Country mourns clowning legend Oleg Popov, dead at 86

Popov took over as head clown two years later, the same year he left Soviet soil for the first time on a tour of Western Europe.

Oleg Popov was on tour in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don when he went into cardiac arrest at his hotel on November 2, 2016

Russia on Thursday mourned Oleg Popov, a legendary Soviet-era clown who performed until he died of heart failure this week at age 86.

Popov was on tour in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don when he went into cardiac arrest at his hotel on Wednesday, the director of the circus where he was performing said.

"His heart stopped," the head of Rostov-on-Don circus, Dmitry Reznichenko, told RIA Novosti state news agency.

"He didn't complain of feeling ill, he was just watching television."

Reznichenko added that Popov's family wanted him to be buried in Germany, where he moved in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russian culture minister Vladimir Medinsky offered his condolences in a statement saying that Popov's performances "brought joy and goodness to many generations of our compatriots".

"He managed to create a unique image of an eccentric clown who radiated light just by making an appearance and turned every performance into a festivity," Medinsky said.

The Russian State Circus, the state organisation that runs many fixed circuses, on Thursday praised him for his "generosity, multi-faceted talent and dedication".

The Great Moscow Circus, the city's largest, meanwhile hailed Popov's "invaluable contribution to the history of Russian and international clowning".

Born into a poor family living in the region outside Moscow, Popov joined a circus school in Moscow at the age of 14, spending hours learning juggling, tightrope walking, trapeze work and acrobatics.

His gift for making people laugh soon earned him payment in the form of food coupons for performances at Soviet collective farms and sports clubs.

At 19, the clown, whose clockmaker father disappeared during World War II, was hired by the government-run circus organisation. His big break came in 1954, when he stepped in for the head clown who had broken his arm at the circus in the Volga city of Saratov.

It was the first-ever foreign tour by a Soviet circus, arranged by the Kremlin to bolster its image abroad.

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