1917 Revolution. Chaliapin’s Memoirs

Portrait of Fyodor Chaliapin, 1911. Artist: Konstantin Alekseyevich Korovin (1861-1931).

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Fyodor Shaliapin’s memoirs have an introduction – after all, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was preceded by the February one. WWI continued to rage. Chaliapin recalled:

“It was becoming increasingly difficult to work at the theaters. Of course, this is understandable: there were other things uppermost in people’s minds at the time. The air was laden with a multitude of the most diverse rumors and gossip. The names that were most often mentioned were that of Rasputin and the Empress. People whisperingly passed on by word of mouth gossip about certain new mysterious rituals, and the court nobility, suspected of espionage.

Food was growing scarce, and there were long queues at stores. Soon public discontent reached such proportions, people refused to wait in lines, instead storming the grocery stores. In response to all attempts of the authorities to maintain law and order, people would overturn trams and put up barricades in the streets.

And finally, the “bomb exploded” so to say: it was announced that at the railway station Dno, the Czar had accepted the Duma’s declaration and signed his abdication from the throne.

The people rejoiced. It was announced that a bloodless revolution had taken place. I, too, rejoiced – that a genuine revolution had taken place, but there was not a single guillotine built in the city, the deputies were not driven around town in cages, and there was no blood being spilt in the streets – nothing the likes of what had rendered the French revolution at once picturesque and so despicable.

Soon, however, it all changed. There came a day when the crowd set fire to the Court, then came skirmished between the populace and the police. The soldiers refused to suppress the riots, and headed towards the Duma, to announce their support for the revolution.

Soon a group of people with a sense of authority about them arrived at my doorstep, and demanded I give up my automobile for the needs of the revolution. Such requisitioning was becoming a common occurrence.

October 1917… The revolutionary storm brewing in Petrograd [now St.Petersburg] reached the Gulf of Finland and the armored cruiser “Aurora” entered the Neva.

That evening I was singing at the Hall of the People – right opposite the Czar’s palace on the opposite bank of the Neva. They were giving a production of Verdi’s opera Don Carlos, with me singing the part of the Spanish King Philip II. At the very instant when the prisoners, sentenced by the inquisition, were filing past the King, the walls of the theatre, and my prop crown were shaken by the dull thud of a cannon shot. We realized something momentous had occurred, but we did not yet know that it was fired from the Aurora, and proclaimed the start of the Bolshevist revolt.

The first thought that occurred to my “subjects” – was to run in panic off the stage and out of the theatre. I was forced to resort to my supreme authority as “Czar”… “My esteemed subjects,” I addressed them in an undertone, in extreme agitation removing the crown from my head, “I hope you do not plan on abandoning your King? And besides, what is the point – running will hardly save you from the bullets.” And so, my “subjects” remained to the end of the production, despite the gunfire and overall panic…

With every passing day life grew more difficult. It was hard for me to support my family - providing them with the very basics – bread and milk – just like any common laborer. I rejoiced when for my singing I would be given a sack of flour, some ham, or a little bit of sugar.

There was not enough fuel to heat the theatres, musicians in the orchestra frequently had to play while wearing their overcoats, while we were shivering with cold up on stage. And still, the operas continued to run, although some, such as “A Life for the Czar”, for example, were taken off the repertoire.

When the Bolsheviks took Kronstadt a delegation of soldiers and sailors came to see me, requesting that I perform for them in concert. I agreed at once. Some of my friends tried to talk me out of it: you will be killed as a bourgeois, they insisted!

But I had no fear. Why would they kill me? I had done no one any harm. Maybe my singing might make someone kinder?

My concert took place in the huge Maritime Hall, packed to capacity with almost 15 thousand sailors, soldiers, stokers, and engine drivers. After the concert, a whole crowd followed me out, with people warmly thanking me for the performance. I was profoundly moved…

Throughout the seven terrifying years of the war and revolution the sound of music never ceased. I believe this is because Russians cannot live without music. Whether under Czarist rule or Soviets - art is always art. As for myself, I never dabbled in politics and devoted myself to the arts – and in Soviet Russia they looked upon me as a Boyan. This is an ancient Slav name referring to a bard. Throughout that entire period no one ever threatened me or my family.

May I criticize life as I observed it during the years of the revolution? Of course, no. It is not my place to judge who was in the right, and who – in the wrong. With every passing day the revolution acquired ever greater scope. A multitude of parties were formed. Soldiers, sailors, Bolsheviks all fought one another. It was a civil war of gigantic scope.

While I was beginning to realize with increasing clarity that I absolutely had to leave Russia. Did the world stage still remember me? There was no other way of finding this out. And they granted me permission to leave.

Chaliapin had no way of knowing at the time that this would be forever. He left Russia in 1921… And Russia lost him for good…

Source & Copyright: The Voice of Russia
27 February, 2013