From Albert Salamonsky to Zapashny brothers: history of the Moscow circus in documents of Moscow Main Archive

May 9

Beginning in 2010, the World Circus Day is celebrated on the third Saturday of April. On this occasion, the Moscow Main Archive (Glavarchiv) reflects on how circus art has developed in Moscow since the second half of the 19th century. The archive keeps documents, recollections of premier circus performers, drawings, photos, playbills, and programs.

For example, there is a petition by Pyotr Petrov, a guild member, to allow him to bid for the rent or purchase of a land parcel to set up a menagerie and sites for gymnastic and equestrian exercises. There are documents about the circus of Gaetano Cinizelli and Carl Hinne on Vosdvizhenka. It was the first establishment to be housed in a permanent building. A little later, almost at the same time there appeared the circus of Albert Salamonsky on Tsvetnoy Boulevard and the establishment of Nikitin brothers on Bolshaya Sadovaya street. It is worth mentioning that it was Salamonsky who conceived the idea of children’s Christmas shows with gifts.

The highlight of the circus programs of Salamonsky and Nikitin brothers were horse races with riders dressed in the costumes of various epochs, accompanied with music. Audiences also liked performances of gymnasts, tightrope artists, tamers and clowns. The presentation of “fog shows” using a slide projector, which was then called the “magic lantern”, also gained popularity.

Opened in the 1880s, Circus of Albert Salamonsky was nationalized in 1919 and renamed the First State Circus. The same fate befell the circus of Nikitin brothers which became the Second State Circus. Changes brought about by new times can well be traced in the archive materials about the creative endeavor of clown Vitaly Lazarenko, for whom Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote verses.

Moscow Main Archive also keeps materials about tamer Vladimir Durov, who conducted research into the nature of animals and methods of “upbringing” them humanely. Durov would place animals in the rooms of his mansion, leaving only a small space for himself. “I never once hit a performer,” he used to say about the animals.

When World War II broke out, many performers of the Soviet circus joined the Red Army. Those who continued to ply their trade gave concerts at the front along with other performers to boost troop’s morale during the trying war time.

Circus performers took part in one of the major cultural events of the 1950s: the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow. There are photos depicting students of the State Circus Art School during performances before festival participants and guests in 1957. Today this establishment of education is called the State School of Circus and Variety Art named after Mikhail Rumyantsev (alias Karandash).

The second half of the 20th century in the history of circuses is remembered by its charismatic performers, such as Yuri Nikulin, Oleg Popov, Leonid Engibarov, Irina Bugrimova, and Zapashny brothers.

Moscow Main Archive documents give an insight into how circus acts have evolved, new elements been introduced, tricks and repertoires invented, and the tools of the trade changed. For example, tightrope artists today use a hemp rope instead of a metal cable. Only the round arena measuring around 13 meters in diameter, which was invented by Philip Astley, a British equestrian and circus owner, remains unchanged.


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