The Folklorist Who Reawakened a Nation

Sunday, 2 February 1890 - St. Petersburg, Russia

Today I visited St. John’s Church here in St. Petersburg at 54 Ulitsa Dekabristov, near the Mariinsky Theater. It is a rather modest brick building, but it has great historical significance to the people of Estonia.

Estonia in 1890
This is a map of Estonia as it looks in 1890. What you don’t see it? It’s the area circled. I know the map doesn’t show it, but it’s a German map. The German’s feel it still belongs to them since a band of crusading Teutonic Knights conquered it back in the 13th century, bringing Christianity and serfdom to the poor pagans. The knights also made themselves the ruling class. Then the Swedes took it away (or was it Poland, then the Swedes? It’s all very complicated. Denmark was in there somewhere, too.) The problem is Estonia is on a very strategic spot, and surrounding countries all fought over it for centuries. Finally Peter the Great grabbed it in 1710 and absorbed it into Russia.

Now all this time, there was an Estonian people with their own language and culture that managed to survive under all this turmoil. Sadly the natives were now all serfs. Luckily these serfs were freed in 1819, beating the rest of Russia by 42 years. I believe the serfs may have been freed first in Estonia because the nobles were all Germans and not Russian and thus were little political threat to the Tsar.

Many of the freed serfs decided to thumb their noses at their German overlords and came to St. Petersburg to seek their fortune. It was after all an international city, with ethnic groups from all over. By 1859 the Estonian community had enough members and money to build this fine church, with the help of Tsar Alexander II, who was kind enough to donate 50,000 rubles to the cause.

St. John's Church
My last blog I mentioned how Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, and his son Alexander III became very paranoid and xenophobic. He wants everyone to be Russians. They should speak Russian and belong to the Russian Christian Orthodox Church. Estonians speak German and Estonian and belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Estonia. Perhaps the Tsar hasn’t singled out the Estonians yet because they are mostly poor peasants and his father did help build the church.

It s doesn’t help that the present minister, Jakob Hurt, only two years ago, challenged his parishioners to resist the Tsar’s Russification Policy. Hurt isn’t really a terrorist or anything violent. He is a folklorist and linguist--a fellow anthropologist! He started a campaign to collect Estonian folktales, organizing 1400 volunteers he accumulated from a newspaper campaign to help him, and has collected hundreds of tales into six volumes. He will be known as the “King of Estonian Folklore.” He is also a theologian, which doesn’t pay much, but pays more than being a folklorist.

Jacob Hurt
Jakob Hurt gave the sermon in Estonian. I kept glancing about for the Tsar’s secret police. I think some members had eyed me earlier until they figured out I was just a curious Englishman. Britain is one country that has never tried to conquer Estonia.

I know giving a sermon in Estonian and collecting folktales, may not seem like much, but Hurt is reminding these people they have a culture and a country, even if the rest of Europe denies it. This National Reawakening will eventually lead to 40,000 Estonians marching on the Tauride Palace and the Russian Government in 1917 to demand national autonomy. The Estonian Revolution that followed will force Russia to sign a peace agreement in 1920, making Estonia a free country for the first time in 700 years.

Unfortunately the Soviets reneged on the deal, and occupied Estonia in 1940. Stalin executed thousands and sent tens of thousands of Estonians to labor camps in Siberia. Most will die. Even the dead were not left in peace as Stalin had their cemeteries destroyed. Then between 1941 and 1944 Germany once more ruled Estonia. As soon as they left, Estonia met Russia returning and once more fought for independence. Estonia lost.

As for this church, it did not fare well under the Communists who hated religion of any kind. The belfry and portal were demolished and the building, like many churches in St. Petersburg, was used as a warehouse.

Then in the late 1980s as the USSR dissolved, Estonia took advantage of the situation to grab back their independence. They are still independent and proud of their heritage in the 27th century and still reading Jakob Hurt’s Monumenta Estoniae Antiquae in their native Estonian.

The St. John Church will be returned to the Estonian community in St. Petersburg. The Republic of Estonia could not let the church Jakob Hurt taught at be demolished. After a four million pound renovation, the Archbishop reconsecrated the church in 2011 with the president of Estonia as a guest of honor. I think Jakob Hurt was there too, in spirit.


Spilt Blood

Tuesday, 28 January, 1890 - St. Petersburg, Russia

Church under construction
Today I visited the Church of the Saviour on Spilt Blood. Begun in 1883 it won’t be totally finished until 1907. The basic building is up, but the decorations on the outside are still being worked on. Inside they are painstakingly creating mosaics, one tiny glass chip at a time. When they are through, the building will have more mosaics than any other church in the world. The church is designed not in the Baroque-style Peter the Great loved, or the classical-style Catherine the Great was fond of, but in the old Russian Orthodox style of the 1600s.

Finished Church of Our Saviour on Spilt Blood
Oddly enough the Church of the Saviour in Spilt Blood will never be used as a real church with a congregation and Sunday services. It is in fact meant to be a memorial to Tsar Alexander II whose blood it was that was spilt on this very spot.

“Alexander the Liberator” was the Tsar who abolished serfdom. He was also known for his reforms in law and government administration, outlawing branding as a punishment in the military and developing natural resources. Yet despite his liberal reforms he was the target of assassins in April 1866, April 1879, December 1879 and February 1880. Most were by a left-wing terrorist group known as the Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will).

Tsar Alexander II "the Liberator"
On the morning of 13 March 1881 Alexander II rode in his carriage to Mikhailovsky Manege for the Military Roll Call, as he did every Sunday, accompanied by seven Cossacks. When they reached Griboedov Canal a young member of the Narodnaya Volya, Nikolai Rysakov, stepped out of the crowd collected on the sidewalk and tossed something wrapped in a handkerchief under the horses hoofs. It exploded killing a Cossack and wounding the driver and a few spectators. The Tsar however was unhurt, thanks to the bullet-proof carriage Napoleon III of France had given him.

Alexander came out of the coach shaken but unhurt. The police jumped on Rysakov. The terrorist then turned and yelled at someone in the crowd. He threw a package at the Tsar’s feet. There was a second explosion. Among the twenty bodies in the snow, one was Alexander with his legs torn away, stomach ripped open and face mutilated. He was still alive.

Drawing of the aftermath of the bombs
The Tsar was thrown on a sleigh and rushed back to the Winter Palace and lifted onto a bed. He was hurriedly given communion by an Orthodox priest. His new wife and former mistress, Catherine Dolgorukova, ran into the room, half-dressed, and threw herself on him crying "Sasha! Sasha!" She had warned him to stay home that morning on a premonition. Alexander died, his blood soaking her negligee.

Princess Catherine, wife of Alexander II
It was later found out there had been a third terrorist in the group with a bomb in case the first two had failed.

That very morning before he left, Alexander II had signed the Loris-Melikov Constitution which would have made Russia a democratic monarchy with an elected parliament. When his son Alexander III found it, he tore it up. He then suppressed civil liberties and brought back police brutality to arrest any protestors. He became xenophobic, trying to destroy any German, Swedish and Polish institutions and persecuted the Jews. All in reaction to his father’s assassination. If Russia didn’t want a benevolent Tsar, they would have a ruthless one.

Alexander III, current Tsar
Two years after the assassination, Tsar Alexander III began this grand memorial to his father. The style is Russian, devoid of any foreign influence. It is built on the very spot his father was attacked, the cobblestones where his blood fell left uncovered and exposed through a hole in the floor.

No one has been able to get close enough to make an attempt on this Tsar even though radicals now had good cause. Oh there was that one plot by the Narodnaya Volya in 1887, but it was uncovered and the conspirators hung. One was Alexander Ulyanov. His death has impacted his little brother, Vladimir. Once model student is becoming a model radical and will be arrested in five years time and sent to Siberia for passing out Marxist leaflets. When Vladimir returns to St. Petersburg he will change his name to Lenin. Yes, that Lenin.

One can’t help but wonder what Russia’s fate would have been if Tsar Alexander II had not been assassinated. How different history could have been.

Interior of the Church of Our Saviour on Split Blood
The church was mostly neglected in the 20th century. In 1970 repairs were started and it opened as a museum in 1997. Here is how it looked during the ongoing reconstruction.

Russian Exhibit Depicts Friendship of Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln
They both freed the slaves and tragically shared the same fate.


Sleeping Beauty Ballet

Thursday, 16 January 1890 - St. Petersburg, Russia

Last night the Imperial Russian Ballet magnificent. The sets and costumes were lavish, the music enchanting and still going through my head. It’s said the Italians invented ballet, the French refined it but the Russians perfected it. And this is the beginning of the Golden Age of Russian ballet.

Mariinsky Theatre
The Imperial Ballet was started in 1738 when Empress Anna, niece of Peter the Great, brought the French ballet master Jean-Baptiste Landé to St. Petersburg to teach members of her staff to dance to entertain her. Usually she entertained herself by playing humiliating and cruel pranks on the nobility. If this was just another attempt at demeaning the household, Landé didn’t get the joke and within a few years formed the Imperial Russian Ballet.

Catherine the Great, whom Landé taught to dance, established a permanent theatre for the ballet in 1783, named the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre. In 1860 this bigger theater, with the largest stage in the world, was built nearby and named the Mariinsky Theatre after its imperial patroness, the late Empress Maria Alexandrovna, wife of Tsar Alexander II and mother of the current Tsar, Alexander III.

Mariinsky Theatre interior (from the stage)

Marius Petipa
Perhaps the one man most responsible for the current Golden Age is Maestro Marius Ivanovich Petipa, the Premier Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Theatres. The now 72-year-old ballet master will choreograph over 50 ballets during his career and will be considered one of the most influential ballet choreographers to have ever lived. Born in France to an drama teacher and ballet instructor, one could say the theatre is in Petipa’s blood. In fact, his daughter, Marie Petipa is dancing tonight as the Lilac Fairy, one of the main characters.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Petipa’s reputation are already such that others jump at the chance to work with him. When the Director of the Imperial Theatres, Ivan Wsevolojskoy, asked the internationally famous composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky if he would write the music for tonight’s ballet, he eagerly agreed. Not that Tchaikovsky needed the money. A few years back Tzar Alexander III awarded him a lifetime pension. Perhaps Tchaikovsky wanted to take another stab at ballets. His first, Swan Lake, received lukewarm reviews when it premiered 13 years ago. But then Petipa did not choreograph it. (Swan Lake will do much better five years from now when Petipa does a revival and works his magic on it.)

The cast itself are some of the best in the world. Enrico Cecchetti is considered the greatest ballet virtuoso in the world even though he is 40 years-old. He played the evil witch and in the last act, the Bluebird. The Bluebird dance is still considered one of the most challenging ever choreographed. Enrico will soon be retiring from the stage to teach using his the Cecchetti method that is still being used today.
Enrico Cecchetti as the Bluebird
The Ballet is based on Charles Perrault’s fairytale of Sleeping Beauty. It is in a prologue and three acts and with intermissions runs about four hours, being nearly three hours without the intermissions. The first two acts follow the story of the familiar fairy tale. The last act is the wedding of Princess Aurora to Prince Désiré who wakes her up. The guests are all fairy tale characters like Puss-in-Boots, Hop-o’-My-Thumb, and Little Red Riding Hood each doing their own dance.

Last night's cast of Sleeping Beauty
When the curtain fell to thunderous applause. Tsar Alexander III who allows sits in the box to the left of the stage called Tchaikovsky to his box. All he said was “Very nice.” From the composers expression I think he was expecting more than just “very nice.”

Tsar's Box next to the stage
Sleeping Beauty will such a success that director Wsevolojskoy will commission Tchaikovsky to compose the music for the Nutcracker Ballet which will premier in two years. It will not do as well as tonight’s ballet. It is ironic that the least famous of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, Sleeping Beauty was the most popular in his lifetime.

Not that Sleeping Beauty will be forgotten. It is a classic performed throughout time (although usually shortened.) In 1999 the Mariinsky Ballet will reconstruct this performance with not only the original choreography, but reproductions of the original costumes and sets. But they won’t have the original dancers.

Mariinsky Ballet's recontruction of Sleeping Beauty
Now the 27th century can see the original production when I return home. But a recording can’t catch the true exhilaration of a live performance. Events like last night make all the training and sacrifice it took to become a Temporal Anthropologist all worth it.

Sleeping Beauty Waltz

The Bluebird and Florine
The Mariinsky Ballet’s reconstruction of Sleeping Beauty

More photos:
Maria Petipa as the Lilac Fairy
Princess Aurora and Prince Desiree

Post Script: In 1924, one of the former students of the Imperial School of Ballet will flee the communists and their restriction on creativity for the West. George Balanchie will co-found the New York City Ballet and serve as it's Ballet Master and choreographer, helping develop ballet in America. You can read about this pioneer in the book:
Balanchine: Russian-American Ballet Master Emeritus


Peter the Great's Great City

Monday, 13 January 1890 - Saint Petersburg, Russia

Saint Petersburg in winter
Brrr! I am now in Saint Petersburg in the middle of January. 1890 was not known for it’s warm winter anywhere, and it dips well below zero Fahrenheit at night here. The record is -35 degrees in 1883. The rivers are frozen. Sleds and skates are the perferred modes of transportation. I ran across a outdoor meat market where the meat was all frozen--naturally.

So what would make me come to such a frozen wasteland? Well, Petersburg currently the fifth largest city in Europe and the population is very close to the one million mark. It is the largest city in Russia and the center not only of government, but of culture. This is a very modern and international city. Overshadowed Moscow will tell you that Saint Petersburg is the least Russian spot in Russia.

Peter the Great
Petersburg (as the natives call it) is a young city, less than 200 years old. When Peter the Great came to the throne in 1682, Russia was still a feudal state stuck in the Middle Ages. (In fact the serfs won’t be emancipated until 1861!) Peter dreamed of making Russia a modern country and part of the European community. To do that he would need a navy and a seaport for commerce. Unfortunately the only seaport was way to the north on the Arctic Ocean. (Russia did not reach the Black Sea yet.)

Northwest of Moscow was the Bay of Neva just south of Finland in a land called Ingria. It was sparsely populated but Russia and Sweden had been fighting over it for centuries. In 1703 Peter took Ingria from Sweden and built a fort on the island at the mouth of the Neva River. He named it Peter and Paul Fortress in honor of the feast day it was founded. Paul got dropped from the city name, Saint Peter being the namesake of the Tzar was only coincidence.

Tzar Peter wanted more than just a fort, so tens of thousands of peasants were conscripted to fill in the marsh and build a city. It’s estimated 40,000 died in the project. Rather than using Russian architects, Peter hired ones from all over Europe to build in the Baroque-style that was popular at the time. He also brought in scientists and businessmen. Petersburg was going to be more than a port. Peter moved the capital there, and created a cultural center.

Saint Petersburg winter taxi
Since it’s founding, Petersburg has been international with long established ethnic neighborhoods. There is even a British one! The University of St. Petersburg back home in the 27th century recommended I go to the English Embankment. I not only found a hotel owned by an Englishman, but British owned businesses, clubs and even a Church of England. I’ve been told there are a couple of thousand Brits in the city. Tzar Peter invited British merchants and shipbuilders to his new city. They must have done well because this is a rather posh neighborhood. The numbers however went down during the Crimean War when Russia and Great Britain were fighting one another. But that was back in the 1850s. So far I haven’t gotten any suspicious looks from the natives, thinking me a spy or something.

A couple of streets over is the Dutch Quarter. There are also Germans, Finns, Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians, Tartars, Siberians and of course Russians. Since the emancipation of the serfs, peasants have flooded into St. Petersburg hoping to make a better life for themselves. Most failed, which is why they revolted in 1917.

As I said, Petersburg is the cultural center of Russia. It is the home of writers, composers, artists and one of the best known ballet companies in the world. I have come at this least welcoming season to record the premier of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty in a couple of days. Maybe the natives spend so much time visiting museums, attending performances and reading because they want to stay in where it is warm!

Map of Saint Petersburg as it looked in 1890