The Unwanted Visitors of Kharkov

The Unwanted Visitors of Kharkov

Kharkiv, Ukraine (1827): For over a decade, the peasants of Kharkov whispered about the means through which their lord, Prince Pyotr Konstantinovich Annenkov came to inherit his family estate in 1815. True, his father had been old and ailing for some years before his son returned to Kharkov from the capital. Yet the patriarch’s demise and the fact that no priests were permitted to offer last rites generated rumors of murder and prompted the peasantry to remark on certain unspeakable “dark rituals” carried out by Annenkov’s wife, Irina.

Known for aping the latest Parisian fashions and spending money frivolously, Pytor Annenkov was by all standards an unremarkable lord. He dedicated the majority of his time to hunting and leisure, never taking his feudal duties seriously. When he ran up debts, he sold off parcels of his land to cover them. When his fields failed to yield sufficient harvests, he left them fallow rather than investing in agricultural improvements. He was, as one later historian remarked, “the epitome of all that was wrong with the Russian gentry class” in the nineteenth century.

In the spring of 1827, news of a traveling musical troupe circulated through Kharkov. Upon hearing that the musicians desired to perform for the local lord, Annenkov sneered and rebuffed the offer. He had no taste for “peasant music,” he replied. This did not stop townspeople from attending their nightly performances, and soon enough all of Kharkov was murmuring of the strange music that the visitors performed and the odd costumes they wore. Some suspected that the musicians came from the steppe region while others claimed China or Mongolia. By May, news of the performances reached Annenkov, and on certain nights he swore he could hear music coming from the town. The tribal rhythms and grating notes bled across the night, mixing with the shouting and merriment of the townspeople. To one fond of Haydn and Beethoven, the music reportedly sounded like the screeching of animals. On more than one occasion, Annenkov condemned the “primitive nature” of peasant music and ordered the local authorities to put an end to the irritating racket.  

Despite his orders, however, the music continued, growing louder as though the performers were moving closer to the manor house with each passing dusk. The drums became more sporadic, the notes blurring into a cacophony of frantic crescendos and bestial wails. Annenkov increasingly found it impossible to sleep as the din started up each night and lasted well into the dawn. Local officials appeared powerless to arrest the musicians or put an end to the clamor. Night after night the music continued, its odd sounds filling the night. By the week’s end, the music was deafening, and looking out his window one evening Annenkov recorded finding a troupe of musicians performing on the manor lawn dancing wildly about the bonfire. According to his description, the musicians wore colorful Oriental costumes and had faces that were “more bestial than human.”

It is uncertain how long the musical troupe remained in Kharkov that year, although there are reports of musical spectacles in the towns surrounding Kharkov throughout much of the fall and winter. More circumspect are the stories concerning what became of Annenkov, who left the area shortly afterward. Historians have claimed that Annenkov abandoned his estate after it failed to make a profit and took up a comfortable residence in Saint-Petersburg by 1830. Local folklore, however, tells of a musical troupe traveling through the Don and Caucasus during the mid-nineteenth century calling itself “The Fallen Lord’s Fraternity.” Oral accounts report a procession playing discordant music led by a naked man with a long beard who would gyrate spastically as though seized by epilepsy. One anthropologist who has investigated these folkloric tales has insisted that the convulsive movements and incoherent wails described by peasants is similar to symptoms connected with Saint-Vitus’ Dance, perhaps suggesting the fraternity was some type of traveling circus.

While looting the Kharkov treasury in 1922 at the tail end of the Russian civil war, Bolshevik soldiers discovered a small gilded statue among the objects housed in the building. Now held in Moscow, the statue features an animal-like musician clutching a wind instrument in its claws. On the bottom is inscribed a Biblical verse: “The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but will receive one hour of authority as kings, along with the beast.”

             

The Unwanted Visitors of Kharkov