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Snap Judgment

Circus Soviet

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST: On SNAP JUDGMENT right here, from PRX and NPR, we proudly present, "Circus Circus," amazing stories from the greatest show in the land. Step right up, step right up. I'll be your master of ceremonies from a very special big top. My name is Glynn Washington, and this is SNAP JUDGMENT.

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WASHINGTON: Now, when you think of the circus, you might think of one of those newfangled big-top tents on the side of the interstate. But understand, this is an old tradition, ancient. There are circuses all over the world, and our next story takes us to the old days in the Soviet Union when the circus was a point of national pride.

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ANNA SUSSMAN, BYLINE: Sasha Ivanov began his life in a tiny military enclave in the Soviet Union in a top-secret town that didn't even have a name.

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ALEKSANDR SASHA IVANOV: I was born in a little town. Instead of name, it has number, Chelyabinsk 65. And it was very secret town. That was great childhood, nice weather there. We have a joke. Just two seasons - winter and July.

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SUSSMAN: The truth is there wasn't much to do in town 65. It was cold and rural, and travel was forbidden. But a few towns away, there was a permanent circus, one that Sasha got a few thrilling glimpses of.

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IVANOV: Once in a while, my parents were taking me to go to circus. And of course, that was a dream. That was some kind of piece of wonder.

SUSSMAN: And the circus was a very big deal in the Soviet Union. Circus celebrities were household names, and the performers were trained and cultivated from a young age.

IVANOV: At that time in Soviet Union, it was very unique system of selecting talented sportsmens (ph). Every little town had palace of sport.

SUSSMAN: So when Sasha was a little boy, his parents took him to this local palace of sport. He was trained first as a swimmer and then as a wrestler and ultimately as a gymnast. And when he was ready, he had his big audition for the coveted Moscow Circus School.

IVANOV: It was 1978. It was about 5,000 people who applied. They were going to take 53 people from that. And when I passed that audition and my name appeared on the list (laughter), I was the happiest guy.

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SUSSMAN: So being a circus performer meant fame, yes, but it also meant freedom.

IVANOV: People in Soviet Union didn't have rights to travel to another city or town to live. If you live in Chelyabinsk, you cannot just go to Moscow. And only few professions were given any rights to travel from town to town, from country to country. They were kind of elite professions - ballet dancer, hockey player, circus artist. And for me, of course, I was happy I became kind of part of that elite people.

SUSSMAN: And on top of the fame and the freedom and the prestige, Sasha would have a pretty decent income, more rubles than most people in the country could dream of.

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IVANOV: Of course, it's money. I knew, in 15 years, when I will finish my circus career, I will have enough money to buy my own apartment in Moscow, to have my little vacation house and to have some nice car.

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SUSSMAN: So in the circus school, he developed this teeterboard act. He would jump on a seesaw and launch a beautiful woman 25 feet in the air and catch her neatly on his shoulders. Audiences of the thousands rose to their feet in applause.

IVANOV: Of course it was incredible then. I was young, I was strong, I was full of energy. We traveled all around Russia. And of course, when I had some tours next to my hometown, I paid for my parent's tickets. They were happy, they were happy.

SUSSMAN: But this was the 1980s, and the Soviet Union was headed for trouble.

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IVANOV: And when Soviet Union collapse, that was surprise. It happened so fast - I don't know - 90 percent of circus people, they just felt they lost everything. They lost future, they lost immediate money, they lost everything.

SUSSMAN: Suddenly, hundreds of elite circus athletes were out of work. But there was one place that was hiring - Vegas.

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IVANOV: I bought ticket - Moscow to Las Vegas. I get here. That was hot. (Laughter). After Moscow, that was very, very bright and very, very hot - it's Las Vegas.

SUSSMAN: But it didn't matter, because Sasha was performing again.

IVANOV: Of course, when I had my chance to work, I was ready. It's like old circus horse. When circus horse staying in the horse house and listening to the music of circus act, she starts a kind of dance.

SUSSMAN: Just like an old circus horse, it didn't matter where Sasha was. If the music was playing, he was on.

IVANOV: And for me to hear music, to see 3,000 people watching me, that was kind of happiness. This is what you were born for.

SUSSMAN: But the life and the status of a circus performer wasn't what it had been in the Soviet Union.

IVANOV: In Moscow Circus, we didn't have contracts. They hired me as an acrobat for 15 years. If something happened during this 15 years - for example, I broke my arm and I can't perform as an acrobat anymore, they would give me another job. You didn't lose your profession after being injured.

SUSSMAN: Things are different in Vegas. One night, in the middle of his teeterboard act, Sasha launched a girl high into the big-top. And as she twisted and turned back towards the ground, he realized his partner was going to miss the catch. So Sasha sprung forward and caught the woman upside down before she hit the ground. But he was in bad shape.

IVANOV: I completely broke my shoulder. It was kind of surprise for me. They kicked me out. That was just cheap.

SUSSMAN: Sasha was out of the life and out of a job. But remember, there's something like 2,000 Russian circus performers living in Las Vegas. Kind of like a big old-world circus family, they don't let each other fall. So he began to train his son in gymnastics at a gym run by Vitaly Scherbo, the Soviet gymnast who won more gold medals in one Olympic Games than ever before in history. He also lives in Vegas. And soon, Vitaly Scherbo gave Sasha a job as the head coach of the gymnastics training school.

IVANOV: I have three kids - two boys and a girl. And during all these years, I am with them.

SUSSMAN: It's Sasha's own palace of sport. And he thinks that training in gymnastics will be the ticket to freedom for his kids too, just with a kind of American twist.

IVANOV: If kid here has some kind of good results in gymnastics, a kid has very good chance to have scholarship - even full scholarship in a university. And right now, I am very happy in that place what I am right now. Soviet Union crashed, but somehow I appeared in United States and again, my kids will grow in my own house with swimming pool. Sometimes you don't know what kind of things brought you to this place, but it looks like it's destiny.

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WASHINGTON: A big thank you to Aleksandr Sasha Ivanov for sharing your story with SNAP. And a special thank you as well to Kim Palchikoff for helping us out with that story from Las Vegas. To find out more about this amazing clan of Soviet circus performers now living in Vegas, check out our website, snapjudgment.org. That story was produced by Anna Sussman.

And when SNAP JUDGMENT continues, we've got elephants, we've got knife throwers, and we've got that guy with a smile on his face when he's looking at your wallet - when SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Circus Circus" episode, continues. Stay tuned.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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