Mystery of Pavlova – Russian ballerina and the cake

“God gives talent. Work transforms talent into genius.”  – Anna Pavlova (1881-1931)

One might think that person like Anna Pavlova, the most famous ballerina of the 20th century, is researched to the smallest detail.  And you are right, but not every detail is clear and proven by documents.pavlova anna

Anna Pavlovna (or Matveyevna) Pavlova was born on February 12, 1881 in a small village Ligovo near Saint Petersburg.   Ligovo was an aristocratic country house suburb north of the capital, where theatre artists and artistic bohemians, aristocrats and wealthy officials lived during the summer season. This is where Anna spent her childhood with her mother, Lyubov Fedorovna, who was a laundress. The St Petersburg address books for 1894 year record Lyubov having a laundry at Kolomenskaya, 5 (page 174).

Her father?  As you can see there is no consensus about Anna’s patronymic name. Anna Pavlova wrote in her memoirs that her father died when she was two years old.  But who was he? Depending on which biographer you read, the story of Anna’s birth is different.

On Russian websites the story is told that in 1980s in the theatre archive of St. Petersburg (the author is probably talking about the archive of the Mariinsky theatre) a document was discovered confirming that Matvey Pavlovich Pavlov was married to Lubov Fedorovna – mother of Pavlova. The document was dated 1899 year. This means that Anna’s father was alive at the time when the girl was 18 years.

Some claim that at the time of birth, Anna’s mother was a servant in the house of the rich Jewish man, a wealthy merchant of the second guild, Lazarus Polyakov.  Unwilling to accept the child, Lazar got rid of Lubov and never provided his daughter with material assistance.

Only recently new evidence appeared about new version of Anna’s birth – Karaite origin of Anna’s supposed father, Shabetay Shamash.  He bore the name Matvey in St. Petersburg, hence Anna Matveyevna, and was a native of Evpatoria (Crimea). He came from a family of musicians and upon arriving to St. Petersburg opened his own laundry facility in 1880, not far away from the house of Polyakov, where he met Anna’s mother- Lubov Fedorovna Pavlova.

Anna was born illegitimate.  Shabetay later married and started another family in St Petersburg.  His son Iosif Shabetaevich Shamash was a student at Petrograd Polytechnic Institute in 1910 (fund 478, St Petersburg Historical Archive).  Shabetay’s granddaughter lives today in Moscow.

If this is not enough of a mystery, the official father of Anna Pavlova is considered to be the reserve soldier of Preobrazhensky regiment Matvey Pavlov.  He is Shabetay Shamash based on words of the famous theatre historian Alexander Vasiliev.

Irrespective, whether Anna’s father was Jewish banker or Crimean Karaite (representative of one of the branches of Judaism), they were not in favour of either Imperial or Soviet Russia’s authorities. Therefore, “this relationship was whispered about“ at the Mariinsky and later at the Bolshoi Theatre.

Some claim that southern roots of Anna Pavlova affected the appearance of a ballerina: her hair colour, “Spanish” face profile and her temperament. “In her roles in “Don Quixote”, “La Bayadere”, “Pharaoh’s Daughter”, “Amarillo” she looked amazingly naturally and oriental melodies and dances as if genetically attracted her”, writes Vasiliev in the article ‘Life and legend of Anna Pavlova”.[1]

“Anna Pavlova”- behind this name stands one of the classical myths of the twentieth century. The mystery behind the origin of the Pavlova cake is not far away and very similar. No one can factually confirm the creator of the cake.

PAVLOVA CAKE Photo by kathleen tanner
PAVLOVA CAKE Photo by kathleen tanner

The dessert is believed to be created in honour of Anna Pavlova either during or after one of her tours to Australia and New Zealand in the 1926 and 1929.

Keith Money, a biographer of Anna Pavlova, wrote that a hotel chef in Wellington, New Zealand, created the dish when Pavlova visited there in 1926 on her world tour.

Professor Helen Leach, a culinary anthropologist from New Zealand, has compiled a library of cookbooks containing 667 Pavlova recipes from more than 300 sources and states that the first Australian Pavlova recipe was created in 1935, while an earlier version was penned in 1929 in a rural magazine.

The Australian website “Australian Flavour” gives the earlier date of 1926 for its creation, suggesting that Home Cookery for New Zealand, by Australian writer Emily Futter, contained a recipe for “Meringue with Fruit Filling”. This recipe was similar to today’s version of the dessert.

It has been also claimed that Bert Sachse created the dish at the Esplanade Hotel in Perth, Australia in 1935, where Anna Pavlova stayed during her trip.

Who is right and who is wrong?  It does not matter.  Pavlova cake is an important part of the national cuisine of both countries and Anna Pavlova is the world-famous ballerina.





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