Magazine article Queen's Quarterly

A Historian's Quest to Recover a Shared Moment in History

Magazine article Queen's Quarterly

A Historian's Quest to Recover a Shared Moment in History

Article excerpt

During the traumatic years of the Great War, a young Canadian singer became a sensation within the Russian Empire, performing at charity events and pledging support to an allied nation. A century later, Bertha Crawford's extraordinary journey had been largely forgotten, but a researcher's recent visit to Russia has revealed much about this remarkable figure, and the bond she forged with the Russian people.

IN an increasingly polarized world, it is worth remembering that popular events may build more lasting bridges than diplomacy or trade ever could. For example, September 28, 1972, is a day I remember well. You may too if, like me, you are of a certain age. I was twelve and in grade five. That afternoon, the school board cancelled classes so we could watch the final game of the Canada-USSR hockey series. It was a big moment in Canadian cultural history, and one we have not forgotten.

Mind you, the Russians have not forgotten either. Over the past eighteen years, as I travelled in many parts of the former Soviet Union, I have found one constant. When someone around my age--a taxi driver, a bazaar vendor, or an office colleague--learns that I am from Canada, the first thing they say is, "Ah, Canada. Hockey!"

Because they remember, too. We Canadians and Russians have this "shared moment in history"--a brief, intense period when we all came together in front of our televisions, thousands of frozen miles apart, and began to thaw the Cold War divide by watching the same men on the same ice, playing a sport we all thought of as "our" national game.

It was almost twenty years later when the wall finally melted away. But after that series, I think it was increasingly difficult to maintain the pretense that we were irreconcilably different people. As Dennis Robinson put it recently, "We beheld the enemy face to face, and what we saw weren't nuclear missiles but other human beings devoted to hockey." (1)

And so, as we drift apart from the Russians again, I believe the historian's search to uncover these shared moments in history has renewed currency. Fifty years before Henderson scored that winning goal, there was another time when Canadians and Russians shared a moment in history, but that earlier moment has been long forgotten. It was a moment when an unknown Canadian opera singer stole the hearts of Russian audiences in the early months of the First World War.

I fly into in St Petersburg on a frosty November evening on a journey to understand more about this little known moment in Canadian-Russian history. I have come to look for traces of a remarkable singer Bertha Crawford, a young woman from small-town Ontario who briefly became the toast of the town in the Russian imperial capital in the early months of 1915.

I land at Pulkovo Airport to a warm welcome from my old friend Elena, who will be my research assistant and interpreter, and move into an apartment where my hostess, Lena, will make me feel at home for the next month.

Crawford's route to Russia was more circuitous. She arrived in England from Toronto in 1911, a talented 24-year-old soprano with an ambition to sing Italian opera. By 1913, she had reached Warsaw via Italy, in the company of a Polish baroness who was both a patron and chaperone. Having enjoyed success with the Warsaw Opera, Crawford was still in the city in August 1914 when the First World War broke out. When the Germans encroached on Warsaw that fall, Crawford and her chaperone escaped by train to the Russian capital, Petrograd (as St Petersburg was renamed during the war).

I find my first descriptions of the impression Crawford made on Russian audiences in the St Petersburg State Theatre Library. Waiting in the cozy reading room, surrounded by shelves of rare books, I am impressed by the depth of history in Russian archives. This library was founded in 1756, and the volumes I request are a relatively recent part of their collection. The librarian brings me fat bound copies of the 1915 Petrograd Theatre Review, wrapped in protective tissue inside custom archival boxes. …

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