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

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.

By 1915, the Russian army was fighting both German and Austrian armies along the 500-mile Eastern Front. More than a million peasants had been deported from the war zone into Russia. Russia desperately needed the support of her allies, the British and the French.

As I turn the pages of contemporary issues of the Theatre Review, I begin to understand why Crawford was celebrated by Russian theatre-goers for more than just her coloratura opera singing. It is clear that as she stood on stage, Crawford came to personify the British and Canadian allies whose support inspired hope in the beleaguered Russian people.
... there came flying onto the stage a slim and sweet half-girl,
    half-child (at least in appearance) with that sharply-expressed
   typical Anglo-Saxon face--the prominent narrow chin, ... and clear
   'sky blue' eyes ... 

In early 1915, Crawford contracted for eleven guest appearances with the opera company of the municipal Emperor Nicholas II People's House Theatre. Reviews of her debut in Rigoletto suggest that Russian audiences immediately read political significance into the appearance of a Canadian on their stages. A critic from the Theatre Review commented:
Those who are keen on political speculation could see a kind of
    a symbol in this performance: indeed, [a North] American (or, in
   another version, English) singer performed in the Russian opera
   theater, and she sang in Italian and in Italian opera.... Isn't
   there some kind of prophecy hidden here?

At her next appearance in The Barber of Seville, the Theatre Review picked up on the contrast between her attractive innocence and the sophisticated political overtones of her performance:
The more you listen to the Canadian singer, the more you feel
    delight towards her. What a soft, tender and clear voice, what a
   striking skill of mastering it, what a subtle creative
   performance.... Miss Crawford sang a Russian lullaby during the
   singing lesson [scene]. It was quite touching; the Russian words
   sounded like a symbol of our union with English people ... 

THE next stage of our research takes Elena and me to the National Library of Russia. We sit at the computer catalogue with few ideas of where to begin. But on the first screen, under A for afisha, we see a reference to the poster collection from the printing press of the Imperial Theatres, and this seems like a good enough place to start.

After passing the gauntlet of security, we hand our chit of paper with the catalogue number to a young library page in a blue lab coat. In less than twenty minutes, she brings us a trolley holding four large folios, one for each quarter of 1915. Bound inside are copies of every poster printed that year. The paper is thin, the ink sometimes blurred, but the posters look like they did the day they came off the press.

We flip through the fragile pages until, amid the Russian names, an English name stands out: Crawford. By the time we make our way home on the St Petersburg metro, we have discovered that Crawford was particularly sought after to sing in charity concerts. Our evidence: eleven posters from nine charity concerts in which Crawford performed.

These posters illustrate lost moments of shared Canadian-Russian history. In 1915 many Russians were enthusiastically fundraising to support their war effort, raising money to fill vital gaps in refugee support and hospitals for wounded soldiers. The scale of the music community's charitable activity was unprecedented, as it repeatedly sponsored patriotic concerts.

In these charity concerts, Crawford built on her opera success, while expressing her genuine sympathies for Canada's Russian allies. Inevitably, a common theme of these concerts was the celebration of Russia's place in the Triple Entente alliance, and so it was useful when the music and the performers could personify particular allies. Crawford was popular because she could embody several allies at once. Indeed, after a charity event in April 1915, the Theatre Review noted, "The biggest success of the concert was Bertha Crawford, captivating the audience with her charming coloratura... in Italian, in English and in Russian." (5)

Naturally, I want to see the theatres where Crawford sang in these charity concerts. Elena suggests I buy tickets online. Tired from a long day in the library reading Russian newspapers, I open my laptop and decide to book tickets for La Traviata at the storied i860 Mariinsky Theatre. When I show them to Elena, she points out that my tickets are for La Traviata at the 1833 Mikhailovsky Theatre. In what other city in the world would you find two first-class opera companies putting on productions of La Traviata in the same month, both in imperial theatres more than 150 years old? Fortunately, Crawford sang in charity concerts in both theatres, so nothing is lost as we get tickets to the ballet at the Mariinsky later.

It is snowing the day we visit the St Petersburg State Archive of Literature and the Arts, and a bitter wind whips off the nearby Neva River. The reception inside starts out chilly, too. The security guard wants us to go away until her director returns to approve our visit. I politely suggest that perhaps we could just look at the catalogue, and charm pays off. We order the files for A. V. Taskin, an accompanist named on several of the 1915 posters from the National Library. When we receive the files a few days later, we find a program for the final recital Crawford gave that spring in Petrograd, including a rare photo of Crawford at the height of her celebrity in the city.

By May 1915, Crawford had appeared in eleven opera performances and seven charity concerts in Petrograd, and had earned the sobriquet "the Canadian Nightingale" from Petrograd critics for her bird-like coloratura vocals. (6) Her fame had reached such a level that she could headline her own charity performances. On May 8, she performed in the Small Hall of the Petrograd Conservatory, singing a full program of opera arias and topping it off with a fitting Russian showpiece: Alyabyev's "The Nightingale."

By this time, news of Crawford's success in Russia was being shared in Canada. A July 1915 report in Toronto's Saturday Night magazine suggests that Canadians understood the value of their compatriot helping Russians keep up their spirits behind the Eastern Front. After all, this was something that Canadians were also struggling with as our casualty figures mounted on the Western Front.

Word has been received from Petrograd, Russia, of the great success in opera of a young Canadian soprano, Miss Bertha Crawford, of Toronto. Miss Crawford has been singing in "Barbiere," "Rigoletto," and "Traviata," besides appearing at concerts and musicales. When the latter have been in aid of victims of the war, she has given her services free... Russians are a very musical people, and try to keep up the spirits of the people in war time. Naturally, Miss Crawford, being a Canadian, is much sought after in Petrograd." (7)

Meanwhile, over the summer of 1915, the Russian war effort suffered major setbacks. The Germans pushed the front 200 miles closer to Petrograd and Moscow, at the cost of some two million Russian casualties.

As I continue the hunt for traces of Crawford, the Russian librarians and archivists I meet become equally engaged with this unknown tale. Many go out of their way to help unravel the shroud surrounding this buried historical moment that our nations share. In the manuscripts section of the National Library, a librarian allows me special access to a rare diary where we find a first-hand account of one of Crawford's first opera performances, which "turned out to be surprising ... delightfully good." (8) Back in the periodicals section, another librarian brings me a period map of the Vladikavkaz Railway, unasked, so I can trace the route of Crawford's 1916 travels in the Caucasus in southern Russia.

Ultimately, Crawford's success in the capital--underwritten by her unique ability to represent Russia's allies on stage at a time when Russians desperately needed the support of international friends--opened the door for her to sing before audiences in far-flung corners of the Russian Empire. In 1916, she toured more than 7,000 kilometres--from the north of Finland, south through the Caucasus, across the Black Sea to Odessa, and back north through Kiev. In August 1916, Musical Canada proudly reported:

The Petrograd Birzovia Vedomosti says: '... It is only a short while ago that the name of Miss Crawford had no meaning for our hearts, but after a number of operas and charitable concerts the name of the Canadian nightingale who has so suddenly blown upon the banks of the Neva has become very popular, and at the present moment Miss Crawford may be reckoned as one of the public's beloved.' (9)

But by this time the Russian war effort was falling apart, and in early 1917 the government succumbed to revolution with the abdication of the czar. Steering clear of unrest in the big eastern cities, Crawford in mid-1917 ventured on a 10,000-kilometre tour along the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean, returning to Finland in the fall.

A second wave of revolution broke out in October 1917, bringing the Bolsheviks to power, determined to rewrite Russia's history. As the country descended into civil war, the Petrograd Theatre Review noted in June 1918: "The famous ... Bertha Crawford is leaving Petrograd after a four-year stay here. The talented artist has received an invitation from Warsaw ..." She would never return to Russia.

Crawford featured her Russian experience in her publicity materials when she toured in Canada in 1921. However, only faint echoes of this shared historical moment resurfaced in the obituaries that ran in the Canadian press when she died in Toronto in 1937. And after that, the whole story of a Canadian singer who made a mark in war-torn Russia rapidly faded from the public consciousness.

I have seen no memorials for the nearly two million Russian soldiers who died in the First World War anywhere I travelled in the former Soviet Union. How much less likely then, that the short-lived exchange of musical solidarity with capitalist allies like Britain and Canada that Crawford embodied would be remembered in Russia, much less in Canada?

And yet, as faded Russian journals still attest, there was a real moment when Canadians and Russians glimpsed a common humanity through the uplifting innocence of a young Canadian musician singing on Russian soil during that most inhuman of wars.

I come home from Russia convinced that if Crawford's story shows us anything it is that the historian has a role to play in uncovering forgotten moments. As tensions rise and fall around the globe, it should be instructive to remember how often bridges have been built between ordinary people--be it through music, or sports, or other means--that belie the destructive narratives of difference and conflict.


(1) Dennis Robinson, "Hockey Put Canada's Cold War Perceptions on Ice," Globe and Mail, August 31, 2012 (updated November 28, 2017):

(2) "An Anglo-American-Italian-Russian Understanding," Theatre Review--Daily Journal of Programs and Libretto in the Petrograd Theatres, February 12,1915, No. 2672, p. 6.

(3) "An Anglo-American-Italian-Russian Understanding," Theatre Review, February 12, 1915, No. 2672, p. 6.

(4) Nikonov, "People's House--'The Barber of Seville,'" Theatre Review--Daily Journal of Programs and Libretto in the Petrograd Theatres, March 1,1915, No. 2694, pp. 8-9.

(5) "An Evening with E.V. Lopukova," Theatre Review--Daily Journal of Programs and Libretto in the Petrograd Theatres, April 30,1915, No. 2740, p. 8.

(6) "Music," Saturday Night, June 6,1915.

(7) "Music," Saturday Night, June 6,1915.

(8) National Library of Russia, f. 1534 N.N. Figner, n. 98-IV+ 80 Diary of Olga Mikhailovna Gardner, 11. pp. 124-125.

(9) E.R. Parkhurst, "Toronto Singer in Russia," Musical Canada, August 4,1916, p. 59

JANE COOPER has spent six years reassembling evidence of the life and times of Bertha Crawford. The Canadian Nightingale: Bertha Crawford and the Dream of the Prima Donna, the author's first full-length biography, is available from FriesenPress.

Caption: Bertha Crawford in Russia, 1915.

Caption: The St Petersburg State Theatre Library (image by the author).

Caption: Russian troops on the move during the Great War. Russian military personnel and civilians suffered terribly during the long conflict.

Caption: Soldiers demonstrate in Petrograd, March 1917. Before the year was out a second revolution would bring the Bolsheviks to power.

Caption: The author at the site of the Pavloski Vauxhall in St Petersburg. Bertha Crawford performed here in 1915.
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Title Annotation:Bertha Crawford in Russia
Author:Cooper, Jane
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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