MOSCOW -- The joyful clowns of the Moscow State Circus were in tears yesterday. The woman who stands on one foot on top of a long slender pole, which rests on her husband's forehead while he climbs another pole, was thrown off balance from grief.
The waif the circus had taken in had died during the night. "She was our child," sighed Mikhail Belostotski, assistant to the circus director.
Kinga, a 32-year-old elephant, had been found starving and frostbitten two weeks ago, a victim of the deteriorating economy. Kinga had been abandoned in a truck on the grounds of Gorky Park. According to various reports, the female elephant was owned by a provincial zoo-circus that couldn't afford to feed it.
Komsomolskaya Pravda published a front-page article about the elephant's plight, describing how it had been rescued by the Moscow Circus after enduring several weeks without food in freezing temperatures.
"I am aware only too well how difficult it is for everyone right now," wrote Svetlana Orlyuk.
"Yet if you have the tiniest opportunity, do help please. For the elephant comes from faraway places and cannot be blamed for our misfortunes."
Moscow, barely able to feed itself, was horrified that an elephant would suffer so. Children at a kindergarten sent in their sugar ration, accompanied by a drawing of an elephant and a cheering message.
Pensioners begged their doctors to write huge increases in their prescriptions so they could pass on medicine and vitamins to the elephant.
Russian remedies were applied. Every day Kinga was given two liters of vodka mixed with sugar and wine.
"A must," insisted Mr. Belostotski. "She was cold. She had to be warmed up."
Asked if such a remedy would be desirable for all animals, Mr. Belostotski looked surprised. "Of course not for a lion," he said. "Absolutely not."
People sent in precious vodka. One half-drunk bottle was topped with tinfoil and had been put into a milk carton. Two people brought aloe plants, hoping an ointment could be made from the leaves to soothe the elephant's skin. One person brought an apple, another a crate of oranges.
For two weeks the elephant lay in a large room in Moscow's venerable downtown circus. The elephant was so weak, it was nearly motionless. The entire circus had been summoned when Kinga arrived to push the elephant onto wooden boards and move it from a truck into the building.
Visitors who looked in on Kinga and left the door open were scolded. The elephant might feel a draft. It began to be called Masha, a Russian name infused with fondness, instead of the regal-sounding Kinga.
Victoria Viklyuk, who balances on her husband Konstantin's forehead, spent most of the last few days in the director's office, juggling calls offering help. In the office, where a telephone rests inside a Japanese bear, where the lamp has a clown face, where an inflatable Bozo looks down from a corner, gallons of medicine and vitamins were piling up. Masha was taking 300 vitamin C tablets at a gulp.
Mrs. Viklyuk, who was at first a little wary of the elephant, took on the feeding one night when her husband was busy. "Mashinka," she cooed, "dear little Masha." The elephant opened its mouth for the food and tenderly stroked Mrs. Viklyuk with its trunk.
Masha had lost a ton of weight and was down to about 4 tons, Mr. Belostotski said, but it was starting to gain. Then veterinarians advised getting the elephant up because Masha was developing sores from lying in one place.
Yuri Luzhkov, the deputy mayor of Moscow, called in a detachment of army engineers. They arrived with parachutes, which a cleaning woman cut up and sewed into a giant sling, using a huge industrial sewing machine that had a plug the size of a large fist and that was connected to an extension receptacle the size of a bread box.
Several circus employees spent Monday afternoon wrapping ropes around each other, trying to figure out how Masha could best be hoisted. In the middle of the night, a crane raised the elephant. Masha was suspended for about 6 minutes, unable to stand on its own.
Then Masha died.
Mrs. Viklyuk blames herself. "I think she was frightened," she said, breaking into tears. "I felt she was pleading for help. I was afraid of what might happen. . . . I kept hoping for a miracle, but it didn't happen."
The Moscow Circus canceled its performance yesterday in mourning.
The efforts of veterinarians and tightrope walkers and clowns and children were not enough. Bales of hay, gallons of oatmeal, two loaves of bread at a sitting and 160 pounds of beets and carrots a day failed to cure Masha.