Yuri Nikolayev is one of the best known personalities on Russian television. He has been on the air 25 years and is a rare example of a completely apolitical television host. He has gone about his business despite all the changes in the country's leadership and ideology. Russian television viewers know him as the cheerful and pleasant-looking host of the Sunday morning programme Utrennyaya Pochta (The Morning Post). He is loved not for his talent, but for his soft charm. His smile is associated with Sunday, just as candles and tangerines are symbols of New Year's Day. Recently, Nikolayev celebrated his fiftieth birthday and his twenty-fifth year on the stage.
Not many know that Nikolayev is an accomplished actor and graduated from the Russian Academy of Theater Arts (GITIS). Sometimes he still regrets going into television: "Why the hell did I do that?" he said. "After I graduated from GITIS in 1970, I was invited to the Pushkin Theater and had a role in every play with a part for a young man. Fate was merciful to me. For a provincial guy without connections, brought up in the family of a serviceman, this was a very good start for a career."
When Nikolayev received an invitation to work for the Ostankino Television Studio, he did not agree at once. He had just married Yelena (who is still his wife) and the newlyweds lived in a hostel near the theater. Nikolayev's salary was only 85 roubles per month. Despite this, Nikolayev said it was very difficult for him to give up his career as an actor. Maybe he was tempted by higher pay, or maybe he simply sought notoriety. One way or another, the die was cast, and Nikolayev left theater for television.
Television bosses wanted Nikolayev to become a news anchor, a very prestigious position at that time; but he did not like it. He devoted himself entirely to Utrennyaya Pochta. This was a 30-minute programme at 11:00 a.m. on Sundays. In between musical numbers, Nikolayev entertained the public with jokes and answered letters from viewers. Utrennyaya Pochta was very popular and was one of the very few Soviet television programmes that presented Western music and songs.
It was not always smooth sailing, however. And in 1978, when Nikolayev was 30, he almost ruined his career by appearing drunk on the air. The bosses convened a lengthy meeting to decide his fate. Nikolayev had prepared himself for the worst, but Sergei Laptev, one of Ostankino's top executives, said, "Let him stay." In fact, Nikolayev's drunkenness on the show was not an isolated event. "I drank with friends, with casual acquaintances and even with complete strangers," he recalls. "It was time to stop." Recalling the infamous incident, Nikolayev shivers: "I'll remember it all my life. It reminds you that stardom may end at any moment."
In 1989, Nikolayev began to feel bored with his job. After all, he was only a host. He did not write any of the jokes he used during Utrennyaya Pochta. He said, "I understand actors when they want to become stage directors. It's all very simple, they grow tired of reading texts written by someone else."
Nikolayev decided to lay everything on the line. He took out a huge loan of 1.5 million roubles (a colossal sum of money at that time) and invested it in the creation of his own project, Utrennyaya Zvezda (Morning Star). The programme appeared within a year and the public fell in love with it. The conception of the programme was borrowed from the fairy tale Cinderella. Obscure young talents (under 18) were invited on the show and given the opportunity to perform. A panel judged them, and those who won the contest had the chance to become famous.
Summing up the results of his 25 years on the air, Nikolayev admitted that television gave him a lot but deprived him of at least as much. Only recently, he says, has he understood how little attention he gave to his wife, who shared all his triumphs and endured all his troubles from the start. He regretted that they have no children and admitted he suffers for it, but maintained that his Cinderella television contest for children was not inspired by his personal life. Nikolayev's legacy is not showing any signs of fading as ORT has recently begun broadcasting his Utrennyaya Pochta again.