MotherJones MA93: Moscow on the Strip

As star juggler of the Moscow Circus, Gregory Popovich enjoyed perks like free cars and a three-bedroom apartment. Now performing at Circus Circus in Las Vegas, Popovich juggles–without government help–his family’s needs. “I decide everything by myself,” he says. “It’s like real American life.” While most Americans may find Vegas unreal, for Popovich and a small colony of Russians, it’s the new promised land.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the state-run circuses fell into disarray. Some top performers fled to the Live Entertainment, All- You-Can-Eat Buffet Capital of the World. Most prominent of the hundred or so Russians working the Strip is Vladimir Kekhaial (left), an aerialist in the Stardust’s “Enter the Night” show. His flying Adonis act earns him more money annually than Bill Clinton, and let him move his mother to Vegas and sheath her Soviet-issue steel teeth in new porcelain caps.

But capitalism has its downside. There was no demand for aerialist/ juggler Svetlana Failla’s act; she now dances nude at the Riviera. Two Russian dancers were let go from the Sands’ revue to make room for LaToya Jackson. And Popovich competes with the slots for attention. “They see good act, not play slots,” he says. “I can’t hold the best trick for last.”