Images: Context For the Social and Political Climate

Here are a few images intended to contextualize the words explaining what was going on in Andreyev’s world as he wrote.


Bolsheviks storming the Winter Palace to oust tsar Nicholas II, October 1917.

Storming the Winter Palace, 1917










Newspaper announcements in Russian and English of the Bolshevik proclamation issued after the successful coup, October 1917.

Russian Bolshevik Proclamation, 1917











English Bolshevik Proclamation, 1917








1919 propaganda poster, “Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge”, by El Lissitzky: a well-known example of revolutionary Constructivist art being produced in the wake of the October Revolution.

El Lissitzky, Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge, 1919


Images: Russian Circuses, Late 1800s and Early 1900s

Here is a collection of images from Russian circuses in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Female stunt-rider Olga Sur, late 1800s.

Olga Sur, Late 1800s












Male stunt-riders, late 1800s.

Male stunt-riders, Late 1800s









Female stunt-rider V.S. Bondarenko, early 1900s.

V.S. Bondarenko, Early 1900s












Male stunt-rider N. Ferroni, early 1900s.

N. Ferroni, Early 1900s












Traditional musical clowns, late 1800s.

Traditional Musical Clowns, Late 1800s












Traditional clowns (not marked in the captionas “musical” despite the presence and playing of musical instruments), early 1900s.

Traditional Clowns, 1900s












Two clowns evocative of Tilly and Polly, year unknown. The caption reads: “This was the only case in which a red-haired young man chose the clowning profession. Savelii Krein was the name of this pupil of the technical college of circus art. While he worked, he changed partners several times, also changing his costumes, props, and comic method. But his passion for classic clown buffoonery remained immutable. In this picture, Krein is on the right with his partner Gorin, who was also a pupil of the technical college of circus art.”

Two Russian Clowns, Year Unknown










Pavel Brykin, clown, early 1900s.

Pavel Brykin, Early 1900s











Lavrenty Lavrov, clown, early 1900s.

Lavrenty Lavrov, Early 1900s












Testing new clowning waters, year unknown. The caption reads: “Both new and experienced clowns turned to such classic pantomimes as “Boxing”, discovering every time new possibilities for the exposure of peculiarities of the artistic gift. As performed by Konstantin Musin, this little scene became one of the best in the gifted artist’s repertoire. In the photo is Musin (right) and his partner, Baidin.”

He Who Gets Boxed?, Year Unknown







A brief tutorial in the art of Russian clowning, year unknown. The caption reads: “Social themes were not the only themes subject to the clown’s denunciatory laughter. Following the tradition of the great folk jester Vitalii Lazarenko, the clown-satirist Andrei Ivanov continually included in his clowning repertoire the denunciation of our political adversaries.”

Clown Face Tutorial, Year Unknown












No Russian circus would be complete without an act on ice; year unknown. The caption reads: “A new thing. Of course, shows on ice couldn’t have worked out without bright actors. In order to create the appearance of unlucky hunters in the program ‘Winter Fantasy’, the artists had to master the profession of figure skating.”

Russian Circus on Ice, Year Unknown

The Circus in Russia and France

Y. Dmitriev in The Circus in Russia notes that like the theater, the circus began in public squares for the enjoyment of the common folk. This dates back to the early 11th century, when Russia was a newly-christened country, so the art form has a long and storied history there indeed. An attempt to adequately address the entire millennium of Russian circus history is beyond the scope of this particular project, so this post will concentrate on the circus contemporary to Andreyev.

Clowns at the end of the 19th century tended to be joke-tellers more than anything else, since they possessed little to no proclivity (or capability) for physical feats. (Sample joke: Clown cries. “Why are you crying?” ask his fellow circus-folk. “How can I not cry, when after a long and difficult illness my aunt…” he pauses. “Died?” “No, got better.” This dark humor isn’t exclusive to clowns, though.)

Eventually they evolved to be more musical, and more physical, especially during Andreyev’s time when artists began to be censored. Censorship did not exclude circus performers and clowns, an as their jokes fell by the wayside, they concentrated on the more ‘traditional’ aspects of clowning that are familiar to modern audiences. Yet there was still an edge of the forbidden in their work; clowns in Moscow continued to tell political jokes knowing full well the punishment for offending a government official who might have happened to be in attendance.

In 1905, circuses started kowtowing to Tsar Nicholas II, and soon became known as vehicles of bourgeois art; the very word ‘bourgeois’ was scorned, so anything bearing that label was shunned. The circuses became watered-down, in a sense, and pursued “clean entertainment”. By 1913, the journal Organ was asking in editorials why audience interest in the circus was falling.

While audience interest in the circus was falling, the intelligentsia’s interest in the circus had just been piqued. In 1909, Filippo Marinetti published some contentious articles in the Italian newspaper “Figaro”; he was a key figure of Italian futurism, and he got quite a bit of attention in Russia in 1914 when his “Manifests of Futurism” were translated into Russian. In the manifests, he agitated against war as “the only hygiene of the world”, expressing a desire to raise “love for danger”. Music halls – especially those connected with circuses – were the first to heed Marinetti’s call; they were seen as “schools of heroism”, especially circuses, because they put forth a “strong and healthy atmosphere of danger”. Critics said that the circus stunts showed the greatest character of circus art because of their daring and nerve. The intelligentsia saw this and immediately paid attention; here, perhaps, was something new and exciting to breathe fresh air into stale art. Pantomime and clowning – two things essential to the circus – interested the intelligentsia the most, since they offered the greatest opportunity to mock the regime and agitate ‘safely’. Art had to progress as part of the sweeping changes occurring across the country, and the circus was no exception.

This might explain why Andreyev chose the backdrop of a circus as the vehicle for telling HE’s story; in exploring a world of myth and fantasy, misery and beauty, pain and pleasure, he could use the circus as a setting for these risky exercises in liminality. (“Liminal” refers to a person or thing that is caught between two worlds; that space is magical in Russian culture, and imbued with all sorts of meaning and superstition. The circus might have been such a space for Andreyev, given that it is neither of the outside world nor completely apart from it.)

Wikipedia – ever that fount of well-sourced knowledge – notes: “In 1919, Lenin, head of the USSR, expressed a wish for the circus to become ‘the people’s art-form’, given facilities and status on a par with theatre, opera and ballet. The USSR nationalized the Soviet circuses. In 1927 the State University of Circus and Variety Arts, better known as the Moscow Circus School, was established where performers were trained using methods developed from the Soviet gymnastics program. When the Moscow State Circus company began international tours in the 1950s, its levels of originality and artistic skill were widely applauded, and the high standard of the Russian State circus continues to this day.


My history of the French circus is brief, especially as it pertains to early 2oth-century circuses beyond the posters and programs seen elsewhere on this site. The first ‘closed’ circus (i.e. in a tent or other enclosed space, as opposed to outdoors) was started by an Italian in Paris in 1782. Following that, French circus artists generally followed the trends of the circus in the rest of Europe, which meant that by the early 1900s their main attraction was equestrian artists. Exotic animals had been introduced to French circuses in the early to mid-1800s, but were overtaken in popularity by the equestrian acrobats in leaps and bounds. But, as the automobile began to replace the horse, the equestrian artists started losing ground to the exotic animals and their trainers, as well as acrobats, aerialists, and clowns, who had re-gained the upper hand in popularity by World War I.