"Their paths converge only upon the brick barracks of the Imperial Circus"

The Imperial Circus in St Petersburg was built in 1849 at the command of Tsar Nikolai I.  It was a magnificent building with two great wings extending from the main structure, housing stables, dressing rooms and sumptuous public areas.  The ring was semi-circular and included a fully-equipped stage for popular pantomimes.  Audiences entered a grand, red and gold foyer beneath a chandelier and were seated behind an orchestra bench which encircled the entire ring.  The aristocracy enjoyed private boxes, whilst the general public packed out a gallery above.  The Imperial Circus struggled through its early years under the leadership of Paul Cuzent, enjoyed a short period of success with equestrian displays, and burned down in 1859.  The Mariinsky Theatre opened in the same spot a year later, and continues to present major opera and ballet today.

Trapeze artists in circus, 1890
Public DomainTrapeze artists in circus, 1890 - Credit: US Library of Congress

The first fully stone built circus in Russia - and the only one standing in Petersburg during the visit of Colonel Kearney's circus in 1899 - was the Circus Ciniselli on the banks of the Fontanka, a branch of the main River Neva.  The building still stands today, having undergone several name changes, and now houses a circus museum alongside its main ring.  The circus opened in 1877 with a ring 13 metres in diameter and stabling for 150 horses; it was privately managed by the Ciniselli family until they emigrated in 1921. 

Circus as an artform originated in Ancient Rome, and spread across Europe, Russia and the USA in the 18th and 19th centuries with the introduction of the big top, the circus ring and the gaudy mixture of comedy, spectacle and magic.  Entrepreneurs like PT Barnum took elements of the freak show and travelling fair to develop 'The Greatest Show on Earth'.  

In Russia, circus became popular during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), who was captivated by the performance of Englishman Charles Hughes and his travelling troupe.  In the 19th century circus grew rapidly in popularity with all classes of people, and permanent buildings and schools for circus arts were established in Petersburg and Moscow.  Acts included wrestlers, equestrian displays, animal acts, acrobats, aerialists and of course clowns.  The products of Russian circus training travelled the globe: Coco the Clown, famous in the UK, was born Nikolai Poliakov in Russia in 1900; the Moscow State Circus continues to tour internationally, whilst contemporary circus relies heavily on performers from Russia and Eastern Europe.