Yuri Lyubimov was born in Yaroslavl in 1917. His grandfather was a kulak who fled to Moscow to escape arrest during the collectivisation. Lyubimov's father, Pyotr Zakharovich, was a merchant, who worked for a Scottish company, and his mother, Anna Alexandrovna, was a half-Russian and half-Gypsy schoolteacher. They moved to Moscow in 1922, where both were arrested. Lyubimov studied at the Institute for Energy in Moscow.
He was a member of Mikhail Chekhov's Second Moscow Art Theater from 1934 to 1936. During the 1930s, he also met Vsevolod Meyerhold, the avant-garde director. Lyubimov worked in the Song and Dance Ensemble of the NKVD, where he met and befriended Dmitri Shostakovich, Nikolai Erdman and many others.
After service in the Red Army during World War II, Lyubimov joined the Vakhtangov Theatre (founded by Yevgeny Vakhtangov). In 1953, he received the USSR State Prize. Lyubimov started teaching in 1963 and formed the Taganka Theatre the following year. His celebrated production of Bertold Brecht's The Good Person of Setzuan with Anna Orochko's class at the Schukin Theatre Institute earned him the artistic directorship of the Taganka Theatre. With Meyerhold, Stanislavsky, Vakhtangov and Brecht as his spiritual guides, Lyubimov eschewed Soviet drama for the more imaginative worlds of poetry and narrative fiction, which he dramatized, and the classics, which he broke apart, reconstituted and presented from a pronounced critical perspective. Under Lyubimov, the theatre rose to become the most popular in Moscow, with Vladimir Vysotsky and Alla Demidova as the leading actors. In 1971 Shakespeare's Hamlet became one of Lyubimov's highly successful and much acclaimed productions. In 1976 he was awarded by the BITEF First Prize for Hamlet.
In 1975 he directed the original production of Al gran sole carico d'amore by Luigi Nono at the Teatro alla Scala (Nono himself and Lyubimov wrote the libretto).
Long a Soviet underground classic, Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita was finally brought to the Russian stage at the Taganka in 1977, in an adaptation by Lyubimov.
According to B. Beumers, the major innovations Lyubimov brought to theatrical history are the creation of a new theatrical genre, the poetic theatre, in which all revolves around one metaphor, and the creation of a new form of dramatic material, which incorporates a historical and biographical context. Lyubimov's performances — including the well-known Antiworlds, Pugachev, Listen!, and Comrade, believe, as well as newer Before and After, Oberiuty, and Honey — were fed and filled with poetic energy. In another performance, Fallen and Living, Yuri Lyubimov and David Samoilov built on verses by Pavel Kogan, Semyon Gudzenko and other poets of the World War II generation.
After Vysotsky's death in 1980, all of Lyubimov's productions were banned by the Communist authorities. In 1984, he was stripped of Soviet citizenship. Thereupon he worked abroad before returning to the Taganka Theatre in 1989. His staging of Eugene Onegin premiered in the Taganka on his 85th birthday to much critical acclaim.
While in the West he maintained a busy directing career. In the United States he directed Crime and Punishment at Arena Stage and Lulu at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. In 1983 he directed Crime and Punishment in London, winning the Evening Standard Award for Best Director, in 1985 he directed St Matthew Passion at La Scala. His effort to re-stage his famous The Master and Margarita at the American Repertory Theater failed to materialize because of a disagreement with the management of that company. In 1989, his Russian citizenship was restored.
In June 2011, before a performance of Bertolt Brecht's play The Good Person of Szechwan in Czech, the actors of Taganka refused to rehearse unless they were paid first. Lyubimov paid the money and left the theatre. "I've had enough of this disgrace, these humiliations, this lack of desire to work, this desire just for money", he said. Lyubimov retired from the theatre the following week. Two leading actors of theatre, Dmitry Mezhevich and Alla Smirdan, as well as some administrative assistants, followed Lyubimov. His dramatization of Dostoyevsky's Demons premiered the next year.
In June 2013 Lyubimov staged Alexander Borodin's opera Prince Igor at the Bolshoi Theatre, which was warmly received by audiences and critics. The new Prince Igor is shorter, with Lyubimov cutting out some parts of the opera. According to Vassily Sinaisky, the Bolshoi chief conductor, such a new structure of the opera was conceived to make it more dynamic and intense.
Lyubimov staged over 100 dramas and operas. "People tried to stick me with the label of political theater. But that's wrong. I was engaged in an aesthetic, in the expansion of the palette — what shades could be added in working with space and style," he says. Leonardo Shapiro concludes that "Lyubimov is probably best known for his daring theatrical adaptations of poetry and novels and his successful (and sometimes unsuccessful) run-ins with Soviet Premiers and Ministers of Culture over forbidden material."
As an actor, he performed in 37 plays and 17 films, and several remain classics.
Vladimir Vysotsky dedicated some of his famous songs (including "It's Not Evening Yet") to Yuri Lyubimov.
Lyubimov, a director who dominated Russian theatre for half a century, died at 97, after being admitted to the Botkin Clinic in Moscow with heart failure.