HRONO Grodno series — history reads like a novel

Facts, impressions and recollections inspire new series of editions about ancient city on River Nieman

By Lidia Ponomareva

The doors of the ‘Electro-Biographer’ opened, the honourable audience that had gathered in the entrance took their seats, and, some minutes later, the lights dimmed. Music began to play and silent yet moving figures appeared on the screen, flashing in the darkness. The ladies and gentlemen caught their breath; it was their first film show experience in Grodno, in September 1908.

No record remains of the exact details of the film, but Yakov Krivopisk’s amusement was certainly a success. A petition to open another cinema (a temporary one) — inside the Odeon Circus — was handed to the Grodno Provincial Government a year later, in May 1909.

Three cinematographs were operational in the city by the spring of 1911. In August 1915, the first permanent cinema — Eden — was solemnly opened, built by retired captain Sergey Monastyrsky. It remains open today, known as Krasnaya Zvezda or, more familiarly, as Zvezdochka; it is the most comfortable cinema in the city, having undergone recent reconstruction.

Meanwhile, the first circus performance in Grodno featured the famous Italian Ferroni family, in 1904, in Aktsiznaya Square. The event gathered people from all walks of life — from the impressively attired bourgeois to ordinary townspeople in their Sunday best. Many held happy smiling children by the hand, entering a newly built circular wooden building to take their places in the stands. Lights flashed as gymnasts, comedians, acrobats and musicians in bright costumes entered the arena. The audience burst into applause.

The Sergey Obraztsov Puppet Theatre arrived from Moscow while touring the western cities of Belarus in the autumn of 1939, to huge crowds eager to be entertained. One man had seen every performance: actor Vladislav Yarema, who was born in Lvov, and had lived in Vilno, Warsaw and Krakow. Escaping the German invasion of Poland, he had moved to Grodno with his family.

Obraztsov’s performances impressed Yarema so much that he decided to create his own puppet theatre in Grodno; the Grodno Puppet Theatre appeared in February 1940, while the Moscow troupe continued to give performances in Grodno. Sergey Obraztsov supported his Belarusian colleague and, by his petition, the new theatre gained official status and financial support.

Grodno local historians Victor Sayapin and Tatiana Kasataya have published their three stories via the YurSaPrint Publishing House. It transports readers to the early days of the cinema, circus and puppet theatre in the city on the River Nieman. The HRONO Grodno series is a new project aiming to explore the life of the city and its residents through history, in the most captivating form. Rather than dry facts from the archives, each event is brought to life via interviews, newspaper extracts and the authors’ own comments.

Unfortunately, the first edition has only been published in small numbers and in a modest format, as dictated by finances. Immediately, the Grodno: Theatre, Cinema and Circus book has become a rarity.

“Over the last few years, I wrote a book about post-war Grodno, using official historical documents and interviews with townspeople, friends and relatives, in addition to my own recollections,” notes Mr. Sayapin. “I achieved a great deal but knew that it would be difficult to find a publisher. Together with YurSaPrint’s Director, Alexander Ryzhy, I decided to divide my material into sections, with topics divided into interesting chapters. These include the history of Grodno’s squares (fifteen collectors have given photos and postcards from their collections), the musical culture of the city, youth culture and subculture, the history of the city’s educational establishments, that of the central park and the zoo, sporting life, local place names, Grodno’s way of life and how residents spent their free time.”

The HRONO Grodno book should prove interesting not only to history buffs but to anyone keen to discover how Grodno residents once lived. “City topics are almost inexhaustible,” Mr. Sayapin emphasises. “Our city has such a rich history and we’ve plenty of local historians gathering interesting materials.”

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