What became of the Soviet Union's child stars?

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It's 20 years since the flag came down on the Soviet Union, and with it a way of life. Some things disappeared overnight, others changed forever - including the renowned Big Children's Choir.

"We took the children to the beach," recalls Irena Kuleshova.

"We were on the coast of the Far East of Russia - far even from Vladivostok. Deserted. Not a soul, not a sound. Then we saw a fisherman emerging from the water. We got talking and he just couldn't believe it.

"'You're from Moscow,' he said. 'You're the choir - the Big Children's Choir!' He dashed into the water, caught fish for the children and made a fire on the rocks."

Ms Kuleshova has spent her entire adult life with the choir.

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Going abroad was like going to the moon”

End Quote Misha Shtangrud Choir member

"I was mother, sister, doctor, friend," she says, to the children who performed the length and breadth of the Soviet Union, and appeared constantly on radio and television.

"We'd be travelling through the steppe in Kazakhstan, and tractor drivers would pull up, calling from their cabs, 'Sing for us then, Dima! Give us a song, Yuri!'"

And they sang.

They sang patriotic numbers and marching songs from World War II. They sang songs from the popular cartoons of the day - the songs that everyone knows, even now.

Sleeping in corridors

Ask anyone from the former Soviet Union to sing Galuboy Vagon (Blue Wagon) - from the cartoon about a crocodile called Gena and a little furry creature called Cheburashka - and they probably will.

Victor Popov in 1978 What did Victor Popov do when the USSR came to an end? Put on his coat and went to work as usual

Directed by the passionately committed Victor Popov, they also sang a more classical repertoire - complex choral pieces for multiple voices, like the church music of Bach and Mozart, and Mozart's Russian contemporary Dmitry Bortnianksy.

"Popov told us the real meanings of these songs," says Masha Lvova, who sang in the choir for several years. "He inspired us so much that I can still hear his voice."

Formed by Mr Popov in 1970, the Big Children's Choir took promising singers from the age of four to 16. He cast the net wide, taking talented children from any background and any part of Moscow.

Tuition was free, enabling children with very little to join. Mr Popov, born in 1934, was himself orphaned at the age of 11.

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These children were, though they did not know it, the last Soviet generation”

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An early star was Sergei Paramonov, a penniless boy from a rough northern suburb whose natural charm and stage presence won him sackfuls of fan mail and armfuls of flowers.

Rehearsals were intense - children recall singing late into the night and even sleeping in the corridors outside the rehearsal room.

But the rewards were great. They sang at huge state occasions at the Bolshoi Theatre and the Kremlin palace.

Alexander Tsaliuk recalls singing solo for President Leonid Brezhnev and the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova. A tiny boy, he performed a comic song about a dog while Brezhnev snoozed... until the chorus, when Alexander barked, and the ageing leader jumped up with a start.

Sausage and vodka

The choir not only toured the USSR - complete with pillow fights and countless scrapes - but also made many trips beyond.

Find out more

Alexander Tsaliuk (L) singing a duet (picture:Tsaliuk family archive)

The Songs of Comrade Time documentary will be broadcast at 2006 GMT on 24 December on the BBC World Service

"Going abroad was like going to the moon," remembers Misha Shtangrud.

Misha was lucky enough to be picked for a trip to Japan shortly after Soviet troops went into Afghanistan. Soviet borders were sealed - except to the persuasive Mr Popov.

The children were told to pack sausage and, bizarrely, vodka - presumably intended as a gift - before setting out on an epic journey by plane and train, ending with a two-and-a-half day voyage into Yokohama.

The 40-plus children had very little adult supervision, except Irena Kuleshova and her colleague.

"Oh my goodness, we had a blast!" remembers Misha.

"And then you could say, 'What did you do in the summer? Oh me? I went to Japan. Yes, and there are people there! I have seen them!'"

These children were, though they did not know it, the last Soviet generation.

As they toured and sang and joked the world was turning.

"We did not believe a word we heard on the television," Masha recalls.

She remembers the period of perestroika - Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms of the mid-1980s - as the most thrilling time of her life, when Muscovites "walked in the streets with shining eyes".

Sergei Paramonov Sergei Paramonov sang Galuboy Vagon and the Crocodile Gena song, which millions knew by heart

"What did Popov do when the flag came down and there was no more Soviet Union?" I asked his widow, Isabella. She gazed back. "Do? Victor Sergeyevich put on his coat and went to work, of course."

So what has become of the children who ate fish on the beach that day?

As we turned the pages of many family albums in Moscow, stories tumbled out - "So and so's an interior designer, and him - he joined the KGB! She's an actress. She's so religious now..."

Sergei Paramonov, child star of the 1970s, was pulled down by the undertow of drink.

His wife Maria showed us his ever-smiling photos that stop suddenly at the age of 36. He was making, with success, a career in alternative rock music when he died.

His radiant son Sasha, now 16, plays jazz piano. He has no idea how to judge the Soviet Union, he says. It was before his time. Sasha's hero is the late Canadian jazz virtuoso, Oscar Peterson.

New live

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My kids are growing up in a completely different society than the one I knew”

End Quote Masha Lvova Choir member

For those who have stayed in music, the choices are harsh. There may be freedom to sing what you like. But there is no longer state support for musicians, or money to fund huge operations like the Big Children's Choir.

Alexander Tsaliuk is frantically busy running two choirs of his own.

As a 17-year-old music student during perestroika, he uncovered in the basement of Moscow's Lenin Library sealed and dusty handwritten scores of Jewish music seized during successive pogroms, from Revolutionary times to the 1950s and beyond.

Around this lost music he has formed a unique a capella group. I was privileged to hear them sing hauntingly, at the Holocaust memorial synagogue in Moscow.

Like thousands of Soviet citizens, Misha Shtangrud has made the long journey into a new life abroad.

He left with just a suitcase and a few roubles, to settle in the US. He is now Choir Director at The Colburn School, a performing arts academy in Los Angeles.

Masha has stayed on, making sense of a restless Moscow that changes by the hour.

The Big Children's Choir performing in 2011 The Big Children's Choir still performs today, supported by national broadcaster Golos Rossii

"My kids are growing up in a completely different society than the one I knew. I miss the good things. The security. How warm and open we were with one another. But not the other things, not at all."

She still meets her friends from the choir. "We were such a mixed group of people and of course all our lives are turning out differently. We talk about old times of course and about our kids. When you have been friends with someone for 30 years, it has its own charm, its own value."

The Big Children's Choir still performs. Victor Popov died in 2008, but a new musical director has taken over, Anatoly Kislekov.

It is, inevitably, a much smaller choir now, no longer promoted and financed on the grand scale of the past, but much loved by parents and children for whom it still sets the standard for choral singing.

I went to visit the children at school No. 1113 in Central Moscow - stamping the snow from their boots, to protect the parquet flooring.

A few children were calling their mothers on mobile phones. One slid down the banisters. Outside, Moscow rush-hour whirled on.

But inside, for an hour at least, the clear sound of the Big Children's Choir filled the room.

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