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Documentary project of Misha Domozhilov
and Takie Dela

Vitaly Smolyanetz is a well-known circus performer and a talented lion and tiger tamer.

He never went to a Circus Arts school, and started working in the circus by sheer luck. In the 1990’s he, as a long-distance truck driver, did not get his wages in time, and a friend invited Vitaly to drive a coach for a circus road-tour. He was 24 at that time. One of the circus men had a young lioness — Baya. Vitaly Smolyanetz fell in love with her. Everything started because of Baya. Eventually he began working as a tamers’ assistant, and sometimes even stepped in for some of them. Then he bought his first animals, trained them and in 2003 made his own circus act.

Vitaly stroking a lioness and nestling up to her
Vitaly and Vladimir in Kursk circus. Circus children playing nearby

Vitaly has worked in the circus for 20 years. He met there his wife Inna, who is a tamer too and works with ponies and monkeys. Vitaly and Inna have two sons — Mark and Igor. Their family is always on the move — every month they go on a new road-tour.

Vitaly feels at home in the circus, he is really happy there.

Vitaly’s son riding a push stand-up scooter in Kurck circus
Inna, Vitaly’s wife, kissing her husband. Inna strongly supported Vitaly during his recovery
Circus families stay the greatest part of the year in circus hotels and hostels. Vitaly and Inna have two dogs and a cat

FEBRUARY 9, 2015 Vitaly lost both his legs in car-crash.

Vitaly’s prosthetic legs on his bedside table in a room in Kursk circus hostel where he stayed with his family

At first doctors thought that they would not be able to save Vitaly, as he lost too much blood. He was the last person collected by an ambulance and stayed for 40 minutes at the place of the accident. His right leg was torn away and the left one was amputated in the local hospital. His family insisted on him being moved to Moscow. There they were told that the amputation had been made in a wrong way, and Vitaly urgently needed another operation, otherwise in two days he would die. He spent five weeks after the second operation in intensive care.

Vitaly in a wheelchair in Kursk circus near a cage with young tiger cubs born just before the tragedy. Vladimir, Vitaly’s brother, jumping over the cage

Vitaly was discharged from the hospital in two months and a half and immediately came with his wife to Briansk, where his lionesses and tigers performed at that time. Animals were curious about his wheelchair, but felt really happy to see him. They started running and jumping in their cages. Vitaly says that they perceive him as their leader. That is why he kept his authority even in spite of a wheelchair. Vitaly missed his animals so much that he spent several days just looking at them.

While Vitaly was waiting for prosthetics, his brother stepped in for him and Vitaly followed every performance sitting in his wheelchair in the aisle. He advised his brother and directed his show.

Vitaly in Kursk circus looking at the cage where two tiger cubs are playing

At first Vitaly could not understand how to live without legs. His friends and family did their best to support him. Vadim Gagloev, general director of Rosgostzirk company, visited him in the hospital and immediately asked «when are you coming back to the circus?» Friends, colleagues and Rosgostzirk raised five million rubles to buy him German prosthetic legs.

Vitaly Smolyanetz and his brother Vladimir in a side chamber of Kursk circus. Vladimir assisted Vitaly before the accident and later performed himself in several shows
Vitaly passing in wheelchair near cages with lionesses
Vitaly in a wheelchair entering the ring during his brother’s Vladimir show in Kursk circus
ВVitaly in a wheelchair in Kursk circus
Inna, Vitaly’s wife, is hugging her husband. On the right — his brother Vladimir

In a half-year Vitaly started using prosthetics and learning to walk. At first he just stood clutching his crutches and kept falling down. He trained everyday and had no pity for himself. Doctors saw his insistence and said «This one will run». Vitaly sped things up, as he wanted to come back to circus as fast as possible and begin rehearsals.

Vitaly getting help while leaving Kursk circus hostel
Ring attendant (“Uniform”) Alexander backing Vitaly up while he is trying to walk with prosthetics
At first it was very hard for Vitaly to walk with prosthetics. Vitaly mopping his brow after another training walk in Kursk circus
Vitaly with his doctor in the Prosthetic center in Moscow
Inna, Vitaly’s wife, helping him to put on sportswear and shoes covering his prosthetics. On the right — Vitaly’s son and his brother Vladimir
Vitaly going to his dressing room in the old circus in Rostov-on-Don, where he has to perform for the first time after the tragedy
Vitaly playing with his younger son in Rostov circus
Vitaly talking on the phone in Kursk circus hostel. His younger son playing on the floor

Vitaly was really persistent and stubborn, but at the same time he was not sure how his animals would perceive him after the accident and if they would be obedient. He did not understand how to adapt himself to new conditions nor how to change his manner of work.

Vitaly at one of the last run-throughs of his show before his first performance in Rostov circus

In autumn Vitaly Smolyanetz started rehearsing. Before the accident he gave orders to animals with a metal stick, which he could use to defend himself in case they attacked him. But now he had to grasp crutches with both hands. He had to learn how to command using only his voice. It was not easy to adapt to the new situation.

Vitaly in a wheelchair entering the ring during his brother’s Vladimir show in Kursk circus
Vitaly trying to tame a disobedient lioness during rehearsal in the Moscow tent circus
Vitaly at one of his first rehearsals in the Moscow tent circus. His program was changed after the tragedy, as he was not able to perform some parts of it
Vitaly uses crutches not only for back up against falling down, but also as a stick for managing animals

He was also not sure how the audience would react, as he did not want them to have pity for him. He decided to wait for his first show and then make his decision — to stay in the circus or to leave.

Vitaly in the Moscow tent circus
Vitaly at the ring during his first performance after his return. The show was a success and the audience greeted Vitaly warmly
Vitaly feeling tense before his first performance after the tragedy
Vitaly made his second show the next day and it also went smoothly
Vladimir’s assistant, Mansur, helps him to set fire to a torch, which he will use to make a fire-ring for predators to jump through
Predators are jumping through fire-ring in Rostov circus
Vitaly performing one of his final tricks during his show in Rostov circus
Lioness returning through a tunnel back to her cage after the show
Vitaly leaving the cage after the show
Vitaly smelling flowers he got from his fans after his successful performance in Rostov circus

Today Vitaly Smolyanetz works again in the circus and makes road-tours all over Russia. Recently he has been awarded a circus Oscar — an international professional prize of circus art «Master» — in nomination of Best Tamer.

Vitaly dressing himself before his first performance after the tragedy in Rostov-on-Don circus
Misha Domozhilov
Photo editors
Anastasia Svartsevich & Andrei Polikanov
Alexey Kurbatov
Renata Serebryakova
Valeriy Panushkin
Sound design
Charles Maynes
Aksana Zinchenko
Oleg Pimonov
Multimedia editor
Sergey Karpov
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Takie Dela magazine thanks photo and video equipment rentals Rentaphoto for providing a technique for shooting
© Takie Dela, 2016
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