The years following the second world war represented a low point in Soviet cinema, both in quality and quantity. It was only after Stalin’s death in 1953 and Khrushchev’s speech in 1956 attacking aspects of Stalinism, that the Soviet film industry began to pick up.
The result of this thaw was a number of films that merited international success, notably Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (1957), which was named best film at Cannes, and Josef Heifits’ The Lady With the Dog (1960, which got the special jury prize at Cannes. Both starred Alexei Batalov, who has died aged 88.
Batalov was fortunate that his film career as an actor coincided with the period of relative freedom of expression in the USSR before repression set in again during the mid-60s. After the years of socialist realism, when leading men were expected to play unblemished heroes of the revolution, Batalov was able to play flawed characters in stories of real life.
It was mainly thanks to Heifits that he was able to extend his range. Heifits saw Batalov performing at the Moscow Arts theatre in 1953 and offered him a chance to act in films.
Batalov appeared in five films for Heifits. His first was The Big Family (1954), which revolved around the lives of the Zhurbin family, made up of three generations of dedicated shipyard workers. The dark and handsome 26-year-old Batalov made an impression as the youngest son, whose girlfriend gets pregnant by an older man. Unusually, the whole cast was given a special prize at Cannes for the “best acting ensemble”.
Also for Heifits, Batalov played the title role in The Rumyantsev Case (1956), as a truck driver who gets drawn into a criminal enterprise; he played a selfless doctor in My Dear Man (1958). Best of all were the two superb Heifits adaptations of Anton Chekhov: The Lady With the Dog and In the Town of S (1967).
In the former, Batalov is a middle-aged married Moscow banker resting at the Crimean seaside resort of Yalta at the turn of the century. There, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful woman, the unhappily married wife of a petty official. They continue their affair secretly in Moscow, but it leads only to heartbreak. Batalov is in almost every scene, subtly delivering one of the screen’s great depictions of Chekhovian ennui.
In the Town of S, Batalov is once more in a beautifully nuanced, melancholy mood as a doctor trying to survive in a stiflingly bourgeois provincial town where the only distraction is the boring soirees given by the Turkin family. He falls in love with their daughter, only to be rejected, and over the years degenerates into a friendless money grubber.
Batalov was born in Vladimir, a city 120 miles east of Moscow, into a family associated with the theatre. His father, Vladimir Batalov, and mother, Nina Olshanskaya, were actors with the celebrated MXAT (Moscow Art Academic Theatre). His uncle, Nikolai Batalov, had starred in Vsevolod Pudovkin’s classic Mother (1926), which was remade in 1955 and directed by Mark Donskoi.
His breakthrough came with his role in The Cranes Are Flying, in which he played a young factory worker who volunteers to join the Soviet Army in 1941, reluctantly leaving his fiance, Tatiana Samoilova, a hospital worker. The lyrical anti-war movie was shown to acclaim in the US in 1959 under a US-USSR cultural exchange programme.
Batalov not only became a leading actor in post-thaw Soviet cinema, but also directed. The Overcoat (1959), was based on a Gogol supernatural story, while in Three Fat Men (1966), a children’s fairy tale, Batalov performed a tightrope feat without a stunt double.
In the veteran Mikhail Romm’s Nine Days of One Year (1961), Batalov played an idealistic man of science whose work has exposed him to radiation. Few of his subsequent films were much seen in the west until Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1979), a romantic drama that won the best foreign film Oscar.
In it, Batalov plays an initially unsympathetic role of a worker who breaks up with his girlfriend, a business executive, because he doesn’t believe a wife should earn more than her husband. Apparently, Ronald Reagan watched the film several times before his meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, to gain a better understanding of the “Russian soul”.
Among the many awards Batalov received were Orders of Lenin (1967 and 1989); Hero of Socialist Labour (1989); and a lifetime achievement award at the Moscow International film festival (2007). In March 2014 he signed a letter in support of Vladimir Putin’s position on Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.
Batalov is survived by his second wife, the dancer and actor Gitana Leontenko, and a daughter from his first marriage.
• Alexei Batalov, actor and director, born 20 November 1928; died 14 June 2017