Maya Plisetskaya

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Майя Плисецка, Maya Mikhaylovna Plisetskaya
Choreographer, Dancer, Hero of Socialist Labour, Laureate of state prize, Professor, USSR folk artist
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Maya Mikhaylovna Plisetskaya (Russian: Ма́йя Миха́йловна Плисе́цкая; 20 November 1925 — 2 May 2015) was a Russian ballet dancer, choreographer, ballet director, and actress, and is considered one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century. She danced during the Soviet era at the same time as the great Galina Ulanova, and in 1960 took over Ulanova's title as prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi.

Plisetskaya studied ballet from age nine and first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre when she was eleven. She joined the Bolshoi Ballet company when she was eighteen, quickly rising to become their leading soloist. Her early years were also marked by political repression, however, partly because her family was Jewish, and she was not allowed to tour outside the country for sixteen years after joining the Bolshoi. During those years, her fame as a national ballerina was nevertheless used to project the Soviet Union’s achievements during the Cold War. Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who lifted her travel ban in 1959, considered her "not only the best ballerina in the Soviet Union, but the best in the world."

As a member of the Bolshoi until 1990, her skill as a dancer changed the world of ballet, setting a higher standard for ballerinas both in terms of technical brilliance and dramatic presence. As a soloist, Plisetskaya created a number of leading roles, including Moiseyev’s Spartacus (1958), Grigorovich’s The Stone Flower (1959), Aurora in Grigorovich’s The Sleeping Beauty (1963), Alberto Alonso’s Carmen Suite (1967), written especially for her, and Bejart’s Isadora (1976). Also among her most acclaimed roles was Odette-Odile in Swan Lake (1947). A fellow dancer stated that her dramatic portrayal of Carmen, reportedly her favorite role, "helped confirm her as a legend, and the ballet soon took its place as a landmark in the Bolshoi repertoire." Her husband, composer Rodion Shchedrin, wrote the score to a number of her ballets.

Having become “an international superstar” and a continuous “box office hit throughout the world,” the Soviet Union treated her as a favored cultural emissary. Although she toured extensively during the same years that other dancers defected, including Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Plisetskaya always refused to defect. Beginning in 1994, she presided over the annual international ballet competitions, called Maya, and in 1996 she was named President of the Imperial Russian Ballet.

Early life

Maya Plisetskaya was born on November 20, 1925, in Moscow, into a prominent Jewish family, most of whom were involved in the theater or film. Her mother, Rachel Messerer-Plisetskaya (aka Ra Messerer), was a silent-film actress. One of her uncles was dancer Asaf Messerer and an aunt was Bolshoi ballerina Sulamith Messerer. Her father, Mikhail Plisetski (Misha), was an engineer and mine director, and not involved in the arts, although he was a fan of ballet.

In 1938, her father was arrested and later executed during the Stalinist purges. According to ballet scholar Jennifer Homans, her father was a committed Communist, and "proclaimed a national hero for his work on behalf of the Soviet coal industry." Soviet leader Vyacheslav Molotov presented him with one of the Soviet Union's first manufactured cars. Her mother was arrested soon after and, with Maya's seven-month-old baby brother, sent to a labor camp (Gulag) in Kazakhstan for the next three years. Plisetskaya was taken in by her maternal aunt, ballerina Sulamith Messerer, until her mother was released in 1941.

During the years without her parents, and barely a teenager, Plisetskaya "faced terror, war, and dislocation," writes Homans. As a result, “Maya took refuge in ballet and the Bolshoi Theater.” She went to school in Spitzbergen, and then studied under the great ballerina of imperial school, Elizaveta Gerdt. She first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre when she was eleven. In 1943, at the age of eighteen, she graduated from the choreographic school and joined the Bolshoi Ballet, where she performed until 1990.


Performing in the Soviet Union

From the beginning, Maya Plisetskaya was a different kind of ballerina. She spent a very short time in the corps de ballet after graduation and was quickly named a soloist. Her bright red hair and striking looks made her a glamorous figure on and off the stage. “She was a remarkably fluid dancer but also a very powerful one,” according to The Oxford Dictionary of Dance. “The robust theatricality and passion she brought to her roles made her an ideal Soviet ballerina.” Her interpretation of The Dying Swan, a short showcase piece made famous by Anna Pavlova, became her calling card. Plisetskaya was known for the height of her jumps, her extremely flexible back, the technical strength of her dancing, and her charisma. She excelled both in adagio and allegro, which is very unusual in dancers.

Despite her acclaim, she was not treated well by the Bolshoi management. She was Jewish in a climate of Soviet anti-Zionist campaigns, her family had been purged during the Stalinist era and her personality was defiant, so she was not allowed to tour outside the country for sixteen years after joining the Bolshoi.

Her dancing was used, however, to project the Soviet Union’s achievements during the Cold War period with United States. Historian Christina Ezrahi notes, “In a quest for cultural legitimacy, the Soviet ballet was shown off to foreign leaders and nations.” Plisetskaya herself recalls that “they were all taken to the ballet. And almost always, Swan Lake . . . Khrushchev was always with the high guests in the loge.”

However, adds Ezrahi, “the intrinsic paranoia of the Soviet regime made it ban Plisetskaya, one of the most celebrated dancers, from the Bolshoi Ballet’s first major international tour,” as she was considered “politically suspect” and was therefore “non-exportable.” In 1948 the Zhdanov Doctrine took effect, and with her family history, and being Jewish, she became a "natural target . . . publicly humiliated and excoriated for not attending political meetings." As a result, dancing roles were continually denied her and for sixteen years she could tour only within the Soviet bloc. She became a "provincial artist, consigned to grimy, unrewarding bus tours, exclusively for local consumption,” writes Homans.

Nevertheless, in 1958 she received the title of the People's Artist of the USSR. That same year married the young composer Rodion Shchedrin, in whose subsequent fame she later shared. Still, wanting to dance internationally, she rebelled and defied Soviet expectations. On one occasion, to gain the attention and respect from some of the country’s leaders, she gave one of the most powerful performances of her career, in Swan Lake, for her 1956 concert in Moscow. Homans describes that "extraordinary performance:"

We can feel the steely contempt and defiance taking hold of her dancing. When the curtain came down on the first act, the crowd exploded. KGB toughs muffled the audience’s applauding hands and dragged people out of the theater kicking, screaming, and scratching. By the end of the evening the government thugs had retreated, unable (or unwilling) to contain the public enthusiasm. Plisetskaya had won.

International tours

"Plisetskaya was not only the best ballerina in the Soviet Union, but the best in the world."
Nikita Khrushchev

Soviet leader Khrushchev was still concerned, writes historian David Caute, that “her defection would have been useful for the West as anti-Soviet propaganda.” She wrote him “a long and forthright expression of her patriotism and her indignation that it should be doubted.” Subsequently the travel ban was lifted in 1959 on Khrushchev’s personal intercession, as it became clear to him that striking Plisetskaya from the Bolshoi's participants could have serious consequences for the tour’s success. In his memoirs, Khrushchev writes that Plisetskaya “was not only the best ballerina in the Soviet Union, but the best in the world.”

Able to travel the world as a member of the Bolshoi, her skill as a dancer changed the world of ballet, setting a higher standard for ballerinas both in terms of technical brilliance and dramatic presence. Khrushchev allowed her to participate in the Bolshoi tour in New York and he was immensely satisfied upon reading the reviews of her performances. “He embraced her upon her return: ‘Good girl, coming back. Not making me look like a fool. You didn’t let me down.’”

Within a few years, she was recognized as “an international superstar” and a continuous “box office hit throughout the world.” The Soviet Union treated her as a favored cultural emissary, as “the dancer who did not defect.” Although she toured extensively during the same years that other dancers defected, including Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov, “Plisetskaya always returned to Russia,” writes historian Tim Scholl.

Plisetskaya explains that for her generation, and her family in particular, defecting was a moral issue: “He who runs to the enemy’s side is a traitor.” She had once asked her mother why their family didn't leave the Soviet Union when they had the chance, at the time living in Norway. Her mother said that her father “would have abandoned me with the children instantly” for even asking. “Misha would never have been a traitor.”


Although she lacked the first-rate training and coaching of her contemporaries, Plisetskaya “compensated” by “developing an individual, iconoclastic style that capitalized on her electrifying stage presence,” writes historian Tim Scholl, adding that it amounted to a “daring rarely seen on ballet stages today, and a jump of almost masculine power.”

Her very personal style was angular, dramatic, and theatrical, exploiting the gifts that everyone in her mother’s family seemed to possess. . . . Those who saw Plisetskaya’s first performances in the West still speak of her ability to wrap the theater in her gaze, to convey powerful emotions in terse gestures.

Among her most notable performances was a 1975 free-form dance, in a modern style, set to Ravel’s Boléro. In it, she dances a solo piece on an elevated round stage, surrounded and accompanied by 40 male dancers. One reviewer writes, “Words cannot compare to the majesty and raw beauty of Plisetskaya’s performance:”

What makes the piece so compelling is that although Plisetskaya may be accompanied by dozens of other dancers mirroring her movement, the first and only focus is on the prima ballerina herself. Her continual rocking and swaying at certain points, rhythmically timed to the syncopation of the orchestra, create a mesmerizing effect that demonstrated an absolute control over every nuance of her body, from the smallest toe to her fingertips, to the top of her head.


"She burst like a flame on the American scene in 1959. Instantly she became a darling to the public and a miracle to the critics. She was compared to Maria Callas, Theda Bara and Greta Garbo."
Sarah Montague

Plisetskaya created a number of leading roles, including ones in Lavrovsky’s Stone Flower (1954), Moiseyev’s Spartacus (1958), Grigorovich’s Moscow version of The Stone Flower (1959), Aurora in Grigorovich’s staging The Sleeping Beauty (1963), Grigorovich’s Moscow version of The Legend of Love (1965), the title role in Alberto Alonso’s Carmen Suite (1967), Petit’s La Rose malade (Paris, 1973), Bejart’s Isadora (Monte Carlo, 1976) and his Moscow staging of Leda(1979), Granero’s Maria Estuardo (madrid, 1988), and Lopez’s El Renedero (Buenos Aires, 1990).

After performing in Spartacus during her 1959 U.S. debut tour, Life magazine, in their issue focused on the Bolshoi, rated her second only to Galina Ulanova. Spartacus became a significant ballet for the Bolshoi, with one critic describing their “rage to perform,” personified by Plisetskaya as ballerina, “that defined the Bolshoi.” During her travels she also appeared as guest artist with the Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet National de Marseilles, and Ballet of the 20th Century in Brussels.

By 1962, following Ulanova’s retirement, Plisetskaya embarked on another three-month world tour. As a performer, notes Homans, she “excelled in the hard-edged, technically demanding roles that Ulanova eschewed, including Raymonda, the black swan in Swan Lake, and Kitri in Don Quixote. In her performances, Plisetskaya “was unpretentious, refreshing, direct. She did not hold back.” Ulanova added that Plisetskaya's "artistic temperament, bubbling optimism of youth reveal themselves in this ballet with full force." World-famous impresario Sol Hurok said that Plisetskaya was the only ballerina after Pavlova who gave him "a shock of electricity" when she came on stage.

At the conclusion of one performance at the Metropolitan Opera, she received a half-hour ovation. Choreographer Jerome Robbins, who had just finished the Broadway play, West Side Story, told her that he “wanted to create a ballet especially for her.”

Plisetskaya's most acclaimed roles included Odette-Odile in Swan Lake (1947) and Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (1961). Her dancing partner in Swan Lake states that for twenty years, he and Plisetskaya shared the world stage with that ballet, with her performance consistently producing "the most powerful impression on the audience."

Equally notable were her ballets as The Dying Swan. Critic Walter Terry described one performance: "What she did was to discard her own identity as a ballerina and even as a human and to assume the characteristics of a magical creature. The audience became hysterical, and she had to perform an encore."

Novelist Truman Capote remembered a similar performance in Moscow, seeing "grown men crying in the aisles and worshiping girls holding crumpled bouquets for her." He saw her as "a white spectre leaping in smooth rainbow arcs," with "a royal head." Plistetskaya said of her style that "the secret of the ballerina is to make the audience say "Yes, I believe."

In 1967, she performed as “Carmen” in the Carmen Suite, choreographed specifically for her by Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso. The music was re-scored from Bizet’s original by her husband, Rodion Shchedrin, and its themes were re-worked into a “modernist and almost abstract narrative.” Dancer Olympia Dowd, who performed alongside her, writes that Plisetskaya’s “dramatic portrayal of Carmen, reportedly her favorite role, helped confirm her as a legend and the ballet soon took its place as a landmark in the Bolshoi repertoire." Her Carmen, however, at first "rattled the Soviet establishment," which was "shaken with her Latin sensuality." A Russian news commentator notes that Plistetskaya "was never afraid to bring ardor and vehemence onto the stage," contributing to her becoming a "true queen of the Bolshoi."

Acting and choreography

After Galina Ulanova left the stage in 1960, Maya Plisetskaya was proclaimed the prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi Theatre. In 1971, her husband Shchedrin wrote a ballet on the same subject, where she would play the leading role. Anna Karenina was also her first attempt at choreography. Other choreographers who created ballets for her include Yury Grigorovich, Roland Petit, Alberto Alonso, and Maurice Béjart with "Isadora". She created The Seagull and Lady with a Lapdog. She starred in the 1961 film, The Humpbacked Horse, and appeared as a straight actress in several films, including the Soviet version of Anna Karenina (1968). Her own ballet of the same name was filmed in 1974.

While on tour in the U.S. in 1987 she gave master classes at the David Howard Dance Center. A review in New York magazine notes that although she was 61 when giving the classes, “she displayed the suppleness and power of a performer in her physical prime.” In October that year she performed with Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov for the opening night of the season with the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York.

Her husband, composer Rodion Shchedrin, wrote the score to a number of her ballets, including Anna Karenina, The Sea Gull, Carmen, and Lady with a Small Dog. In the 1980s, he was considered the successor to Shostakovich, and became the Soviet Union’s leading composer.

Plisetskaya and Shchedrin spent time abroad, where she worked as the artistic director of the Rome Opera Ballet in 1984–5, then the Spanish National Ballet of Madrid from 1987–9. She retired as a soloist for the Bolshoi at age 65, and on her 70th birthday, she debuted in Maurice Béjart's piece choreographed for her, "Ave Maya". Since 1994, she has presided over the annual international ballet competitions, called Maya. And in 1996 she was named President of the Imperial Russian Ballet.

She was ballet director of the Rome Opera (1983-1984), and artistic director of Ballet del Teatro Lirico Nacional in Madrid (1987-1990). In 1996 she danced the Dying Swan, her signature role, at a gala in her honor in St. Petersburg.

On her 80th birthday, the Financial Times wrote:

She was, and still is, a star, ballet's monstre sacre, the final statement about theatrical glamour, a flaring, flaming beacon in a world of dimly twinkling talents, a beauty in the world of prettiness."

In 2006, Emperor Akihito of Japan presented her with the Praemium Imperiale, informally considered a Nobel Prize for Art.


Plisetskaya died in Germany on 2 May 2015 from heart attack, despite medical efforts to save her.

Personal life

Career friendships

Plisetskaya's tour manager, Maxim Gershunoff, who also helped promote the Soviet/American Cultural Exchange Program, describes her as “not only a great artist, but also very realistic and earthy . . . . with a very open and honest outlook on life.”

During her tours abroad she became friends with a number of other theater and music artists, including composer and pianist Leonard Bernstein, with whom she remained friends until his death. Pianist Arthur Rubenstein, also a friend, was able to converse with her in in Russian. She visited him after his concert performance in Russia. Novelist John Steinbeck, while at their home in Moscow, listened to stories of hardship becoming a ballerina, told her that the backstage side of ballet could make for a “most interesting novel.”

In 1962, the Bolshoi was invited to perform at the White House by president John F. Kennedy, and she recalls that first lady Jacqueline Kennedy greeted her by saying “You’re just like Anna Karenina.”

While in France in 1965, she was invited to the home of Russian artist Marc Chagall and his wife. Chagall had moved to France to study art in 1910. He asked her if she wouldn't mind creating some ballet poses to help him with his current project, a mural for the new Metropolitan Opera House in New York, which would show various images representing the arts. She danced and posed in various positions as he sketched, and her images were used on the mural, “at the top left corner, a colorful flock of ballerinas.”

Plisetskaya also made friends with a number of celebrities and notable politicians who greatly admired and followed her work. She met Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, then living in the U.S., after a performance of Anna Karenina Bergman told her that both their photographs, taken by noted photographer Richard Avedon, appeared on the same page in Vogue magazine. Bergman suggested she “flee Communism,” recalls Plisetskaya, telling her “I will help you.”

Actress Shirley MacLaine once held a party for her and the other members of the Bolshoi. She remembered seeing her perform in Argentina when Plisetskaya was sixty-five, and writes “how humiliating it was that Plisetskaya had to dance on a vaudeville stage in South America to make ends meet.” Dancer Daniel Nagrin notes that Plisetskaya was among those dancers who “went on to perform to the joy of audiences everywhere while simultaneously defying the myth of early retirement.”

MacLaine’s brother, actor Warren Beatty, also got to know Plisetskaya during that period, and is said to have been inspired by their friendship, which led him to write and produce his 1981 film Reds, about the Russian Revolution. He directed the film and costarred with Diane Keaton. He first met Plisetskaya at a reception in Beverly Hills, and, notes Beatty's biographer Peter Biskind, “he was smitten” by her “classic dancer’s” beauty.

She also became friends with film star Natalie Wood and her sister, actress Lana Wood. Wood, whose parents immigrated from Russia, greatly admired Plisetskaya, and once had an expensive custom wig made for her to use in the Spartacus ballet. They enjoyed socializing together on Wood’s yacht.

Friendship with Robert F. Kennedy

U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother to president John F. Kennedy, befriended Plisetskaya, with whom he coincidentally shared the same birth date. She was invited to gatherings with Kennedy and his family at their estate on Cape Cod in 1962. They later named their sailboat “Maya”, in her honor.

As the Cuban Missile Crisis had ended a few weeks earlier, at the end of October, 1962, U.S. and Soviet relations were at a low point. Diplomats of both countries considered her friendship with Kennedy to be a great benefit to warmer relations, after weeks of worrisome military confrontation. Years later, when they met in 1968, he was then campaigning for the presidency, and diplomats again suggested that their friendship would continue to help relations between the two countries. Plisetskaya summarizes Soviet thoughts on the matter:

Maya Plisetskaya should bring the candidate presents worthy of the great moment. Stun the future president with Russian generosity to continue and deepen contacts and friendship.

Of their friendship, Plisetskaya writes in her autobiography:

With me Robert Kennedy was romantic, elevated, noble, and completely pure. No seductions, no passes.

Robert Kennedy was assassinated just days before he was to see Plisetskaya again in New York. Gershunoff, Plisetskaya's manager at the time, recalls that on the day of the funeral, most of the theaters and concert halls in New York City went “dark,” closed in mourning and respect. The Bolshoi likewise planned to cancel their performance, but they decided instead to do a different ballet than planned, one dedicated to Kennedy. Gershunoff describes that evening:

The most appropriate way to open such an evening would be for the great Plisetskaya to perform The Dying Swan, which normally would close an evening’s program to thunderous applause with stamping feet, and clamors for an encore. . . . This assignment created an emotional burden for Maya. She really did not want to dance that work that night. . . I thought it was best for me to remain backstage in the wings. That turned out to be one of the most poignant moments I have ever experienced. Replacing the usual thunderous audience applause at the conclusion, there was complete silence betokening the feelings of a mourning nation in the packed, cavernous Metropolitan Opera House. Maya came off the stage in tears, looked at me, raised her beautiful arms and looked upward. Then disappeared into her dressing room.

Awards and honors

Maya Plisetskaya has been honored on numerous occasions for her skills:

  • First prize, Budapest International Competition (1949)
  • Anna Pavlova Prize, Paris Academy of Dance (1962)
  • Lenin Prize (1964)
  • Hero of Socialist Labour (1985)
  • Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur (France, 1986)
  • Triumph Prize, 2000.
  • Praemium Imperiale (Japan, 2006)
  • Order of Merit for the Fatherland;
    • 1st class (20 November 2005) – for outstanding contribution to the development of domestic and international choreographic art, many years of creative activity
    • 2nd class (18 November 2000) – for outstanding contribution to the development of choreographic art
    • 3rd class (21 November 1995) – for outstanding contributions to national culture and a significant contribution to contemporary choreographic art
    • 4th class (9 November 2010) – for outstanding contribution to the development of national culture and choreography, many years of creative activity
  • Three Orders of Lenin (1967, 1976, 1985)
  • Honoured Artist of the RSFSR (1951)
  • People's Artist of RSFSR (1956)
  • People's Artist of USSR (1959)
  • Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (France, 1984)
  • Great Commander's Cross of the Order for Merits to Lithuania (2003)
  • Commander of the Order of Isabella the Catholic (Spain)
  • Commander of the Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas
  • Order of the Rising Sun, 3rd class (Japan, 2011)
  • Premium "Russian National Olympus" (2000)
  • Prince of Asturias Award (2005, Spain)

Source: wikipedia.org, delfi.lv

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        Relation nameRelation typeBirth DateDeath dateDescription
        1Mihail PliseckyMihail PliseckyFather00.00.189908.01.1938
        2Rachel MessererRachel MessererMother04.03.190220.03.1993
        3Александр  ПлисецкийАлександр ПлисецкийBrother20.00.193129.10.1985
        4Азарий АзаринАзарий АзаринUncle29.09.189730.09.1937
        5Asaf Mikhailovich MessererAsaf Mikhailovich MessererUncle19.11.190307.03.1992
        6Sulamith MessererSulamith MessererFoster mother27.08.190803.06.2004
        7Наум АзаринНаум АзаринCousin21.09.193426.03.1989
        8Лев ЗбарскийЛев ЗбарскийFriend12.11.193122.02.2016
        9Pierre CardinPierre CardinFriend03.07.192229.12.2020
        10Lilya BrikLilya BrikFriend11.11.189104.08.1978
        11Artūrs ĒķisArtūrs ĒķisCoworker14.03.193321.11.2011
        12Galína  UlánovaGalína UlánovaCoworker08.01.191021.03.1998
        13Галина  КравченкоГалина КравченкоCoworker10.03.2018
        14Olga PreobrajenskaOlga PreobrajenskaCoworker02.02.187127.12.1962
        15Nina  TimofeevaNina TimofeevaCoworker11.06.193503.11.2014
        16Геннадий  ЛедяхГеннадий ЛедяхCoworker31.03.192803.08.2020
        17Natālija KasatkinaNatālija KasatkinaCoworker07.06.193413.03.2024
        18Svetlana  AdyrkhayevaSvetlana AdyrkhayevaCoworker12.05.193827.08.2023
        19Татьяна ЛегатТатьяна ЛегатCoworker08.04.193427.01.2022
        20Māris  LiepaMāris LiepaCoworker27.07.193626.03.1989
        21Olga LepeshinskayaOlga LepeshinskayaCoworker28.09.191620.00.2008
        22Olga MoisejevaOlga MoisejevaCoworker25.12.192824.06.2021
        23Boriss KrasnovsBoriss KrasnovsCoworker22.01.196107.09.2021
        24Раиса СтручковаРаиса СтручковаCoworker05.10.192502.05.2005
        25Patrick DupondPatrick DupondCoworker14.03.195905.03.2021
        26Nikolai  FadeyechevNikolai FadeyechevCoworker27.01.193323.06.2020
        27Валентина  ЛановаяВалентина ЛановаяCoworker05.10.193704.02.2002
        28Yuri GagarinYuri GagarinFamiliar09.03.193427.03.1968
        29Valentina  LevkoValentina LevkoFamiliar13.08.192614.08.2018
        30Valéry Giscard d'EstaingValéry Giscard d'EstaingFamiliar02.02.192602.12.2020
        31Регина  ЗбарскаяРегина ЗбарскаяFamiliar27.09.193515.11.1987
        32Elizaveta  GerdtElizaveta GerdtTeacher17.04.189106.11.1975