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Monday, August 2, 2010

Villi the Clown by William Campbell

Villi the Clown

A fascinating look at the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the late 1970s

William Campbell was the stepson of John Ross Campbell, a noted international communist from Scotland. William Campbell decided to move to the Soviet Union in 1932 since he could not find work in London. Villi the Clown is the story of his time in the USSR, from 1932 until his defection in 1977 and it is a fascinating ground-level look at the USSR during the Stalinist years, the Purges, World War II and the Cold War years of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Campbell's first job in the USSR is at an airplane factory. He has no qualification except that he is familiar with how a car is put together, which makes him a relative expert in the mechanical engineering when compared to most of his colleagues at the factory.

His musical and acting skills are noticed and soon enough he leaves the factory and joins a number of touring musical acts. This gives the reader a chance to see behind the Iron Curtain. Campbell holds no punches and frankly talks about the Ukranians he witnessed starving, the political prisoners being sent all over the USSR and the open graft and corruption, including one Soviet official who created his own small harem of prostitutes consisting of wives and daughters of political prisoners that he would use to entertain visitors.

Campbell becomes a clown and performs routines with his wife, a ballerina. Eventually, he films a few movies but finds himself cut off from the stage due to political issues. He moves on and becomes a journalist, a radio personality (he works for the USSR's version of Radio Free Europe).

In some ways this is a typical memoir of an actor - rememberings of petty arguments, funny tales of props gone awry and so on. But, throw in the worm's eye view of the ever-shifting German-Soviet front in World War II, tales of the KGB taking away colleagues in the middle of the night and the well-told story of how they arranged to escape the USSR (with its palpable sense of fear of discovery) and you get a truly unique book.

Well worth the time for anyone that remembers the old Cold War days of the USSR.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on February 20, 2010.

1 comment:

  1. I bought this book about 2 years ago in a second hand book shop. I remember listening to William Campbell from a series of 15 min talks he did on BBC Radio 4 in the early 1980's about his time in the Soviet Union. The series of talks were entitled "Bolshoi Tyshinsky No:26".I notice it says on the inner-cover (hardback) that he was busy writing his second volume, this was dated 1981. Anyone know when William Campbell died? I assume he's dead. He was born 1910, he could be 101 years old..any news how he and Elana his wife got on in The UK through the rest of the 1980s. I can highly recommend this book. It's a unique and fascinating account of living through the Soviet era.