On July 31, 1930, Oleg Popov was born in Moscow, where he would start work early as an apprentice typographer for Pravda newspaper at age 12. This led him to join Pravda’s athletics club, a move that would provide a useful foundation for his later career.
When Popov was 15, he applied to Moscow’s State College of Circus and Variety Arts – better known as the Moscow Circus School – and thus began his formal education in acrobatics, juggling, and various other skills necessary for life in the circus. Graduating in 1949 at the age of 19, Popov made his professional circus debut at the Tbilisi Circus in Georgia, then part of the U.S.S.R.
His career would next bring him back to Moscow, where he joined the Moscow Circus on Tvsetnoi Bulvar, known today as the Nikulin Circus. By 25, Popov’s international career began, first performing in Warsaw, and then touring with Moscow Circus in France, Belgium and England. This got him noticed by the press and soon Popov became a star. He played the miming, tightrope-walking, juggling character of “Ivanushka,” a Russian folk character who plays tricks on others and ends up having big tricks played on him.
Banking on his international success, the Soviet regime was quick to recruit Popov as a goodwill ambassador for the Union. In 1957, he was broadcast on American TV from Moscow and the following year he appeared at the Brussels World Fair. In the 1960s and 70s Popov toured the U.S. and other countries with the Moscow Circus, reaching as far as Australia.
The man known as the Sunshine Clown received plenty of awards and accolades throughout his career. In 1969, for his efforts he was awarded the title of People’s Artist of the U.S.S.R. and in 1971, Melbourne’s free community festival Moomba named him King of Moomba. At the International Circus Festival of Monte-Carlo in 1981, he received the revered Gold Clown award.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Popov began touring with part of the Moscow Circus in Germany, where he eventually resettled. There he lived, performed and married. After almost three decades in Germany, Popov returned to Russia for a gala event, during which he received a standing ovation, as well as a welcome message from Putin, delivered by Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky.
In the years before his death, he would return to Russia more regularly, mostly to judge entertainment contests. In Rostov-on-Don, Nov. 2, 2016, Popov died of cardiac arrest while he was on tour at age 86.
He leaves behind his second wife Gabriela Popova, a daughter from his first marriage, and a nation who always laughed with him through the years.