but in 1959 she was a student at the University of Hawaii chosen to be a member of the US delegation to a trade fair in Moscow. Born in China to Russian parents she’d married an American serviceman, so when she was approached by a friend of Zoya’s and asked to trace Viktoria’s father she could appreciate the predicament. It took four years but eventually Kirk tracked down Rear Admiral Jackson R. Kirk, now 65 years old and recently retired from the US Navy, and told him he had a daughter in Moscow. Thanks to the mutual hostility between their nations it would take until the mid-1970s before Victoria was able to visit her father. By then she had starred in a string of successful Soviet films, one of which was released in the US. She wondered whether her father might see it, might have the chance to observe her walking and talking, even if she was in character. By 1974 Tate was in poor health. Realising that he might never have the opportunity to see his daughter he stepped up efforts to have Viktoria granted a visa to visit him in the US. The Soviets relented and, in the spring of 1975, close to Tate’s home in Florida, father and daughter finally met.

‘She’s having herself a time,’ a beaming Tate told the media. ‘We took her shopping and she bought more clothes than you could shake a stick at.’

At a reception thrown in her honour, in an echo of her parents’ story Viktoria met and fell in love with a former US Navy pilot turned Pan-Am airliner captain named Frederick Pouy. This time there were no knocks in the middle of the night and no expulsions: the couple married two days before Viktoria’s visa expired, settled in Stamford, Connecticut, and a son followed soon afterwards. Zoya was permitted a brief visit to see her grandson but she and Tate didn’t meet. There would be other opportunities, they felt, but Tate died of cancer in 1978. Further visa applications were rejected on the grounds, Zoya believed, that Victoria – who had anglicised her name – published an autobiography, The Admiral’s Daughter, in 1979 that was fiercely critical of the Soviet regime and its treatment of her parents.

In 1981 Zoya was found shot dead in her Moscow apartment at the age of 68. A botched robbery the authorities called it, but Victoria pointed out her mother lived on an exclusive street with heavy security and the assailant had used a gun with a silencer, something to which your average Russian burglar would not have had access.

Victoria tried to forge a film career in the US but other than a couple of minor roles she couldn’t replicate the success she’d enjoyed in the USSR. A contract with a major cosmetics brand aside, she lived the rest of her life quietly until her death from lung cancer at the age of 66.

It was only in those final years that Victoria Fyodorova’s life became her own. Deprived by the Cold War of a father and for the first years of her life of her mother, she lived a rootless, unfulfilled life defined by global politics, at least until she was reunited with Jackson Tate. ‘I think the real love story is between Victoria and her father,’ said Irene Kirk, the woman who brought them together. ‘It’s the essence of archetypal love, of a girl loving her father, needing a man she’s never seen.’

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