Raikh, Zinaida (1894–1939)

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Raikh, Zinaida (1894–1939)

Russian actress whose murder in 1939 remains one of the mysteries of the Stalin era. Born in Russia in 1894; murdered in Moscow in July 1939; daughter of Nikolai Andreevich Raikh and Anna Ivanovna Viktorova; married Sergei Esenin (the poet); married Vsevolod Meyerhold (the theater director); children: (first marriage) Tatiana Esenin ; Konstantin "Kostia" Esenin.

Both of Russian actress Zinaida Raikh's husbands were major figures within the hothouse world of Soviet culture. Born in 1894, the daughter of a German-born railway worker and an impoverished gentlewoman, Raikh was working as a secretary for the Socialist Revolutionary newspaper Delo Naroda when she met her first husband, the brilliant but unstable poet Sergei Esenin. After having two children, she and Esenin separated. According to her son Konstantin (Kostia), Esenin was infuriated by Raikh's infidelities. Soon after the end of her first marriage, Raikh met and married the highly creative theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, and became one of his leading actresses. Infatuated with his wife, Meyer-hold was driven to despair by the fact that Raikh was almost always surrounded by male admirers. The couple's four-room apartment (a rarity in overcrowded Moscow) on Briusovskii Pereulok became an international salon. Among the guests were members of the foreign press, German theater personalities like Erwin Piscator, and Russian intellectuals of the highest caliber, including Anton Chekhov's widow Olga Knipper-Chekova , Constantin Stanislavski, and Vladimir

Mayakovsky. Politicians who frequented Raikh's salon included Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin, both of whom would later die at the hands of Joseph Stalin. More ominous was the presence of high GPU (secret police) officials, such as the dreaded Genrikh Yagoda. Some observers suspected that Raikh worked for the GPU, serving as a decoy to attract important foreign visitors who might have vital intelligence data.

In January 1938, Meyerhold's theater, known throughout the world for its original, brilliant productions, was "liquidated." It appeared at the time that Meyerhold himself would soon be arrested, but he was thrown a lifeline by his artistic antipode Constantin Stanislavski, who invited him to become artistic director of his Opera Theater. But Stanislavski died, and by June 1939 Meyerhold had been arrested and taken to Moscow's infamous Lubianka prison. At this time, Raikh fiercely resisted four police officers who came to search their apartment. Among the papers removed was an 11-page draft of an old letter to Stalin by Raikh complaining about how poorly her husband was being treated despite his many theatrical innovations.

Several weeks later, on the night of July 14, 1939, two men entered her apartment about 1 am by climbing up to the rear balcony. In a violent struggle, Raikh was stabbed repeatedly. Awakened by her screams, the Meyerholds' elderly housemaid tried to help but was beaten unconscious without catching sight of the intruders, one of whom escaped via the balcony while the other ran down the stairs, leaving traces of Raikh's blood on the wool carpet. The caretaker caught sight of two figures jumping into a large black car waiting at the corner of Gorky Street. On discovering Raikh, he called an ambulance, but she died before reaching the hospital. Her eyes had been gouged out, and there were 42 stab wounds in her body.

Although Zinaida Raikh had been one of the most famous actresses in the Soviet Union, the press carried no announcements of her death. Her burial on July 18, 1939, at the Vagankovo cemetery was attended only by a handful of mourners, including her immediate family. It was obvious that word from the highest quarters had warned people to stay away. The actor Moskvin, who was also a deputy to the Supreme Soviet, told Raikh's father: "The public refuses to bury your daughter." Raikh was buried in the black velvet gown of the character Camille, which she had worn in the last performance at the Meyerhold Theater before it was closed forever on January 7, 1938.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia