Along a Winding Russian Road

Tony Donaldson, …. with highlighting imposed by The Editor, Thuppahi

In 1926, the Russian poet, singer, composer, and cabaret artist Alexander Vertinsky recorded the song Dorogoi dlinnoyu (Дорогой длинною) which may be rendered as “Along a winding road” or “By the long road.” Vertinsky was born in the Ukraine in 1889 and died in St. Petersburg in 1957.

Alexander Vertinsky

Due to the difficult life in his native land, largely caused by the Russian revolution in 1917, Vertinsky decided to emigrate in the 1920s and spent the next twenty-years travelling around the world, finding a home wherever Russian emigrants were staying. Wherever he went, he would give concerts and soon came to be admired by both Russians and non-Russians such as King Gustav of Sweden, Alphonsus of Spain, the Prince of Wales, the Vanderbilt family, and the Rothschilds (Ślęzak, 2010). His fans included Charlie Chaplin, Marlena Dietrich, and Bing Crosby. He also met Albert Einstein and Josephine Baker.

   Shanghai in the 1930s – home to a large Russian community.

In 1938, Vertinsky went to China and fell in love with Shanghai, which at the time had a large Russian colony. In the 1930s, Shanghai was a city of great intrigue and spies, ‘populated by characters of dubious political and moral allegiances’ (Wasserstein, 1998).  German businessmen would meet at the German Garden Club, including those fleeing the Nazis. There were Filipino musicians, Korean gangsters, thieves, lowlifes of every description, military and naval officers, as well as Russian taxi-dancers and Chinese sing song girls, who would sit and wait for customers in the many sordid bars. By contrast, affluent visitors stayed at the Cathay Hotel on The Bund. At Ciro’s nightclub, uniformed Russian doormen would stand outside. As Wasserstein (1998) observes, they were mainly ‘self-appointed ex-Tsarist ‘generals’ whose spurious medals could be purchased by the dozen in the Hongkew market.’

A dancer named Helen Webb, taken from a photo album of Russians in Shanghai. A few Russian women who worked in nightclubs became wives or mistresses of wealthier non-Russians.







Exiled poets and writers at a meeting in a sports hall in Harbin, China.

At one of his concerts in Shanghai, Vertinsky met his future wife Lydia. He was 50 and she was 17, Their relationship lasted until the end of Vertinsky’s life. They had two daughters – Anastasia and Marina.

Vertinsky only sang songs in the Russian language. In the recording of Dorogoi dlinnoyu, Vertinsky was accompanied by piano and violin in a spirited gypsy rendition – much loved by his audiences.  Although the musicians on the recording are unknown, one may have been his long-time accompanist Mikhail Broches.

In 1968, the Welsh singer Mary Hopkin recorded an English version of the song under the title Those were the Days, which was produced by Paul McCartney for The Beatles’ Apple record label.

In an essay published in Russian Life in 2017, 100 years after the Russian revolution, Natalia Beskhlebnaya relates a curious story about Vertinsky which occurred at the very moment the Russian revolution kicked off in Petrograd, which was the name of St. Petersburg from 1914 to 1924. Vertinsky had been performing at a concert in Moscow. At about midnight, he set off for home, as Beskhlebnaya relates:

In the evening of October 25, 1917, as Bolsheviks stormed the imperial palace in Petrograd, a spectacular benefit concert took place in Moscow starring Alexander Vertinsky, a renowned Russian modernist singer who performed as the tragic character Pierrot. Just past midnight, having washed off his makeup, he was making his way home with friends in a convoy of three horse-drawncabs, holding the flowers that had been thrown onto the stage. As they passed Strastnoy Monastery, the shooting started. The cab drivers stopped and said they would not go any further. The singer headed home on foot, but before he did, he asked someone to deliver his flowers to the Pushkin monument.

The monument to Pushkin stands, facing across busy Tverskaya, toward the spot where it stood from 1880-1950.

Sources and Additional Readings

Beskhlebnaya, Natalia. Russian history through the eyes of three Moscow monuments (Alexander Pushkin, Vatslav Vorovsky, Felix Dzerzhinsky). Russian life, Vol.60 (1) 2017, pp.38-45.

Eidelman, Tamara. When things fell apart: the Bolsheviks take power. Russian life, Vol.50 (6), (Nov/Dec 2007), pp.19-22.

Newham, Fraser. The white Russians of Shanghai. History Today, Vol.55 (12), 2005, pp.20-27

Ślęzak, Justyna. Szlakiem rosyjskiego Pierrota” — sylwetka Aleksandra Wertyńskiego [On the trail of the Russian Pierrot”- a profile of Aleksander Wertyński], Przegląd rusycystyczny, Vol.4 (132), 2010, pp.15-26.

Vertinsky, Alexander. Дорогой длинною [Along a winding road] recording [1926].

Wasserstein, Bernard. Collaborators and renegades in occupied Shanghai. History Today, Vol. 48 (9), (Sep 1998), pp. 20-24.

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