«Balls, champagne wine, valets, cadets…» (the Russian Empire ball life)

Saint Petersburg was a capital of the Russian Empire. It was the place where all public life was concentrated – policy, culture, entertainments. In this vortex of high society conventionalities balls were their important part – from splendid balls at gorgeous palaces of emperors and nobles to cosy chamber balls at private commoner’s houses.

Actual route invites you to seat in a virtual carriage and visit the most exquisite balls which were saved by a historical memory of XVIII and XIX centuries.

Vintage child’s play asks the question: «Mistress sent a dressing-table. In a dressing-table there is 100 Rubles. Buy what you want, but don’t tell «no», don’t take black and white. In which dress will you go to a ball?» You can go on this child’s play: where could you go to a ball in Saint Petersburg?

In the time of a new capital foundation on the Neva river shore, dances were inherent part of European society life which was the ambition of Peter the Great. It was not only an entertainment and a kind of leisure activity. It was widely thought that dance helps to work out a deportment distinguishing a noble person from a bumpkin and it also helps to learn and hone manners. One could tell person could become a good courtier from the way person danced.

In the new capital first balls comes out quite early, in 1711. In 1718 after his return from Europe, Peter the Great issued his famous edict about Assemblies which became prototype of splendid Russian balls. Also he brought into vogue dancing skill – imperial couple loved to dance and knew a lot of dances.

In the days of Anna Ioanovna dances flourished. Namely this Empress opened Overland nobleman site where all Russian noble sons dreamed to learn and where dances was a compulsory subject; dancing school famous nowadays as the Russian Ballet Academy named after A.Ya. Vaganova. During the reign of Anna Ioanovna made appearance a tradition of a regular imperial balls – each year at the same feasts, for example at the patron saints Remembrance days of Russian orders St. Andrew the First Called and Alexander Nevsky, at the Christmastide, at the Empress Name day and at the day of her enthronement – at these days there were the balls at the Winter Palace or another imperial residence. As the years passed during the reign of other emperors some of the celebration days were changed, but tradition of annual imperial balls dedicated to important calendar milestones remained constant.

«Elizabeth was the joyful queen, she sing and joy…» – wrote Aleksei Tolstoy about the reign of Peter the Great’s daughter. For real, at the days of this Empress all Saint Petersburg danced, moreover at the books of that times was written that all novelties featured at the Versailles appeared in Petersburg within 4 weeks only. Foreigners admiringly imaged that 15 pairs were organically and contemporaneous stepping a Minuet ahead of the Empress. At the days of Elizabeth fancy-dress balls were remarkable popular. In fairness it must be said that usually all balls for which were prepared special dancing dresses was called “fancy-dress balls”. Faces were masked not in every instance.

Loving of fancy-dress balls also was inherited by Catherine the Great. At her reign public court balls and fancy-dress balls didn’t budge on the splendor of similar feasts in the days of Elizabeth. Aspiring for enlightenment Empress didn’t wasting the opportunity to use public feasts to liquidate a widespread society vices: for example, in December 1764 guests of the public fancy-dress ball had an opportunity to watch a few moral performances before it’s starting. Gained popularity in a high society fancy-dress balls however didn’t push out traditional balls. Ball was organizing at the court on each Sunday and it was starting with a Minuet: the Grand Prince with the Grand Princess, after them courtiers and guard officers holding the rank not lower than Colonel. After that were following contradances and «Polish» dances. Grandees organized private balls every day. According to the Komarovsky, on Wednesdays balls had princess Golitzina, on Sundays – countess Saltykova and so on. Merchants also organized balls and fancy-dress balls at their assemblies.

During the reign of Emperor Pavel situation changed. Balls and fancy-dress balls became disfavor, especially it concerned a new dance appeared at that period – waltz, which was temporary forbidden by the Emperor. There was issued a directive binding to turn off the light at 10 p.m. and therefore to finish all entertainment. According to the directive policemen watched at all fancy-dress balls which were marching on at private houses and theaters. For five years fancy-dress balls were liquidated substantially.

The beginning of Alexander’s reign was marked by splendid celebrations in both capitals – Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Fancy-dress balls became one of the most popular entertainment in XIX century by reason of their freedom and in-game origin. Public fancy-dress balls traditionally took place at the Winter Palace on the 1st of January. Delegates of different classes got together at the feast with more than 30000 guests. Feasts were stately, halls were decorated with great painters’ works which inspired societarian beauties to compose a life paintings. Balls were opening with the «Polish dance», after there were following anglaises, ecossaises and quadrille. Mazurka appeared in Saint Petersburg in 1810.

In the days of Nicholas I balls were given all year round except abstinence period. As before winter was a main ball time. Balls were held at the Bolshoi Theater and Nobility Assembly. They started at 9 or 10 p.m. to the strains of the polonaise from Rossini’s opera «Hermiona» and commonly continued till daybreak. Carousels – horse dances – come into vogue reflecting interest in past. «Ball with a servant» as a tribute to the times was held on the 1st of January 1828 at the Winter Palace. More than a half of the ball guests were St. Petersburg bourgeoisies. Also at those days dancing parties were very popular, not only balls. The difference between dancing party and ball lied in that dancing party didn’t claim a lot of guests. There was equal immodestly to put on street clothes or evening dress at a party – guests had to primp slightly. Party atmosphere was easy and joyful, evening program depended on host’s flair: it could be dances, dinners or card plays, discourses or argument conducts. Sometimes guests played skip rope and forfeits or danced waltzes.

In the days of Alexander II, in mid-to-late XIX century public balls in aid of a charity with entrance fee or special police permission became more popular. Public fancy-dress balls and concerts were organizing by the Imperial Theaters Directorate, about six fancy-dress balls were organizing by Petersburg Nobility Assemble and Moscow Honorable Assemble. Charities couldn’t organize fancy-dress balls. They was able to organize only public balls with lotteries, bazaars and auctions no more than once in a year at the days coordinated with the Imperial Theaters Directorate. At educational institutions and private clubs fancy-dress balls were organizing without entrance fee. Also there were children balls. In the halls of Nobility Assemble on 16th of February 1878 the charity ball was given by French colony to support of families of killed and wounded in the war. The ball ingathered about 5000 guests in spite of entrance tickets high price.

Court balls of the last quarter of XIX century in the reign of Alexander III were fundamentally symbolic and they had strongly pronounced political character. On 24th of January 1888 famous Green or also known as Emerald ball took place at the Winter Palace. At that ball most of women wore emerald jewelers had color of evergreen hope. Growing animosity between Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires reflected in so called Black ball which was given on 26th of January 1889 at the Anichkov Palace in Saint Petersburg. “Black dresses, black hand fans, black gloves and black shoes – all of dresses were delightful. White diamonds and pearls on black satin, silk, gauze and dark tulle shimmered bright. Music program consisted of Viennese music only.” Guests waltzed to the «Wiener Blut», had supper to the strains of the «Hungarian dance» analogous to czardas.

In the early XX century in the days of Russian last Emperor, capital ball life abated in steps. Dancers continued their «light» dances repertoire with mazurka and waltz only. Usually after waltz there was the Hungarian dance, cracovienne, pas de patineurs, pas d'Espagne and pas de quatre. Polka, mazurka and others were extruded step by step with more reposeful dances in which dancers could show their grace and exquisiteness. Pas de quatre and chaconne resembled the idea and tempo of «Fêtes galantes» old dances – the period of court culture flourishing.

In the end of the First World War cosy family parties became popular. Tango and fox-trot were novelty. However fox-trot wasn’t counted as a real dance, tango role wasn’t sizable and there were a lot of indelicate anecdotes about this dance.

  • points of interest 1 ,
  • squares 1 ,
  • theaters 2 ,
  • palaces 4
10 km, 188 m
Menshikov Palace

Menshikov Palace

Saint Petersburg, Universitetskaya naberezhnaya, 15

It was here, in the Menshikov Palace, that the assemblies and balls of Peter the Great were held, including his wedding ball. Later, the First Cadet Corps was located here, the first institution of higher education in the country, where was taught, including dancing, in order to shine at the balls.

The Menshikov Palace was built for the close of Emperor Peter I, the first governor of St. Petersburg, Alexander Danilovich Menshikov. The palace was built in the style of the Petrine Baroque, it is the first stone building of St. Petersburg. Authors of the project - are invited architects Giovanni Mario Fontana and Johann Gottfried Schädel. The construction of the palace began in May 1710, according to the design of Giovanni Mario Fontana and Johann Gottfried Schädel. By 1714, most of the construction works were completed, but the interior decoration was conducted to 1727. In 1731, the architect Domenico Trezzini  reconstructed the building for the First Cadet Corps. Already in 1731 the building and the entire vast plot of land were handed over to the Cadet Corps. Soon a complex of new buildings was built on the territory (1, 3 and 5 building on the Cadet line).

Children of noblemen entered to the First Cadet Corps, where they were given a very good education. One of the disciplines was dancing with the teacher Jean-Baptiste Landé. Under his leadership, the cadets staged ballet performances, performed by them in the Winter Palace before the Empress Anna Ioannovna. But since the cadets, leaving the corps, left the troupe, Anna Ivanovna granted Landé a petition for the creation of a special dancing school, whose students would have to learn how to dance as well as graduates of the First Cadet Corps.

Russian Academy of Arts

Russian Academy of Arts

St. Petersburg, Universitetskaya nab., 17

From the second half of the 19th century, professional societies began to emerge for social protection, assistance in finding employment and material support for its poor members. These societies often arranged their own charitable holidays. The costume balls of the architects were distinguished by their relaxed atmosphere and dance programs.

Most of all, traditional masquerades of artists, which appeared in the early 1860s and were originally held in the halls of the Academy of Arts, became famous. Here they raised funds to help «insufficient» students in institutions. These balls united students and teachers in leisure time. At the peak of their popularity, in the late 1880s - early 1900s, these costume balls began to be organized in the best halls of the capital: in the Noble Assembly building, in theaters and in the Tauride Palace.  All St. Petersburg came to the artists' balls: members of the royal family, writers, artists, art critics and St. Petersburg artists - from students of the Academy to famous artists.

Preparations for the masquerade ball went on for several months: the scenery, costumes, invitation cards, living pictures and art processions were created in accordance with the chosen theme of the ball. So, for example, in 1892, the ball was called «Kupala Eve», in 1900 – «The Triumph of Beauty, or Phryne at the Eleusinian Festival», in 1901 – «Ball-Fairy Tale», in 1906 «Ball-Spring» , in 1907, the ballrooms depicted the Athenian Acropolis and the Greek market. A ball in the style of Louis XV, held in 1908, in addition to decorations that imitated furniture and decorations of that time, corresponding to music and costumes, included the performance of dances from the 18th century. In the year of the century of Alexander Pushkin, on February 22, 1899, in the halls of the Noble Assembly, the Academy organized a ball in memory of the poet, decorated with illustrations to his writings. At the balls, artists often painted blitz portraits, participated in costume contests, with prizes to which were paintings by renowned masters - Ivan Aivazovsky and Ilya Repin. Students who did not wear tail-coats chose their costumes in the academic dressing room. The last such ball took place in 1917.

167 m
Yusupov palace

Yusupov palace

Saint-Petersburg, ul. Dekabristov, 21, lit. A

The Yusupov Palace is a unique architectural ensemble of the 18th-20th centuries and a cultural and historical heritage site of federal importance known as the «Encyclopedia» of St. Petersburg aristocratic interior.

The history of the palace and manor house traces its origin to Peter the Great's epoch, the time of foundation of the «Northern capital». The complex was built almost two centuries. The prominent Russian and foreign architects such as Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe, Andrey Mikhailov II, Bernard de Simon, Ippolit Monighetti, Vasily Kenel, Aleksandr Stepanov, Andrey Vajtens, Andrey Beloborodov were working on the palace.

The palace belonged to five generations of the Yusupov noble dynasty from 1830 to 1919. Many important events of Russian and St. Petersburg history are associated with the family residence on the Moika embankment.

The Palace went down in Russian history as the place of the assassination of Grigory Rasputin, a Siberian peasant who became the spiritual mentor and friend of the family of Emperor Nicholas II. The tragedy took place on the night of 17 December 1916 in the living quarters of the young Prince Felix Yusupov.

Throughout its history, numerous luxurious balls were held in the palace. The ballroom of the palace is used even now.

966 m
Teatralnaya square

Teatralnaya square

St. Petersburg, Admiralteysky district, Teatral'naya ploschad'

Theater Square appeared three decades after the foundation of the city in the 1730s. At the beginning of the XVIII century it was called Brumbergskaya or Brumbergova square, by the name of the owner of the nearby Brumberg saw mills.

This square was formed during the reign of Catherine the Great because of the construction of the Big (or Stone) Theatre. The theatre, which could hold up to 3,000 spectators, was the most significant theatrical construction in Saint Petersburg at the time. In the evenings the Kolomna district attracted St. Petersburg elite.

A new building of the Mariinsky theater of Opera and Ballet was built in the 1860s. The stars of St. Petersburg ballet still shine on the stage of this theater. In the place of the Big Theater, the Conservatory was erected. It had its own opera and ballet theater.

In Russia ballroom dance teachers were mostly dancers and dance masters of the Bolshoi Theater, later - the Mariinsky Theater. Dance trainings began at the age of 5-6, and by the age of 8 children were already familiar with the most popular dances. Dance classes were held either individually or in groups with children from several families at once. It was believed that «straightening of the body straightens the soul».

At the beginning of the 19th century, the method of teaching ballroom dancing was characterized by severity and consistency: children were forced to repeat various dance movements. The old school teachers taught with them the minuet a la reine and were not in a hurry to move on to the development of new dances until the minuet was not performed perfectly. Dancing allowed young people to gain grace and «regal posture». The famous dance masters and dancers such as Le Picq, Yuar, Auguste, Didelot, Kolosova, Novitskaya, Dyutak, Ebergard taught in St. Petersburg. By the end of the century many ballet dancers were engaged in teaching dance. It is necessary to mention Leonid Stukolkin and Nikolay Gavlikovsky, who danced in the corps-de-ballet and issued special reference books on dances «for all interested people».

432 m
The St. Petersburg Philharmonia (Small Hall)

The St. Petersburg Philharmonia (Small Hall)

St. Petersburg, Nevskiy prospect, 30

At this address in the years 1759-1761 a three-storey mansion was built for General A.N. Vilboa. The building became the property of Prince A. M. Golitsyn in 1766. At the end of the 18th century, his widow rented a house to French emigrant Lyon; he arranged masquerades and concerts here. In 1799 the building passed to the millionaire merchant M.S. Kusovnikov.

Since the beginning of the 19th century, concerts of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Society were held here. From 1823 to 1828, the bookshop of I. V. Slyonin was located on the ground floor, where Pushkin, Zhukovsky, Krylov, Delvig, Vyazemsky, Gnedich, and Ryleev were.

The house belonged to O. M. Engelhardt, daughter of the merchant Kusovnikov, when from 1829 to 1832 it was rebuilt by the architect P. P. Jaco in the forms of late classicism. The building became four-storied, at the level of the third and fourth floors the central part of the facade is marked by a portico. Among the new premises, the concert hall with excellent acoustics stood out. Colonel V. V. Engelhardt, the husband of the hostess, continued by tradition to arrange musical evenings. In the 19th century, commercial balls spread in Russia. Masquerades were often held in this house in the 1830s (before banning private balls). It is on such a ball that the action of Lermontov’s ‘Masquerade’ takes place.

Engelhardt held the evening of the Noble and Small Burgher meetings. In the Philharmonic Hall were Berlioz, Wagner, Strauss, Liszt, Schumann, Glinka, Rubinshtein and Polina Viardo.

In the 1845-1850s, the bookstore of A.F. Smirdin was located on the first floor.

In 1859, the building housed the Merchant Club; then - Accounting and loan bank.

In the early 1880s after the restructuring of the building a bank vault was built in the courtyard (architects Berngard and Alish). In 1895-1896, the bank premises were reconstructed (architect Benois).

1 km, 992 m
The St.Petersburg State Academic Philharmonia (Grand Hall)

The St.Petersburg State Academic Philharmonia (Grand Hall)

Saint Petersurg, Mikhailovskaya ulitsa, 2

Assembly of the Nobility was the center of ball life in the nineteenth century. The halls were not only used by the Assembly itself, but were also leased to other societies (for example, the society of artists). In this building in St. Petersburg, a Christmas ball was traditionally held for children.

Balls were a place where young people were introduced to society; it was here that their adult life began in the elite. The girl began attend balls at the age of 16‒18, when she was considered like a bride. A young man of the same age went only to private balls. The first appearance of a young nobleman at big balls was already connected with his obtaining an officer’s rank or state position. The first ball was an examination for the confirmation of maturity, luck on it ensured further success in the world.

190 m
 Winter Palace

Winter Palace

St. Petersburg, Dvortsovaya pl., 2

 It is certain, the imperial balls were the most luxurious in the city. Since the time of Anna Ioannovna, whose palace situated here, they were subject to strict regulations and on the same dates every year. The high society was invited to the imperial balls on special lists, where everyone strove to go.

During the last reign, the court ball in the Nikolaevsky Hall was given once a year. Foreign diplomats with their families in one of the four classes, the oldest officers of the guard regiments with their wives and daughters, young officers - "dancers", and some persons under the special instructions of their majesties were invited to attend. The tsar went out of a polonaise, a waltz was followed by a polonaise, and a dinner began after a mazurka.

The last costume ball in the Winter Palace was held in 1903, it was stylized as Russia of the XVII century. On the eve of the Russо-Japanese War, the appeal to the Russian theme was particularly relevant. They prepared  for these balls with particular  diligence and even held a kind of  temporal rehearsal in the Hermitage Theater.

The last ball was given in the Winter Palace  in January 1904.

1 km, 205 m
Tavrichesky Palace

Tavrichesky Palace

St. Petersburg, Shpalernaya ul., 47

The Taurida Palace was built on the orders of Catherine II for her favorite, the His Serene Highness, G. A. Potemkin. About 400,000 rubles in gold was spent on the construction and decoration of the palace. The palace was named after the title of Prince of Tauride, which was granted to the temporary worker in 1787, after the annexation of the Crimea (Tavrida) to the Russian Empire.  One of its decorations was the antique  statue of Venus  of Tauride, brought  to Russia in the time of Peter I.

In this palace in 1791, the most famous ball of the XVIII century was given in honor of the capture of Ismail (and in fact - a gift from Potemkin to Catherine II in the hope of returning her favor). In addition to incredible expenses, the ball was known for preparing the whole high society for it: the most eminent aristocrats performed a quadrille dance, for which the wonderful choreographer Charles Le Picq composed dances, the music of   Osip Kozlovsky, and the poetic accompaniment- Gavriil Derzhavin.

3 km, 624 m