Lev Lvovich Berberov, his wife Nina and their two children – Eva and Roma [Roman] – lived in a spacious 100 sq. m. apartment in Soviet Baku (now the capital of Azerbaijan). Lev worked as an architect, but all his life he had loved wild animals – at different times he kept cats, dogs, parrots, hedgehogs, raccoons and snakes, and even a wolf and puma lived in his apartment for a time, according to an interview his wife Nina gave to the Argumenty i Fakty weekly.
In the summer of 1970 Nina and Eva were at a zoo and saw “a pitiful gray rolled-up ball” in one of the enclosures.
“My daughter said to me: ‘Mummy, look, there’s a little dog dying there.’ I replied: ‘Darling, it’s not a dog, it’s a baby lion, the king of the beasts. It must be ill.’ I begged the zoo director to let us have the poor cub,” Nina recalled.
The Berberovs found a vet who helped them nurse the lion cub back to health. They named him King in honor of the king of the beasts. According to a family friend, photographer Vladimir Alekseyev, the Berberovs spared no effort to save the lion.
“They coddled King with hot-water bottles and fed him all kinds of concoctions from a feeding bottle. Initially, the lion cub’s forepaws did not function at all. So they took turns massaging them for days. Gradually, the lion started walking, but this physical defect stayed with him for life,” Alekseyev said.
They fenced the apartment’s balcony with mesh so that King could easily “go for a walk”. He was also taken for a walk in the local park every morning. The rest of the time the lion freely roamed the apartment. According to Nina, King quickly made friends with all the other pets in the flat, including Chap the miniature dog, with whom he even slept together.
“Sometimes, when King was bored being on his own, he used to come to our bedroom, climb into our bed, push me or Lev out, lie down on his back with his stomach up and fall fast asleep. In the morning, he would wake up with everyone else, have breakfast and play with the children. They pulled his whiskers and rode him like a horse: You could do anything with him, he never took offence and never bared his teeth,” Nina said.
True, the neighbours didn’t take to King – at night they could easily be woken up by his roars and his fur ended up drifting from the balcony into neighboring apartments.
“I would return home from work but couldn’t get any peace and quiet. I couldn’t sleep either – the lion roared so loudly that the dishes rattled. Sometimes the lion would throw himself against the wall with a roar and plaster would come off our wall from the impact. But the worst thing was the smell and the fur. The stench was so bad that I felt like throwing up all the time. The people who lived in the apartment before us had a boy who suffered from an allergy. He is 20 now and his allergy has turned into acute asthma,” neighbor Alexander Krivenko complained in the early 1970s.
To all complaints, Lev Berberov retorted that it was a unique experiment in the domestication of wild animals. The local branch of the Communist Party was satisfied with this explanation – on instructions from the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev (who later, from 1993 to 2003, was president of Azerbaijan), a truck used to arrive at the Berberovs’ block of flats almost every day bringing free meat for King, according to Diletant magazine.
King’s fame and career in the movies
As time went on, at first journalists from Azerbaijan, and later from Moscow, started coming to the apartment almost every day – everyone wanted to see the lion at the dinner table or lying on a bed. A series of photo postcards with King was even published – they showed Roman plaiting his mane, Eva on a swing with the lion positioned behind her and “safeguarding” her from a fall, and King just sleeping on a pillow, covered with a blanket.
From the printed media King migrated to cinema – he was filmed in the movie The Girl, the Boy and the Lion and, in 1973, was invited to take part in the comedy Incredible Adventures of Italians in Russia. For this, the Berberov family moved first to Moscow and then to Leningrad [now St. Petersburg].
King turned out to be a bad actor – the Berberov family had never trained him and he could not carry out even the simplest commands and, on top of that, the actors were afraid of the “domesticated” pet.
“The lion was untrained, ignorant and, in my opinion, stupid. <…> Difficult relations developed with his “trainers”. Using the slightest excuse or no excuse at all, they would declare: “The lion is ill, the lion can’t do this, the lion is tired.” For example, after King had run 20 meters, they would say: “The lion is overworked, so there will be no more filming with him today.” It was their way of extorting more money from the movie’s production manager, who hated the whole menagerie,” recalled the director of the comedy, Eldar Ryazanov.
After filming, the Berberovs and King moved to Moscow. The lion was housed in School No. 74 – during the summer holidays there were no classes there. According to Nina, a car with a loudspeaker drove round the neighboring streets every day announcing that entry into the building’s grounds was prohibited.
Still, King was visited by members of the Moscow intelligentsia, and once he was even taken to a sanatorium for sick children in the neighboring settlement of Peredelkino. The children were delighted, and some even petted him , peered into his eyes and pulled at his tail. On the same day, the lion was put on a bus and taken to the dacha of Yury Yakovlev, a well-known children’s author. The words “Hello, King” were emblazoned on the fence of the dacha and almost all the residents of the settlement came to greet the lion.
“While the lion’s owners, together with the owners of the dacha and their guests, feasted at the table and pronounced toasts in his honor, King was lying under a tree in the garden playing with Chap the Skye Terrier. That day the dog was the only living creature who understood the lion and brightened up his proud loneliness,” Fyodor Razzakov wrote in his book of memoirs “Spent stars. Extinguished at the height of their fame”. These were to be King’s last days.
King’s tragic death
On July 24, 1973 King was playing football in the school gym with an assistant called Alexander (history does not relate whether he had been hired by the family or supplied by the film crew for the duration of the shoot – Ed). The windows of the gym looked out onto an apple orchard and weren’t firmly closed. Sasha (short for Alexander) at some point left King on his own, and there was no-one else in the gym – the head of the family was out shopping, while Nina was making lunch.
At that moment, 18-year-old student Vladimir Markov was passing by the school. Along with his girlfriend, he was taking a dog for a walk. The inquisitive canine crawled through a hole in the school fence and found itself directly opposite the gym. Markov scrambled over the fence, got the dog, handed it to his girlfriend and was getting ready to clamber back, but didn’t manage in time: King had leapt out of a window of the gym and pounced on Vladimir from behind.
The girl gave out a blood-curdling cry and roused the whole of the district. Passers-by called the police. Lt. Alexander Gurov quickly ran to the scene and saw the 240-kg lion sitting in the bushes pinning Markov, disfigured with claw and tooth marks, to the ground, and about to bite the barely alive young man’s head off. Gurov fired at the animal several times.
“The first to run up was the owner of the killer beast, followed by her husband, and they started yelling at me: “Fascist bastard! Typical Soviet reality!” And nearby lay a lad in a pool of blood. They were paying no attention to the poor wretch. <…> I was gobsmacked and couldn’t work it out: Hadn’t I just saved a man?!” is how Gurov himself recalled the events.
Markov survived: His encounter with the lion had resulted in mild shock and copious loss of blood. But for the Berberovs, King’s death was a real tragedy. The family even demanded that Gurov be jailed for killing the lion since they were convinced that Markov himself had provoked the animal to attack him.
“According to eyewitnesses, Markov started pulling faces and jumping around, one moment facing the lion and then turning his back on him. King saw it as an invitation to play: It was how our assistant had rehearsed a scene for “Italians” with him – for an episode in which the lion runs after someone and pulls him to the ground,” was Nina Berberova’s own version of the incident. “The lieutenant heard the shouting, ran up to the fence and, without working out what was happening, fired at King. The lion immediately stepped away from the young man and moved in the direction of the broken window. But Gurov seems to have got carried away and emptied his whole magazine at King.”
The attempts to have the policeman jailed were unsuccessful – Gurov continued his Internal Affairs Ministry career. The family buried King at the writer’s dacha in Peredelkino, and returned to Baku.
“We were all very upset and tearful. But Chap grieved most of all. <…> A vet had told us that he wouldn’t last long as he was suffering from a precoronary condition. And so it happened: Chap died the next day,” relates Nina.
King II and the death of a child
Shortly afterwards the family got a second lion cub. According to the mother of the family, King II was purchased and presented to the Berberovs by members of the Moscow intelligentsia to console them. Among the enthusiasts was the above-mentioned writer Yury Yakovlev, as well as the famous song-writer and performer of ballads Vladimir Vysotsky and the actor Sergey Obraztsov.
“King II was quite unlike the first darling of the family: we had rescued the latter from death, and he thanked us for it with respect and good behavior, while this one demanded to be shown respect. King II nevertheless regarded Lev Lvovich as the “leader of the pride” and obeyed him,” Nina recalled.
In 1978 the man of the house in the Berberov household died from a heart attack, and Nina was left alone in the apartment with the two children, the lion and other animals including the puma, Lelya. Nina said that King II did not show any aggression to her or the children even after Lev’s death. He even featured in two films – Lev Leaves Home and the two-parter I Have a Lion.
The idyll lasted until Nov. 24, 1980. On that day Nina came into the apartment after work, noticed the smell of smoke and saw Lelya the puma huddled in the corner of the room. King II was snarling and leaping around in his balcony cage, while a neighbor was lighting pieces of a plastic comb and throwing them at the lion. Nina chased the neighbor away, fed her son and brought King his meat. The latter suddenly started to behave in an unpredictable manner: He jumped onto his shelf, hurled himself off and attacked Nina, laying her flat on her back and mauling her head with his paw.
“Roman jumped up and tried to run away, but King II caught up with him in one bound and killed him on the spot: he tore his scalp off and broke his neck bone. I lost consciousness. I only came to when the shots rang out. The police, who had been called by the neighbors, climbed onto the roof from all directions and started shooting,” Nina recalled. The puma, meanwhile, had jumped out into the street, and was also killed by the police.
In the words of journalist Vasily Peskov, there was a terrible stench in the apartment. There was dirt everywhere.
“In the bathroom, in a pool of blood, lay the motionless boy. On the floor next to him sat the distraught woman – ‘scalped head, multiple injuries to the body. Save my son…’ – she was also on the brink of losing consciousness. <…> I had never seen such a distressing sight in my entire life: the stench, everything clawed and scratched <…> Lt. Col. Dzhangirov, who had also been shocked by the sight that greeted him inside the apartment, said: ‘Never mind the lion! Even a mouse would have mutinied!”, Peskov wrote.
Roman Berberov died in hospital 24 hours later without regaining consciousness. Nina Berberova was nursed back to health by her daughter and a friend, whom she later married. She gave up her interest in raising wild animals. She never forgave herself for her son’s death.