As the first man to enter outer space, Yuri Gagarin earned a superstar status that only a few Soviet artists, actors and musicians can compete with. To claim his position, Gagarin had to demonstrate that his ability to endure difficult situations and his physical strength were greater than the other nine cosmonauts vying for the role. He also had to have the character to flourish under the international spotlight – and that he did. Lauded for his bravery, skill and resilience (and his dazzling smile), Gagarin returned to Earth as an international hero and toured the world as a Soviet icon, wooing political figures and the general public with his charm and ability to drink a lot of vodka.
As a tall, chiselled-faced young actor, Lanovoy often played the leading man in epic love sagas on the stage and big screen. This included playing the character of Count Vronsky, the dashing army officer and main love interest in the film adaptation of Anna Karenina. Roles like these would epitomise the archetypal Russian hero: brave and full of bravado that covered up a sensitive soul. His penchant for these roles, acting ability and his natural good looks were a winning combination.
The Soviet Union’s iconic broody bard, Vladimir Vysotsky’s fame hung off his clever, satirical lyricism and soulfulness. He was loved by everyone, both young and old, and spoke to the Soviet masses about the daily struggles they all shared. He died from a heart attack while Moscow was hosting the 1980 Olympic Games. So strong was his fanship, thousands of Moscovites ignored the on-going games and flowed onto the streets in an impromptu tribute to Vystotsky. The number of mourners was comparable to the public display of grief for Stalin’s death in 1953.
Mironov was an actor who was known and revered for his comic timing and wit. He started his career as a stage actor, joining The Moscow Theatre of Satire after graduating from acting school. He flexed his comedic range playing the leads in some of the Soviet Union’s most loved comedies, such as the hapless tourist-turned-jewellery smuggler in The Diamond Arm. This role secured his stardom and position as one of the Soviet Union’s top comedy actors. He continued to work in theatre right up until his premature death. Mironov collapsed on stage while touring The Marriage of Figaro in Latvia in 1987 and died nine days later from a brain haemorrhage.
Dubbed the ‘Soviet Sinatra’, Magomaev was a smooth singer with a knack for opera and pop. He came from esteemed Azerbaijani artistic lineage; his parents and grandparents were all respected artists. So, it is no surprise he started singing and playing music in his teenage years. His breakout performance happened when he was 23 years old in 1963. He was one of the artists invited to sing at the Kremlin during an Azeri culture showcase. From there, his natural talent and charisma won over hearts across the Soviet Union.
Kharlamov was one of the Soviet Union’s greatest sports stars. Considered one of the greatest ice hockey players in Soviet history, Kharlamov had a prolific but short career before his life was cut short in a car crash. He first began to skate at the age of five. In his teenage years, doctors discovered Kharlamov had a heart condition and advised him to quit physical activities. Defying doctors orders, Kharlamov continued to skate and play ice hockey and went on to win all of the medal colours at the Olympic Games, World Championships and European Championships.
Viktor Tsoi was the Soviet Union’s ultimate rock ‘n’ roll leading man. His untimely death at the age of 28 cemented his god-like status with hundreds of thousands of young Soviets. His band, Kino, emerged out of the Petrograd (St. Petersburg) rock scene of the ’80s and ’90s – a movement that swept up a generation of young, disenfranchised people. As perestroika and glasnost began to chip away at the structures that propped up the Soviet Union, Tsoi’s music became synonymous with the possibility of change and the promise of a different future that marked this volatile time. Tsoi and Kino remain cultural icons today.