Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cossack Braveheart

One of the most evocative folk melodies of all time has to be the Russian Stenka Razin. People in English-speaking countries may recognise it as The Carnival is Over popularised by The Seekers in the 1960s. But although that version has now acquired a nostalgia of its own, it can't compare to the spine-tingling effect of the original, particularly when sung by a great Russian bass or a choir with a balalaika accompaniment. When one knows the tragic lyrics of the song, it adds extra frisson.

Stenka (or Stepan) Razin was a real-life Robin Hood or Braveheart type figure who lived in 17th Century Russia: a Cossack brigand and pirate who fired up the peasant population and created havoc for the Tsar. The best summary of his life and activities can be read on the Russiapedia site.

According to the song, Razin fell in love with a princess he abducted from Persia. But as "happily ever after" does not exist in the lexicon of Russian drama or music, of course things ended badly. His men thought he had become soft with his head turned by romantic notions, as the accusing lyrics go:
He has left his sword to woo;
One short night and Stenka Razin
Has become a woman, too.

Razin was outraged and to prove that he was still a tough leader dedicated to his followers and his cause, he threw his beautiful princess over the side of his boat and sacrificed her to the mighty Volga. Other more pragmatic versions say he was prone to terrible mood swings and killed his mistress - no doubt exacerbated by a great deal of vodka or beer - simply because she wouldn't accompany him when he went to war.

Razin was eventually captured and publicly hung, drawn and quartered and bits of him fed to Moscow dogs and that was probably the only possible resolution given the age in which he lived but naturally his gruesome ending was a sure-fire route to immortality.

Whatever the facts, the story has all the elements that Russians adore and for centuries Razin has continued to fascinate artists, musicians and writers. As he was probably also a prodigious drinker, it seemed inevitable that a St Petersburg Brewery was named after him and his image still appears on a beer label today, now owned by Heineken.

I've been unable to find out whether there is any real historical basis to the love story, but Razin did raid into Persia (Iran) and he could have captured a woman there, but whether the romance was reciprocal is another matter. As with all legends, however, maybe there is a kernel of truth in it.
There are numerous interpretations of the song Stenka Razin to be found on Youtube, including a 1930s tango version, and where you can also see the 1908 Russian film (no soundtrack). Another film of the tragic love story was made in 1933.
This modern representation of Stenka Razin comes from George Stuart's gallery of historical figures. Whether Razin really looked like this or not - he was most likely even wilder and scruffier - it is still a great romanticised image to accompany the stirring song. Turn up your volume to get the full effect! 

I'm now off to browse more more of George Stuart's brilliant gallery. Click here.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Introduction to Digging the Dust

Augustine Birrell (1850-1933)
caricature by by Harry Furniss
pen and ink, 1880s-1900s
National Portrait Gallery
Welcome to Digging the Dust!

This is a companion blog to The History Bucket which deals primarily with women from history who have been marginalised or forgotten in some way.

Here, you will find more eclectic and random topics on events, people, places and things that are not as well-known as they might once have been and could be of interest to anyone who likes to dig or fossick * about in the historic dust-heap.

The phrase - "The great dust-heap of history" - was coined by Augustine Birrell, a British lawyer, essayist and politician blessed with a sense of humour and dislike of pomposity. His light and witty style of writing and speaking became known as "birrelling". See his entry in Wikipedia .

 * To "fossick" is an Australian term that originally meant to search for gold or precious stones in abandoned mind workings or rivers, etc., but now usually means to rummage about or search for (something). Most likely it comes from the English word "fussock" that means to bustle about or fuss.

The real "Great Heap of Dust"

This 1837 water colour of The Great Dust Heap at King's Cross forms part of an exhibition currently on at the Wellcome Collection in London.

A number of newspapers and other history bloggers have already reviewed and written about this exhibition on Victorian "dirt" at length and I will not repeat what they had to say here, except the story that the Great Heap was cleared to make way for the building of King's Cross Station in 1848 is at odds with an entry in British History Online which states that it was removed much earlier: "... in 1826 when the ground was sold to the Panharmonium Company". Apparently the Heap itself was exported to Moscow to make bricks for new streets.

The year 1826 sounds far more plausible as this would have been only 14 years after Moscow was burned by Napoleon and surely the worthy Muscovites wouldn't wait over 30 years for a pile of British dirt? And why would a country the size of Russia have to import cinders and dirt anyhow? Didn't they have enough of their own?

If anyone reading this knows more about the processes involved in shifting and exporting the Great Heap to Russia, I'd love to hear from them.

And who or what was the Panharmonium Company? Like so many speculative enterprises before or since, it collapsed and came to nothing. Here are the relevant extracts:

Some reference should be made to an ambitious scheme projected ... by Signor Gesualdo (Gemaldo) Lanza (1779–1859), an Italian teacher of music, to provide a centre for music and the drama on an island site facing Euston Road and contained within Birkenhead Street and Argyle Street. Lanza had a deserved reputation as a singing master, and with the help of the architect, Stephen Geary, a plan was produced, a copy of which is in the Crace Collection at the British Museum. In the centre of the site was a large building styled the Grand Panharmonium Theatre, facing north, with a refreshment room to the east and a ballroom to the west, stretching together across the whole site. The space south of the theatre was to be occupied by pleasure gardens, with a music gallery built against the theatre itself. In front of the theatre was a courtyard with two approaches from Euston Road on the site of the present Crestfield and Belgrove Streets. Residences were to be built on the Euston Road frontage and in other parts of the site. A dramatic school was also to be built facing Birkenhead Street. There were to be picture galleries, reading rooms and many other features as well.
As far as can be gathered the only building actually erected was the little theatre in Birkenhead Street  ... which may have been that first intended as a dramatic school. But there seems to have been some preparation of the grounds which were furnished with an overhead railway from which cars were suspended [The image can be seen here.]
The opening day was on Thursday, 4th March, 1830, but the project was short lived. On 28th February, 1832, particulars of sale were published concerning bricks, balustrades, gates, plaster figures and unfinished buildings, "late the Panarmonion Gardens." The ground was to be carved into plots and laid into "a new square called Argyle Square." Demolition must have followed immediately, for a newspaper cutting of 20th March, 1832, refers to an accident when an arch was being pulled down "at the Piano Gardens near Battle Bridge." A plan drawn by Ebenezer Perry in 1832 for a re-distribution of the property shows the lay-out of the streets that exist to-day.
From: 'Battle Bridge Estate', Survey of London: volume 24: The parish of St Pancras part 4: King’s Cross Neighbourhood (1952), pp. 102-113. URL: 

R.H. Horne's famous description of what could be recycled from Great Heaps also makes for fascinating reading, although I'm somewhat unnerved by the trade in dead cats. Presumably they were made into fur trims for muffs, hats, etc. for women who probably wouldn't be as fussy as modern fashionistas when it comes to the method of manufacture or the ethics or dangers to health involved.

The image below comes from a 1908 issue of the Illustrated London News and shows a stall selling items recycled from great heaps. Note the alligator!