From an essay series by SGI President Daisaku Ikeda about people whose lives have inspired him.

Natalia Sats--Triumph of the Human Spirit

Difficulties are proof of life; suffering is the soil from which real joy grows. This truth was demonstrated by Natalia Sats, who was regarded as the mother of the children's arts movement in Russia. She retained the innocence of a young girl, and her unaffected speech and bright smile refreshed all who met her. We met seven times in total, and every time, I found she had grown younger and more passionate than before. She was a person of great simplicity who was always completely honest. This was her greatest strength.

Natalia Sats meeting SGI President Ikeda in Tokyo in July 1982   [©Seikyo Shimbun]

Ms. Sats, who died in 1993 at the age of 90, founded 20 children's theaters in all, organizing children's theater performances all over the world, despite facing unbelievable hardships. I believe she was able to survive all manner of difficulties because of her passionate love of art, human beings, her family and life itself.

When Natalia Sats was 14 years old, the Russian Revolution broke out, and her country was reborn as the Soviet Union. Her precious father, a violinist, composer and conductor with a passion for the arts and for helping suffering people, had passed away when Natalia was only eight years old. Shortly after her father's death, she was greatly encouraged by one of his artistic friends who asked her to help him rehearse the music he had written for a parade. She could remember the melody better than he, and he joked that he needed her as his assistant. He was the first to plant the seed of the dream that she could one day become a theater director.

When the revolution came, it destroyed the town where she lived and the schools were closed. The children were left to their own devices. The times were chaotic indeed. Natalia reflected that she had learned much more from her visits to the theater as a child than at school, and she decided that children needed art more than ever.

Aged just 15, she immediately took action, taking a job in the Moscow municipal theater and music agency where she was entrusted with the task of developing theater for children. Completely alone, she made a pledge that since theater for children was yet a blank space on the map of the arts, she would, with her own hands, fill in that map brilliantly.

[RIA Novosti]

The first performance she organized, the puppet show "David," was held in June 1918, and the 350 children who attended screamed with excitement. She saw how they gained hope, joy and strength from this magical experience, and they came back again and again, bringing their friends and brothers and sisters.

Since Natalia was so young, many people scoffed at her ideas, but she began talking to one person at a time, steadily increasing the number of those who understood and sympathized with her.

One such friend was the great 20th-century Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. In response to their friendship, he composed the work Peter and the Wolf and dedicated it to her.

The Moscow State Children's Theater that Ms. Sats founded was very small at first. But she steadily persevered, and finally in 1936, the permanent Central Children's Theater was built.

But this was not the end of her trials and tribulations. The very next year, with no warning, Ms. Sats and her husband were accused of being traitors to the nation during one of Stalin's purges. Her husband was arrested and subsequently executed, and with no news of his fate, she herself was banished to Siberia. The shock was so great that her chestnut hair lost all color overnight. She remained in a camp for political prisoners for a full five years. Her freedom of activity was greatly limited for 18 years.

However, overcoming each and every one of these difficulties, Ms. Sats continued to pursue the pledge that she made when she was 14 years old. Throughout everything, she never forgot the importance of perseverance, patience and continuity.

Finally she won. She completed her brilliant map of children's theater on the world map of arts and left her mark on history.

In her autobiography, she recalls her experiences in Siberia. Her interrogators promised her she would be released and returned to her family if she would make false statements incriminating her friends. She told them simply, "I'm sorry, but I was taught from childhood to respect the truth. That's why I would never purchase the happiness of my loved ones with a lie." She proudly upheld her dignity as a human being. She lived a brave and noble life.

There were several other innocent female prisoners in the cell where Ms. Sats was incarcerated, all numb with fear and sadness. Though Ms. Sats was in an equally dismal predicament, she did not withdraw into her own sorrow. She began to think of how she could raise the spirits of her despairing cell mates. By thinking of others, the sun of hope began to rise again in her own heart.

Ms. Sats also wrote in her autobiography: "I should help them and myself to survive. I need to switch my thinking, try to believe that this present reality is by no means the end. . . ." Her resolve was that no matter how wretched her present circumstances appeared, her life was not over and she would fight on to the very end.

When Ms. Sats looked around her, she realized that her cell mates had many talents. She decided to make use of the women's abilities by organizing a school--a cell classroom where they could share and exchange the knowledge each possessed. One woman could lecture on chemistry, another on medicine. Ms. Sats, with her rich theatrical background, sang for them.

The cell was quiet and isolated--a perfect place to study! It also served as a theater in which the women could enjoy the arts, and they created a chorus group which even visited other labor camps to entertain the prisoners there. Even in this desperate situation, art revived them--the irrepressible energy of life itself enabled them to transcend suffering and arrive finally at joy.

Ms. Sats's cell was small, but a great history was created there. She and her fellow prisoners decided that it was wrong for people to suffer alone. Alone, one's suffering only deepens, and hope disappears.

I feel that Ms. Sats demonstrated the victory of the human will over what can seem like a cruel and harsh destiny dealt by the hand of fate. In a poem dedicated to her, I wrote:

Art is the pulse of life.
It is proof that we live!
At all times, in all places,
you wanted to sing,
to make resound a song of hope.
You refused to allow the
resonant chords of your heart
to be severed.
. . .
Marshaling the grand forces
of your will, you confronted fate.
This, truly, is freedom!

Ms. Sats once remarked that the Buddhist view of eternal life she had learned from me had given her boundless hope.

"In my case nothing came easily," she once said. "There are always problems, but I actually relish the challenge of overcoming them. My life has been like a Shakespearean play--where humor is to be found even amid tragedy. In the direst times, I would wink to myself and say, 'You've got yourself a little trouble here, haven't you? Well, Natalia, let's see how you get yourself out of this one.' It is as if there are two of us--one of us on stage. No matter what hardships the me on stage faces, the other me is watching my brilliant performance with a smile of satisfaction, much like the producer of a play. As I continued in this way, the me on stage suddenly realized one day that life is synonymous with action."

As Ms. Sats so beautifully demonstrated, strength of character lies in performing the drama of life with courage, confidence and joy.

Ms. Sats on stage after a production of Cinderella in Tokyo, November 1990   [©Seikyo Shimbun]