Igor Kirillov, who has died of Covid-19 aged 89, was for a little over two decades the voice and face of the Kremlin as anchorman on a nightly television programme called Vremya (“Time”) which, from January 1 1968, offered the Soviet Union’s a quarter of a billion people something resembling the news.
“Hello, comrades,” Kirillov would begin, before peering through thick bifocals to read out in a deep baritone what the authorities told him to – from Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight to the official line on the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan.
There were long-winded reports on progress in fulfilling the latest (always successful) five-year plan and details of the (always record) grain harvest. The frequently recycled footage of tractors ploughing fields led Vremya to be dubbed “tractor news”.
Turning to the capitalist west, Kirillov would adopt a tone of moral outrage as he told of the downtrodden masses suffering the ills of mass unemployment, crime and injustice.
When in March 1988 it was announced that US President Ronald Reagan would pay a visit to Moscow, a major announcement worldwide, Soviet viewers had to sit through two hours of a Gorbachev speech about farming before Kirillov enlightened them about the historic visit.
Yet Kirillov was well thought of, even by critics of the regime – in part because he never seemed to be a Communist Party insider, speaking slowly for the benefit of those who did not speak Russian as their first language and, as far as possible, converting the bureaucratese he was given into a more literary Russian. The cultural journalist Ekaterina Barabash, who grew up in Moscow in the 1970s, has recalled that she never believed what Kirillov said, but she always loved how he said it.
Indeed he was so popular that he was chosen to front coverage of major events such as military parades, and he hosted the annual New Year music concerts. He also presented Soviet TV’s version of Top of the Pops.
Thus there was shock when in 1989, as Soviet communism began to crumble, the previously stiff news anchor appeared on a popular youth programme and announced that he had been living a lie.
“I was born in this system,” he said. “Like everybody else, I thought it was the best system in the world. This was something we imbibed from birth, along with our mothers’ milk. Only now do I understand that my whole life was devoted to serving a cruel and useless system.”
In 2011, in an interview with the BBC, Kirillov admitted to what psychologists would call “cognitive dissonance”. “The hardest thing of all was to believe what I was reading out,” he said. “Deep down, I knew that the texts contained half-truths. But as a newsreader you had to convince yourself it was the complete truth. I persuaded myself that we really were building communism. That life really would get better.”
Igor Kirillov was born in Moscow on September 14 1932 and trained as an actor at the Moscow Drama and Comedy Theatre before joining Soviet TV in 1957, initially as a junior editor and later as an announcer.
In 1985 Kirillov achieved modest fame in the west when Sting included an extract from one of his reports in his song Russians.
But by this time Vremya’s wooden format was out of step with the times. In 1986 the party newspaper Pravda went so far as to declare all the footage of tractors as boring. Announcers began giving way to reporters. Kirillov retired at the end of 1989.
Igor Kirillov’s first wife, Irina, died in 2004, and a son from the marriage in 2011. He is survived by his second wife Tatyana and by a daughter from his first marriage.
Igor Kirillov, born September 14 1932, died October 30 2021