How a provincial merchant created drama theater in Russia

Russia Beyond (Photo: Anna_Pakutina/Getty Images; Tretyakov Gallery)
Fyodor Volkov was a wealthy trader and heir to lucrative industries. But, he gave up everything and went into the dramatic arts — and was very successful.

A provincial 18th century merchant named Fyodor Volkov once saw a performance at the imperial theater in St. Petersburg. And he was so ignited by this art that he abandoned all his profitable businesses to create his own theater. He was one of the first to stage premieres of the latest Russian plays.

After 10 years, Empress Elizabeth ordered to establish a ‘Russian theater of comedies and tragedies’ in St. Petersburg. Actually, this became the first permanent repertoire drama theater in Russia. And the former merchant became "the first Russian actor" and then the director of this theater.

First Russian theaters

Apollinary Vasnetsov. Medieval Moscow. Wandering minstrels (1904)

Passion for acting, dancing and singing traces its origins back to the Slavic pagans. Since the 11th century, traveling artists called 'skomorokhs' toured across Russia. They would perform in funny costumes, sing, dance, play musical instruments and stage small skits.

On holidays, temporary 'balagan' theaters would be set up in the squares of towns and cities. All these unpretentious and even sometimes rude performances were aimed at the most ordinary people, peasants, workers and craftsmen.

The first royal theater opened under Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich Romanov. A 10-hour performance of a play titled ‘Artaxerxes' Action’ was staged specially for him. But, it did not become a regular business.

In the 17th century, noblemen began to arrange their own theaters, in which their serf peasants would perform to entertain their hosts and their guests. One of the most famous was the house serf theater of Counts Sheremetev. It has its own star - serf actress Praskovya Zhemchugova. She sang songs and opera arias in different languages and played several instruments (and she was so good that Count Sheremetev even asked the tsar for permission to marry her - and he blessed the unequal marriage).

Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, patroness of the arts

Under Peter the Great, European art flooded Russia. The tsar opened a public theater for the first time and built a ‘Comedy Temple’ on the Red Square in Moscow, where foreign theater troupes played enterprises.

Peter had a lot of other concerns, but his daughter - Empress Elizabeth Petrovna - would pay special attention to the arts. It was under her that the Academy of Arts appeared, which trained professional painters, sculptors and architects. Under her, French choreographers actively developed ballet, which soon became the best in the world. 

Ivan Vishnyakov. Portrait of Elizabeth Petrovna (1743)

Elizabeth also initiated the creation of the first Russian dramatic theater. For the first time, professional actors entered the stage, who had undergone special training and were paid for performances. And, for the first time, this theater staged original Russian plays - the drama genre was only just emerging in Russian literature at that time, thanks to such names as Alexander Sumarokov, Vasily Trediakovsky and Denis Fonvizin.

But, the impetus for the development of dramatic theater was given, by chance, to a merchant from the provincial city of Yaroslavl!

Fyodor Volkov, an amateur theater enthusiast from Yaroslavl

Anton Lysenko. Portrait of Fyodor Volkov (1763)

In 1746, a young merchant Fyodor Volkov from the provincial city of Yaroslavl (250 km north east from Moscow) arrived in the capital city of St. Petersburg on business and attended a performance at the imperial court theater, which impressed him.

Despite the fact that Volkov had just inherited a huge fortune and multiple factories, he handed over the management of all affairs to his brother and immersed himself in the study of theater art and scene-making.

In Yaroslavl, Volkov gathered a company of itinerant artists, who were engaged in enterprise before. They put on performances in a stone barn and became a great success among the local public. Soon, Volkov built his own wooden theater, in fact, it was the first public repertory theater in Russia.

The Volkov Theater in Yaroslavl (the modern building was constructed in the 19th century)

Comedies were especially popular, but tragedies also found admirers. Volkov staged the first Russian tragedy titled ‘Khorev’ by Alexander Sumarokov in his theater.

A merchant who became the father founder of Russian theater

News of the productions reached the Empress Elizabeth herself and, in 1752, at her invitation, the Volkov troupe gave performances at her ‘Tsarskoe Selo’ country residence. Elizabeth Petrovna approved of the productions and ordered to send actors for professional training in dance, music, languages and other subtleties of acting.

On August 30, 1756, Empress Elizabeth signed a decree on the establishment of the "Russian theater for the presentation of tragedies and comedies". This date is considered the birthday of the Russian drama theater.

Portrait of playwright Alexander Sumarokov (workshop of Fyodor Rokotov, 1762)

Volkov headed the troupe and also became the leading actor. Playwright Sumarokov was appointed director, but he soon resigned and, in 1761, Volkov became head the theater.

The empress granted him a title of nobility and a salary. Fyodor Volkov also wrote his own plays and engaged in scenography. And the pinnacle of his career was a three-day masquerade titled ‘Triumphant Minerva’, which he directed on the occasion of Catherine the Great’s coronation. According to legend, during the masquerade, Volkov caught a cold and was on the verge of death, barely recovered and died of appendicitis.

Meanwhile, the Russia’s first public theater still exists in St. Petersburg - today, it is called the Alexandrinsky Theater. In Yaroslavl, a new stone building was constructed in the 19th century on the site of Volkov’s theater and, since 1911, it’s named after him - The Volkov Theater.

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