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Uncovering St. Petersburg’s Scarlet Sails

Memory is very short, thought Genrietta Orleanskaya, as she watched a television spot about one of Europe’s grandest events – a graduation celebration in St. Petersburg, Russia, where she was born.

Millions of spectators will gather at the edge of the Neva River on Saturday for Scarlet Sails, the culmination of St. Petersburg’s White Night Festival, an all-night celebration that marks the arrival of summer under a continuously lit sky. The event’s most impressive feature will be an enormous ship under flaming red sails.

“Scarlet Sails matches the spirit of St. Petersburg. There’s a mystic romanticism here. A feeling of air and beauty. I feel it anew every year,” said Vasiliy Sazonov, the current artistic director of the event, which was revived in 2005.

Ms. Orleanskaya, who is 87 and now lives in the U.S., says it was her own experience seven decades ago during the German siege of what was then called Leningrad that inspired her late husband to create and direct the first Scarlet Sails in 1969.

Her husband, Aleksandr V. Kleinman-Orleansky, was a high ranking member in the Soviet Union of Cinematographers, where part of his job involved organizing film festivals. In the late 1960s, he wanted to create an official holiday to honor the city’s graduates – and time it with the graduation of his own son. The idea was to expand on the age-old tradition in which graduating students gathered under the northern lights on the banks of the Neva River.

Ms. Orleanskaya says she shared with her husband a story from the year she graduated from high school. On the night of June 21, 1941, under the summer light, she criss-crossed the city with her first love and classmate. The next day, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Within weeks the enemy was approaching Leningrad and soon the Germans had the city in a tight noose. A million people would lose their lives during Germany’s 900-day siege.

While Ms. Orleanskaya’s first love was sent to the front lines, she began studying philosophy at Leningrad State University. There she was part of a group of students tasked with snuffing out fire-bombs before they ignited near their dormitory. “We were in a horrible situation, dumped there onto the attic, left there to die,” she recalled.

One of the students, a young man named Yuriy Dashkevich lifted their spirits by reciting the popular novels of Russian author Aleksandr Grin, including the well-known book “Scarlet Sails.” The story was set in a mythical land and had characters with Western names and themes of love and adventure. “When Yura read to us, we forgot about the war. He read until the siren went off,” Ms. Orleanskaya said.

When she shared the story with her husband, it resonated with his idea for the graduation holiday, she says. “Scarlet Sails” was in sync with the mood of graduation – a feeling of hope and belief in the future, of first love and magic. And, of course, it would be a perfect image – the gorgeous crimson sails gliding on the city’s grand river.

Recently artistic director Mr. Sazonov watched footage from the first Scarlet Sails production and came away awestruck: “The very existence of this holiday in Soviet times is remarkable,” he said. Soviet events were heavily ideological, but Scarlet Sails, in which the city’s best actors, dancers and musicians performed, was free and romantic, he said.

The first show was also technically impressive for the time – the ship’s sails illuminated with projectors, the music of Leningrad composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Reingold Moritsevich Glier boomed across the wide waters and the rostral columns lit in pyrotechnic flames.

Behind it all were millions of cigarettes and long nights, said Alexander Kleinman-Orleansky, who recalled how his father and colleagues had created the script for the first holiday, and worked out the kinks of organizing a mass event where a million people were expected and many new technical feats would be attempted for the first time.

“This kind of stress is impossible for a non-Soviet person to understand,” said Mr. Kleinman-Orleansky, who lives in Israel and works as a preservationist at the Israel Film Archive. If anything went wrong, punishment to the organizer could be swift. At one point, Mr. Kleinman-Orleansky says his father was followed by the secret service.

But the holiday went off without a hitch.

Ms. Orleanskaya says the holiday was a gift to their son. “Mom is romanticizing,” said Mr. Kleinman-Orleansky. “This was more a gift to the city than a gift to a son,” he said. “The city was the love of his life, it was his dream. His generation had a different view of the city – it wasn’t just a place to live, as it is now. The city was something you could love, something you did things for,” says Mr. Kleinman-Orleansky.

Things are different now, says Mr. Sazonov, the director. It’s hard to impart the same feeling of magic and wonder to a generation so used to 3D entertainment and the freedom to travel abroad. Not only that, most of today’s graduates do not know about the novel “Scarlet Sails.” It’s not part of the curriculum.

But Mr. Sazonov said this year’s holiday will match its original spirit. The ship will sail in like a phantom, an image straight out of Mr. Grin’s novel, and “there’s this moment when the show is over, the festival comes to the end, it coincides with dawn. And it feels as if lights went on in the concert hall after a performance. Magical,” Mr. Sazonov said.

Mr. Sazonov said that he’s heard of the name Orleansky, but was unaware of the holiday’s history. An encyclopedia published in Leningrad also lists Aleksandr V. Kleinman-Orleansky as one of the original creators of the event.

“I am glad that I continue the work that was started by very talented people before me, and that their work did not die,” Mr. Sazonov said.

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