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Soviet-era newscaster Igor Kirillov has died at age 89

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Russians laid to rest today the man known as the face and voice of the USSR. Igor Kirillov was the chief news anchor for state television during the latter years of the Soviet Union. He died last weekend at the age of 89.

From Moscow, NPR's Charles Maynes has this remembrance.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: For most of the last three decades of the USSR, an evening ritual took place in households across the Soviet Union. As the clock struck 9:00...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAYNES: Millions huddled in front of their TV sets for a nightly program called "Vremya," or "Time," to watch Igor Kirillov say greetings, comrades, and deliver something resembling the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IGOR KIRILLOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Growing up in Moscow in the 1970s, cultural journalist Ekaterina Barabash says she never believed what Kirillov said, but she always loved how he said it.

EKATERINA BARABASH: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Was he a propagandist? she asked. Of course he was. But Barabash says he wasn't an ideologue. Kirillov, who had an actor's training, read exactly what the Soviet authorities told him to - everything from Communist Party communiques to the death of Soviet premiers.

But Kirillov, in this 2008 interview, claimed it was always more performance than politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIRILLOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: What made the job interesting, Kirillov said, was taking that cold bureaucratic language and turning it into normal literary Russian.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIRILLOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Kirillov was famous for his slow delivery. He said it was for the benefit of Soviet citizens who didn't speak Russian as their native language. For years, Kirillov's popularity meant he also hosted the annual New Year's broadcast, says Ilya Yablokov, a historian of Russian propaganda.

ILYA YABLOKOV: So Kirillov had these several identities. He was not necessarily the face of propaganda but also the face of television.

MAYNES: By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Kirillov had been off the air for two years.

BARABASH: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Yet Barabash, the cultural journalist, says he remained well thought of, even by opponents of the Soviet regime - in part because even though he read the Kremlin's news, he never played the part of a Communist Party insider. In fact, Kirillov's brush with the famous would come oddly in the West.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUSSIANS")

KIRILLOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: That's Kirillov's voice in the opening moments to Sting's 1985 hit, "The Russians" (ph), a song that carried the voice of the Soviet Union to audiences worldwide.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.