Dame Helen Mirren Tells of Visit
to Ancestral Russian Home

Dame Helen Mirren - who was born Ilynea Vasilievna Mironov retraces her Russian aristocratic roots

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When Dame Helen Mirren returned to the ancestral home of her father in western Russia, the Oscar-winning actress might have reasonably expected a welcome as warm as the weather was cold.

Instead, she was greeted by Kalashnikov-wielding bodyguards and a "gangster-like" oligarch apparently convinced she had returned to reclaim the family estate.

The encounter took place as Dame Helen - who was born Ilynea Vasilievna Mironov before her exiled aristocrat father gave her a more English-sounding name - returned to her roots before starting work on The Last Station, a biopic of the last years of Leo Tolstoy's life.

As a child growing up, her tsarist grandfather had told her stories of the family seat with its stables and English rose garden, and she recently met the descendents of the great aunts who were made to leave the estate during the Bolshevik Revolution.

Eventually, accompanied by her sister Kate, she decided to return to Kuryanovo, near Smolensk, on the border with Belarus.

“It was an incredible experience to walk on the land that my father was born on and where my grandfather lived and which was obviously so dear to his heart,” she recalled.

“But it had recently been bought by a young Russian oligarch---a sort of gangster character who turned up with two bodyguards with guns, Kalashnikovs. He said, 'Welcome of my land.’ I said 'Welcome to MY land.’

“I think he thought we were going to cause a second revolution and take our land back. Eventually, maybe that will happen.”

Mirren, 64, said she believes that her family's turbulent history in Russia has helped her comprise the role of Sofya, Tolstoy’s wife of 48 years and the mother of his 13 children in The Last Station.

Sofya was involved in a battle with her husband's right hand man, Vladimir Chertkov, over who should inherit his estate and legacy. Chertkov believed should be bestowed upon the Russian people while Sofya was determined it should pass to his family.

As the pair battle over his legacy, Tolstoy, played by Christopher Plummer, flees to the tiny rail station at Astapovo, where he settles down to die.

Mirren said she felt an immediate affinity with Sofya's battle for what she believed was rightly hers.

“It’s in my blood,” she said. “My great great grandmother was a Russian countess and one side of my family was Russian aristocracy; the other was English working-class, so I’m a good contradiction.

“This is one of the great women’s roles in film. Sofya is a wonderfully tempestuous and passionate person.”

The Telegraph
14 November, 2009