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March 22, 2021

The Tragic Story of the Berberovs, a Soviet Family Who Raised Lions as Their Pets at Home in the 1970s

The story of the Berberovs – a family from Baku, Azerbaijan, in the 1970s, kept a lion in an ordinary Soviet apartment – is capable of both moving and horrifying at the time. Because they had two lions. And if the first – King – was grateful to Lev and Nina Berberov for their salvation and had an agreeable character, then the other – King II – turned out to be a killer. He sent the mistress to the hospital and killed her first child, a 14-year-old boy.

The architect Lev Lvovich Berberov (Lev Lvovich literally means ‘lion. son of lion’) and his family had many pets. In their 100 sq. meters (1000 sq. feet) apartment there was enough room for cats, dogs, parrots, hedgehogs, snakes, raccoons… So when his wife brought home a dying lion cub from the zoo, he was not much surprised.

While walking at the zoo, Nina Berberova and her daughter, Eva saw a sick lion cub abandoned by his mother. With the permission of the Zoo’s director, the family brought the lion to their apartment and named him the King. Soon, King the lion became a domestic animal and was loved by family members.

In a short time, not only Soviet, but also foreign press was interested in the King. Many articles were written, and many TV programs were prepared about him. Even the King starred several movies such as Lion Left House, A Boy, a Girl, and a Lion, The Unbelievable Adventures of Italians in Russia. After that, Lev Berberov left his architectural job and began to negotiate with film studios as King’s producer. Nina Berberova said that their neighbors were not satisfied being adjacent to a lion. They were living in constant fear and anxiety.

While The Unbelievable Adventures of Italians in Russia was filming in Leningrad, Berberov family and King had been living in a school building for a short time. Every morning, the police warned residents living nearby not to come close to the school building. However, some people ignored these warnings. Valentin Markov, a young man, was one of them. When the King’s trainer went to drink tea for a few minutes, Markov appeared in front of the window of the school building’s gym and began jumping to attract lion’s attention. The King accepted it as an invitation to playing. He approached window, broke it, and made Markov fall down. A police lieutenant came there hearing Markov’s cry and shot King many times. Thus, it was the end of the film star.

The King’s death was a psychological shock for all family, especially for their children Eva and Roma. It seemed that Chap the dog was suffering from King’s absence most of all. He was looking for King everywhere at home. After some days Chap died too.

In 1975, the family adopted another lion and named him King II. However, tragedies followed another one. In 1978, Lev Berberov died of heart attack. After her husband’s death, Nina Berberova faced some financial problems to keep King II and wanted to return him back to the zoo, she but couldn’t.

On November 24, 1980, Nina Berberova would remember that date as the most tragic day of her life. In the afternoon, when she came home from work, she found King II behaving strangely because of weird smell. At his balcony, a drunken neighbor was burning plastic and throwing away King II, which made him very angry and irritated. As soon as Nina entered the room, King II attacked her. Roma tried to stop King II, but couldn’t manage. King II fatally injured Nina and killed her son Roma in front of her eyes. Police called by neighbors, shot and killed King II.

Nina Petrovna learned about the death of her son only after she was discharged from the hospital. The shocking news knocked the woman down again, she spent three months in the hospital. She did not want to live, she thought about suicide. Her daughter, as well as a friend, actor Kyazim Abdullaev, who later became her husband, helped her to get out of this extremely depressed situation.

The family of Kazim Abdullaev and Nina Berberova had two children. The woman has no desire to keep wild animals at home anymore. Now they have only parrots, cats and dogs. In a prominent place in her house there are photographs of both lions that were in her life, and a photograph of her son in the arms of King I. The woman does not hold evil on the second King, since she understands that it was a predator. But she has not removed the guilt from herself for the death of her son so far.

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