THE WAR YEARS

The State Academic Kirov Theatre of Opera and Ballet. The 1930s
The playbill for June 1941 at the State Academic Kirov Theatre of Opera and Ballet (as the Mariinsky Theatre was called at the time) featured numerous triumphant events. For 23 June there had been planned an anniversary gala of the outstanding ballerina Elena Lyukum. Ballet dancer Natalia Sakhnovskaya recalled that “Elena Mikhailovna (Lyukum) had rehearsed so that this performance would be the icing on the cake of her career. She planned for it to be her last performance, a farewell and a triumphant end to her stage career. Unexpectedly war broke out and the triumphant garland was broken...”*. The performance was a success, but the ballerina’s anniversary celebrations were held backstage.
The playbill also included graduation performances of the ballet school – they had rehearsed the three-act ballet Bela to music by Vladimir Deshevov and with choreography by Boris Fenster. “The dress rehearsal at the theatre – in costume with the orchestra – the last before the performance was to take place on 22 July,” recalled Nonna Yastrebova, the performer of the lead role, “It was a beautiful sunny day. I came to the theatre early in order to get ready, put on my makeup and warm up. The rehearsal began. In the interval after Act   we heard a strange word on the radio: ‘war’ <...> The graduation performance took place on 26 June. <...> After that we all met and went on foot to the Astoria Hotel where dinner had been ordered. There was a small orchestra playing and we wanted to dance but an elderly waiter came up to us and said ‘Young people, there’s no need to dance, after all there is a war on.’ We fell silent immediately.”**
*Sakhnovskaya N. From siege-time diaries // Remembering Again. Anthology. St Petersburg. Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, 2004. P. 34
**A Man from the Orchestra. The Siege-Time Diary of Lev Margulis. St Petersburg. Lenizdat, 2013. P. 38-39

The playbill of the Kirov Theatre. June 1941
The Second World War was already raging when the renowned stage director Sergei Eisenstein was commissioned by the government to stage Die Walküre at the Bolshoi Theatre. On Stalin’s side it was a gesture of unity as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. As part of the “cultural exchange” between Stalin and Hitler in the 1940–1941 season the Berliner Staatsoper hosted Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar (in its original version). The political subtext of the production was obvious, just like its obviously anti-Polish pathos, matching with the very recent division yet again of Poland.
The analogous premiere of Wagner in Leningrad ended in grotesque cruelty. The second performance of Lohengrin on 21 June 1941 ended several hours before sections of the Luftwaffe began to bomb Soviet towns and cities. As a result both subsequent performances of Lohengrin were cancelled in favour of Ivan Susanin – the Soviet version of A Life for the Tsar. The public had to remain positive and mobilised. Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky once again became topical, as did Prokofiev’s eponymous cantata. But the people of Leningrad did not repeat the pogroms organised by imperialist patriots in the summer of 1914, though the Dioscuri figures were thrown down from the roof of the German Embassy on St Isaac’s Square and the city’s name was quickly changed from St Petersburg to Petrograd. And if during the First World War Austro-German music was officially dropped from the repertoires of Russian theatres and concert halls then during the Siege of Leningrad there were broadcasts of symphonies by Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Schuman as a sign of the victory of true culture over obscurantism and barbarism.

A concert in a hospital (undated)
From the first days of the war the theatre’s performers, organised into concert brigades, began to appear on a daily basis at units of the Leningrad Army Region, the Baltic Fleet of the Red Banner and mobilised wards in hospitals.
Violinist Lev Margulis, who lost his job on 2 July due to the destruction of the Kirov Theatre Branch at the House of the People (today the building is home to the Music Hall), wrote in his diary that “I was often at the Mariinsky Theatre, I saw Motya Gorelik (Semyon Gorelik, head of the orchestra – Ed.) and asked him for a job at the theatre, but it didn’t seem as if the theatre was going to start working. They were given no holidays, but the public wasn’t going. I remember once they sold thirty tickets for Swan Lake and the performance was cancelled. <...> The theatre’s soloists worked in sponsored brigades and gave concerts for the Red Army, while the atelier crews went to work in camouflage factories and forges. By the end of July work in the ateliers had ceased altogether. The staff there were given ration books. As I was unemployed I got my card at the housing lease co-operative society.”* Performers who were not assigned to any institution were unable to leave the city – residents were only evacuated together with businesses.
*A Man from the Orchestra. The Siege-Time Diary of Lev Margulis. St Petersburg. Lenizdat, 2013. P. 38-39

The evacuation ticket of ballerina Tatiana Vecheslova
On 15 August at a meeting of theatre staff the director Yevgeny Radin announced the decision of the Government to evacuate the theatre to Molotov (as Perm was known from 1940 to 1957). There were to be two special trains. It took three days to assemble everyone.
In her memoirs the ballet dancer Marietta Frangopulo stated that “About one thousand six hundred people from the theatre and as many as two thousand members of their families were to be evacuated... Selecting and packing necessary property, checking the number of those departing, checking the boarding process <...> on 19 August at 4 in the afternoon at the Moskovsky Railway Station. There were so many carriages the train stood at two platforms: eighty-three heated goods vans and three class wagons. The theatre is taking costumes, sheet music, lighting equipment and props. It’s impossible to take the sets <...> A group of pupils and teachers from the Ballet School is leaving the city with the theatre.”*
Natalia Sakhnovskaya, who was on the list for the second special train and who had come to see her colleagues off at the station, remembered that “I really tried to control myself, convincing myself that we were leaving the theatre for a day or two... Some people lived communally, waiting. But they were unable to leave – Leningrad had been completely surrounded.”**
*Frangopulo M. The Kirov Theatre of Opera and Ballet // Leningrad Theatres during the Great Patriotic War. Moscow. Iskusstvo, 1948. P. 55-56
**Nayenko S.
Ballet Seasons in Leningrad under Siege // Remembering Again.. Anthology. St Petersburg. Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, 2004. P. 16

The Opera and Ballet Theatre in Molotov (Perm)
On 13 September the Leningrad company opened its season at the Molotov Opera and Ballet Theatre. The stage there was much smaller than that of the Kirov, and so the productions had to be altered and the sets created anew. The rehearsal hall at the Perm theatre couldn’t accommodate even half of the corps de ballet, and so all the rehearsals were held either on the actual stage or in the premises of the House of Culture of the Soviet Army.

Scene from the opera Ivan Susanin. Georgy Nelepp as Sobinin (centre) and Ivan Yashugin as Ivan Susanin (left)
The ballerina Tatiana Vecheslova recalled that “The first performance at the opening of the theatre was Ivan Susanin (in which I danced a waltz) – it was a quiet affair and not a success. Neither the magnificent sound of the orchestra under the baton of Ariy Pazovsky, nor the wonderful young voices of Olga Kashevarova, Georgy Nelepp and Ivan Yashugin melted the icy atmosphere in the auditorium. <...> It felt like no-one was interested in the theatre. ‘Never mind,’ we thought, ‘the next performance is Swan Lake. It’ll all be very different.’”*
*Vecheslova T. I Am a Ballerina. Leningrad-Moscow. Iskusstvo, 1964. P. 145-146

Fragment of the playbill for September 1941. Molotov (Perm)
Continuation from Vecheslova’s memoirs: “Our hopes were not justified. Even the brilliant dancing of Dudinskaya and Sergeyev did not produce the expected reaction. At the end of the final act the curtain came down to utter silence. ‘Does anyone need our ballet?’ we thought, ‘Blood is being shed all around, one after another the towns of our motherland are being surrendered to the enemy, refugees are sitting at railway stations for weeks, and we will dance and try to prove that someone does need our art!’ The performers, particularly the men, got such reactions as ‘You should be ashamed making-up your faces and dressing in fancy clothes, clowning around in front of people who are suffering.’ <...> The performers began to take on hospital duties. After performances, having barely removed their make-up, they would set out, half-starving, for the hospital and worked there until morning before going directly to rehearsals. <...> Success and public admiration came to us more quickly than we expected. From one performance to the next interest in our theatre grew and grew.”*
*Vecheslova T. I Am a Ballerina. Leningrad-Moscow. Iskusstvo, 1964. P. 145-146

The Kirov Theatre following an air raid. September 1941
Some of the company, however, had been unable to be evacuated and had remained in Leningrad. But the performers of the State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet were unable to open their new season. Singer Tatiana Kholmovskaya’s memoirs relate how “On 19 September, as always in the evening, the enemy raid began on time. The sirens blared. And at 9:05pm the theatre was struck by a bomb. A 250 kilogram landmine bomb hit the roof of the right wing.
From the shockwave of the explosion all the doors into the auditorium and on the surrounding corridors burst open. The huge iron curtain moved by almost a metre, but protected the stage. The beautiful furniture in the auditorium was almost totally destroyed. Fortunately the beautiful chandelier had been taken down several days earlier. The shockwave killed one of the theatre’s oldest employees, Savely Bazarov (a theatre guard, Ed.). The head of the fire department Vladimir Divov was seriously wounded and fighters of the Local Anti-Aircraft Defence brigade suffered minor injuries and shellshock.”*
*Kholmovskaya T. Memoirs. 1976. Typescript // Mariinsky Theatre Archive

Right wing of the theatre
“I heard that a bomb had fallen on our theatre,” recalled ballerina Olga Iordan, “I was so terrified that for several days I decided I couldn’t go and have a look. Finally I mustered up my courage and, coming along from Glinka Street towards the square I stopped. The right wing was destroyed and there was no entryway into the administrative offices – instead there was just a huge hole. Standing at the corner I looked and cried.”*
*Quotation after Kryukov A. Will I Be Pierced by an Arrow. Opera Singers and Ballet Dancers in Leningrad under Siege. St Petersburg. Kompozitor, 2014. P. 21

The Light Corridor of the 1st circle
The foyer of the 2 nd  floor
Removal of furniture ruined by the shockwave. September 1941

View of the theatre from Kryukov Canal. Taken between 1941 and 1943
“In the first days of November it was as if we were spared,” wrote Lev Margulis in his diary, “but starting on the 4th we began to be tormented by artillery fire (previously they fired at the suburbs and factories and now it was the city centre) and frequent endless air raids. On the 7th they didn’t fly but they did shell us a lot. We had by then developed some kind of indifference to anxiety: if it kills then it kills. No-one knew if they would survive till the next day, and I counted the number of days of war we had survived. We thought that after the holidays we’d be given some time to relax, but it never came to pass.”*
*A Man from the Orchestra. The Siege-Time Diary of Lev Margulis. St Petersburg. Lenizdat, 2013. P. 50-51

Dressing room No 62. Taken between 1941 and 1943
Continuation from Lev Margulis’ siege diary: “Life is good! You can’t say otherwise! Of course, it’s a thousand times easier to die, but however long this horror lasts you know that it has to end sooner or later and life will be easy and good and you want to survive. As no-one in particular I know how hard it is, but what would I say to those serving on the front if I whined about it? It’s a terrible time. Why? Because of human stupidity. Eternal, vast, endless. Because of greed, because of baseness – ineradicable features of humanity. I survived the November holidays which I was convinced I would not survive.”*
*A Man from the Orchestra. The Siege-Time Diary of Lev Margulis. St Petersburg. Lenizdat, 2013. P. 50-51

 

Playbill for concerts at the Kirov Theatre Branch. November 1941

To commemorate the 24th anniversary of the October Revolution, despite the fact that over these days the Germans shelled and bombed the city with particular savagery, many of Leningrad’s theatres and concert halls held celebratory galas. There were performances at the Philharmonic, the Army Headquarters, the State Circus, the Musical Comedy Theatre and the Operetta Theatre (the latter gave performances at the House of Culture of the First Five-Year Plan). At the Kirov Theatre Branch there were concerts featuring lead soloists of the opera company – soprano Rozalia Gorskaya, tenor Ivan Nechaev, baritone Valentin Legkov, dancers Olga Iordan, Sergei Koren, Alla Shelest, Natalia Sakhnovskaya and Robert Gerbek, as well the acclaimed pianist Professor Alexander Kamensky from the conservatoire and seventeen-year-old cellist Danya Shafran. His “frivolous” listing on the playbill was probably due to the fact that he had begun to perform while still a boy – following his win at the All-Union Competition of Violinists and Cellists (1937).

Playbill for La traviata. November 1941
From a directive from Acting Head of the Department of Arts of the Executive Committee of the Leningrad City Soviet dated 11 November 1941
“... To form from available artistic staff of the Kirov Opera and Ballet Theatre, the Maly Opera and the Opera Studio of the Conservatoire a working team, calling it the Opera and Ballet Theatre. To make available for the team’s work ... the premises of the Kirov Theatre Branch.”*
“Stage directors Isai Dvorishchin and Andrei Schröter,” recalls Tatiana Kholmovskaya, “had to make mammoth efforts to bring the city’s musicians together in one symphony orchestra and rehearse the operas Eugene Onegin and La traviata.**
Extract from the diary of Nikolai Kondratiev, a passionate music-lover and balletomane: “The performances that have been announced are being performed with the same casts as before the war (or with minor changes). <...> Before the curtain went up (Eugene Onegin – Ed.) it was announced that due to technical reasons the performance would not have sets but would have costumes, props and all the mise-en-scènes. The temperature in the auditorium was rather low, about 6-8 degrees. The audience kept their outer clothing on...”***
*Quotation after Kryukov A. Music During the Siege. A Chronicle. St Petersburg. Kompozitor, 2002. P. 57
**Kholmovskaya T. Memoirs. 1976. Typescript // Mariinsky Theatre Archive
***Quotation after Kryukov A. Music During the Siege. A Chronicle. St Petersburg. Kompozitor, 2002. P.

Playbill for The Queen of Spades. November 1941
The performance of The Queen of Spades due to take place on 25 November did not take place; instead there was a second performance of La traviata. According to the singer Nadezhda Velter it was interrupted twelve times due to the air raid sirens and the performance was never completed. Due to cuts in supplies of electricity the Kirov Theatre Branch was soon closed. Performances and concerts there ceased to take place. Still to come was the horrifying winter of 1941-1942.


The chronicle features photographs from the Mariinsky Theatre Archive, performers' family collections and the collection of the Central State Archive of Film and Photo Documents of St Petersburg.

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