Actress, suffragette, princess: the story of the forgotten Russian royal

[This is an updated version of a story produced for the Shoreham Herald.]

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Lydia as Vasentasena. All pictures: John and Jeanette Simpson

She was a freedom fighter, celebrated actress and fashion icon, a scandalous royal and a groundbreaking theatre manager – so why is the infamous Lydia Yavorska, the Princess Bariatinsky, virtually unknown today?

A dedicated suffragette, Lydia was a humanitarian activist who helped raise relief funds for refugees at the outbreak of WWI. Her career spanned the Silver Age of Russian theatre – the decades leading to and following the turn of the nineteenth century.  However, despite her glamorous yet subversive story, the princess is a forgotten figure.

For years, two history enthusiasts have been hot on the trail of the forgotten Russian princess, their detective work taking them across the European continent.

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Lydia as Melisande in Princess of Dreams. This play, written by Edmond Rostand (mainly known as the author of Cyrano De Bergerac), was first produced in Russia by Lydia in 1896 just a few months after its Paris premiere. It was an enormous success and consolidated her reputation

Happening upon an unusual gravestone at their local St Nicolas’ Church, John and Jeanette Simpson’s accidental discovery of the burial place of a mysterious princess in the quiet Sussex churchyard has become an international journey of discovery. Their investigations into the life of the once world-famous Lydia have lead them to St Petersburg in Russia, Tallinn in Estonia, and Pallanza in Italy.

In their hunt for answers, the Simpsons have discovered that Lydia, born in Kiev in 1871, had been an acclaimed actress in Moscow.

Her rambunctious lifestyle, which included a relationship with the writer Chekhov, shocked and fascinated Russian society. After she stormed the stage in the enormously successful play Princess of Dreams aged 25, she married the Prince Bariatinsky, a cousin of Tsar Nicholas II; their union scandalised the Russian court.

Resisting the oppressive political atmosphere of fin de siècle Russia, Lydia found herself cast out after refusing to appear in an anti-Semitic play. However, this didn’t foil her ambitions, and in 1900, with the support of her husband, she opened her own ‘New Theatre’ in St Petersburg. This quickly became a hotbed of anti-authoritarian feeling, showcasing the work of many avant-garde playwrights and serving as a political club. The prince, who shared Lydia’s progressive views, even started a radical newspaper.

This liberal agenda made authorities uneasy, leading to tsarist powers suppressing the publication and ordering the prince and princess to close the New Theatre.

Even this didn’t stop Lydia, as she took to touring Europe with her troupe, achieving great success everywhere from Vienna to Paris and eventually arriving in England in 1909. Here, she made her name as a bold innovator who was not afraid to stage plays which were then deemed controversial. Her introduction of Anna Karenina to the English stage was so successful that the production ran for more than 300 performances in London and the provinces.

The suffragettes, who were rapidly gaining political traction during this era, were enthusiastic fans of Lydia’s work. A dedicated promoter of women’s suffrage, the princess served as a member of the Actresses’ Franchise League committee.

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Lydia in mediaeval court costume in the role of Tsaritsa Maria in the play “Ivan the Terrible”, 1899. This, and most of the other illustrations, are contemporary postcards in John and Jeanette’s collection. This image was clearly the inspiration for the carving on the gravestone

Returning to Russia in 1915, Lydia turned her energies to administering relief work in her home country, working close behind the front line.

As the First World War raged on, tensions between the Russian elite and the proletariat escalated. The Tsar’s family, who never accepted Prince Bariatinsky’s marriage to an actress, pressured him into a divorce which was primarily engineered by the infamous mad monk Rasputin.  Lydia continued with her relief work, but, as a staunch opponent to the Bolshevik movement, she was deemed a threat and was issued with a warrant for her arrest.

Escaping moments before the warrant could be executed, Lydia fled and found refuge in England in 1919, where she died, two years later, at the age of 50.

So how could Lydia, who had such an extraordinarily high profile at the turn of the twentieth century and had led such an exciting, adventurous life, become an unknown figure today?

‘Many of the contemporary Russian theatre critics detested her because she was such a strong character,’ suggests Jeanette.

‘Women were simply not supposed to have control in the theatre or to have, and express, such strong opinions about the injustices of the day. After the Revolution, it was these same critics who wrote the histories of the Russian theatre in the early twentieth century. In the Soviet era, it was easy for them to omit Lydia because of her aristocratic connections and opposition to the Bolsheviks. They gave the credit for the innovations which she had brought into her theatre to male actor/managers such as Stanislavsky and Meyerhold with the result that their names are far better known today. In spite of her success in England before WWI, as a foreigner, Lydia has been largely ignored in British theatre histories.’

The Simpsons feel that those who wanted to wipe Lydia from memory should not be allowed to succeed, and to correct this, John and Jeanette published the book Princess of Dreams in 2016, 95 years after her death. This, they say, ‘will hopefully restore Lydia to her rightful place in theatre history’.  

John said: ‘Above all, our aim has been to obtain recognition for Lydia’s achievements and hopefully to bring people to St Nicolas’ Church to pay their respects at her grave’.

The book is a not-for-profit publication. Any profits will be divided between a fund to maintain Lydia’s grave and the Friends of St Nicolas’ Church, who upkeep the church which shadows her grave.

To purchase the book, and to find out more, visit www.aprincessinshoreham.org.

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Lydia in 1901 as the Duke of Reichstadt (the son of Napoleon) in L’Aiglon (The Eaglet), another very successful play translated into Russian from the French of Edmond Rostand, who enthusiastically endorsed her performances

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