At 80, the world's oldest clown has given up tightrope walking but Oleg Popov, the most famous Soviet-era jester, still tours half of the year and has no plans to quit.
"The Sun Clown", as he is also known, enthralls young and old with his oddball character based on a figure from Russian folklore – one who appears stupid but really isn't.
"I love to make people laugh," the Russian said on a recent tour in The Hague. "I am very happy, if I could live my life over I would become a clown all over again."
As the drums roll under the travelling big top of the Great Russian State Circus, the ringmaster heralds "the one, the only, the unique Oleg Popov!"
A small man with a shock of straw-coloured hair under a black-and-white chequered cap shuffles into the ring. Alone in the spotlight, Popov – who in 1981 won the Golden Clown award, the 'Oscar' of the circus world – clutches an old umbrella handle sprouting a bunch of multi-coloured balloons.
Between performances of hoop-jumping poodles and flying acrobats, Popov entertains with a trick that sends soup ladles flying into ice buckets.
To the crowd's delight, he then uses a bicycle pump to 'inflate' a fellow clown who rises inch by inch from a collapsed pose on the floor. Accompanied by a circus orchestra, Popov and his 49-year-old German wife Gabriela also juggle and do magic tricks. "The work of a clown is interesting because it is art, and art is like an endless ocean," said the octogenarian.
Born into a poor family in a small town near Moscow, he joined the Russian State Circus school at the age of 14, spending 10-hour days learning juggling, tightrope walking, trapeze work and acrobatics. At 19, the clown, whose clockmaker father disappeared under the Stalin regime, was given a full-time job at the government-run Russian State Circus. He became head clown in 1956, the same year he left Russia on the first-ever foreign tour by a Soviet circus, arranged by the Kremlin to bolster its image abroad.
"I was not allowed to leave the circus, we were watched permanently by KGB agents," tasked with preventing defections, he recounts in a rare serious moment. AFP