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Serhiy Parajanov. Armenian film director who sat in a Russian prison for Ukrainian nationalism

Serhiy Parajanov. Armenian film director who sat in a Russian prison for Ukrainian nationalism

Serhiy Parajanov (1924-1990) is a Ukrainian and Armenian film director, screenwriter, and composer. One of the representatives of the “Ukrainian poetic cinema” wave. Author of “Ukrainian Rhapsody,” “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” and the unfinished “Confession.” He started the genre of collage in Ukrainian fine art, based on conceptualism. Serhiy adored Ukraine, dedicated more than one movie to it, and spent the greatest years of his life in Kyiv.

He was a political prisoner of the USSR, attacked by repressions, fanciful prosecutions, and severe censorship, and frequently hounded by the authorities. Notwithstanding, he sought freedom, first and foremost, through his films.

Youth and adolescence

Serhiy, also known as Sarkis at home, was born on January 9, 1924, in Tbilisi, Georgia. After two daughters, Anna and Ruzanna, the child was a long-awaited son for his parents. Parajanov spent his upbringing in a setting that was both reminiscent of a museum and a junk shop. Because the family’s father was an antiquarian, there were valuable figurines, old kitchenware, carpets, paintings, and pictures all over the house, which the director kept for many years.

After finishing high school, Parajanov enrolled in the Tbilisi Institute of Railway Engineers’ construction department but rapidly recognized that he had chosen a profession that he did not enjoy. Serhiy was inspired by creativity, therefore he applied to the Tbilisi Conservatory’s vocal department as well as the Opera House’s choreographic school. By enrolling in both, Parajanov was able to study at two different universities at the same time.

However, following the war, in 1945, the future master relocated from the Tbilisi Conservatory to the Moscow Conservatory. Serhiy got acquainted with movies after entering the creative life of the USSR’s capital. Fascinated with cinema art, he dropped out of the conservatory and went to the directing department of the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography. There, Parajanov created his first films: the Moldavian fairy tale “Andriesh” (1954), the social drama “The Top Guy” (1958), and the melodrama “Ukrainian Rhapsody” (1961). However, none of these creations completely satisfied the master.

The film “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”

The director’s more noteworthy accomplishment was the film “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” a screen adaptation of M. Kotsyubynskyi’s novel released in 1964. The tale was based on the Hutsul story of Ivan and Marichka, which paralleled Romeo and Juliet’s fate. The love story unfolds against the background of the Hutsuls’ vivid ethnic diversity (an ethnographic group of Ukrainians living in the Carpathians). The film was a huge hit not just in the Soviet Union, but also worldwide. Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, and Akira Kurosawa all sent telegrams of admiration and congratulations to the director. The film won 28 awards in 21 countries. Among them are accolades from the All-Union Film Festival in Kyiv, where the artist was living at the time, the British Academy Award, and prizes from festivals in Rome, Mar del Plata, Thessaloniki, and other cities.

The scandal surrounding the film “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” broke out in September 1965 during its presentation in Kyiv’s cinema theater “Ukraina,” where Ivan Dziuba, Vasyl Stus, and Vyacheslav Chornovil criticized the powerful regime for the arrests of intellectuals in the summer of that year. In addition, Serhiy Parajanov refused to duplicate the film in Russian, which at that time was complete nonsense.


Inspired by the triumph of the “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” Paradjanov started working on the film “Kyiv Frescoes.” Unfortunately, the negative attitude of the State Cinema authorities towards Paradjanov (he was a dissident and was actively struggling for freedom of speech in the USSR) did not let to issue the film. Having understood that he would be unable to work in Ukraine, Parajanov abandoned the film, moved to Yerevan, and started working on a movie about the 18th-century Armenian songwriter Sayat-Nova. The fate of this creation was not easy. After the filming ended, the artistic council that initially approved its production suddenly found “gross distortion of the poet’s image and the excessive manifestation of mysticism.” The clue to this ‘change of mind’ was that Parajanov had previously made several anti-state speeches. The film was returned for revision which Parajanov never did. Later, the movie was issued under the title “The Color of Pomegranate.”

Following this story, Parajanov chose to return to Kyiv.  Though he was prohibited to make films, he began writing film scripts. But after public criticism of the party leadership and condemnation of censorship in 1971, Parajanov found himself back in the epicenter of the party’s attention. The following year, production of his picture “Intermezzo” was halted, and a year later, the filmmaker was under investigation.


Even in his youth, Parajanov frequently spoke out in support of the creative intellectuals, was persecuted for progressive ideals, backed the 1960s dissidents, and signed the Letter of Protest 139 against political trials in Ukraine. As a result, the director was “on the hook” of the KGB for a long time. In 1973 after another protest speech, Parajanov was arrested for “sodomy and the formation of a brothel.” According to eyewitnesses, the case was rapidly fabricated based on an anonymous complaint. The director received a five-year prison sentence.

Release and re-arrest

Four years later, Parajanov was released. Many cultural figures called out for his release at the time. However, it is thought that the release was aided by the French writer Louis Aragon, who personally addressed Brezhnev. He did it at the request of his wife Elsa Triolet, a sister of Lily Brick who supported Parajanov. After the release Parajanov returned to Tbilisi since he was not permitted to travel to Moscow, Yerevan, or Kyiv. Actually, in 1981, the director went to Moscow to attend Yuri Lyubimov’s play “Vladimir Vysotsky,” where he again blasted the regime.

This time, the director was charged with bribing an official. In February 1982, the master was sentenced to prison once more. And the detention sparked even greater public outrage, so Parajanov was released nine months later following an extensive campaign by cultural figures.

Later years

In 1987, the master attended the Rotterdam Film Festival, where his “The Legend of Suram Fortress” won the award as the Best Innovative Film. Marcello Mastroianni, Yves Saint Laurent, and other celebrities visited Parajanov in his Tbilisi home. He received the Honorary Jury Prize for the film “Ashik-Kerib” at the Istanbul Film Festival in 1989. Parajanov pushed for peace between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in his address and spoke out against the increasing Karabakh war.

Parajanov was hired by the film company “Armenfilm” in 1989. There, he intended to make “Confession,” an autobiographical film, the script for which he started writing in 1969. Although 300 meters of the film were shot, the first day of filming proved to be the last. The following day, the director started coughing up blood and was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was hospitalized and underwent surgery in Moscow, but the operation did not help, and the tumor spread again.

French President Francois Mitterrand invited the filmmaker to Paris for treatment at the end of May 1990. However, it was too late. On July 20, a medical jet took the director from Paris to Yerevan, where he died the next day.

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