The Scarlet Sails - annual fairy-tale revival in St. Petersburg
Every year St. Petersburg turns into a sleepless city during the legendary White Nights. Thousands of tourists from all over the world explore the Northern capital in this amazing time and try to not miss out on one of the city's most remarkable public events, inspired by a romantic story by Alexander Grin that finds its reflection in the Scarlet Sails - a legendary show of spectacular fireworks, a massive water show and music performances all in the lightest night of the year.
Update from Feb 8, 2016: Though official date of the Scarlet Sails festival is yet to be announced, the most recent rumours claim the celebration will take place at night from June 18th to June 19th.
When the Revolution came to Petrograd in 1917, Alexander Grin was a writer with a strong Socialist background and a politically unfortunate penchant for writing romantic short stories. After a brief stint in the Red Army he returned to the city, where he met a young woman named Nina. Alexander was so infatuated by her that he wrote perhaps his best known work with a young woman like Nina as the main character, calling it “Alye Parusa,” or “The Scarlet Sails".
This beautiful fairy tale, published in 1923, took place in a fictional land where a sailor named Longren was forced to retire after the premature death of his wife. He made toys as he cared for their young daughter, Assol, in a quiet port city. One day the girl chased a toy boat she was supposed to sell down a stream deep into a forest, and ran into an old man named Aigle, who claimed to be a great wizard. He predicted that a prince would someday come for her on a ship with scarlet sails and take her away to a faraway land to live with him in. She believed the old man, despite being teased incessantly afterward for doing so. When a wealthy ship captain (with the English name of Arthur Grey) much later came along and fell in love with her, and learned of the prediction, he decked his ship with scarlet sails and swept her off her feet, taking the young dreamer away to a “happily ever after.”
Fast-forward to 45 years later... Somewhere between the 1967 “Summer of Love” and the 1969 Woodstock Festival in the United States, the Zhdanov Palace of Culture in the Soviet city of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg today) put together a huge celebration for the graduating class of 1968 of all the metropolis's high schools. To the strains of “Anthem of the Great City,” the first Scarlet Sails show featured a parade of escort vessels and fireworks, leading up to the highlight of the performance, the sailing of the ship “Secret” (actually the schooner “Leningrad”), bedecked with the eponymous scarlet sails and carrying characters from the fairy tale. With the music of Isaak Dunayevsky and Dmitri Shostakovich in the background, the students were told of the power of their dreams and hard work as the boats floated past the Winter Palace, after which the guests of honor partied until dawn.
The celebration became official for about ten years. Then in 1979, the head of the Leningrad Party Committee, fearing the rowdiness of so large a gathering of young people, discontinued it. For a quarter of a century, the celebration became something part of the distant happy memories of the city’s Communist past. Then in 2005, the city restored the festival, using the replica of Peter the Great’s personal ship “Shtandart” as the dream ship “Secret” in a parade held in honor of the city’s graduating classes of that year.
The modern festival comes fairly close to replicating the original festival. After an “invitation only” concert and a theatrical performance (in 2010, featuring both Canadian artists Cirque de Soleil and Spanish stage performer and singer Antonio Banderas) held in Palace Square and on Vassiliyevsky Island, the boats parade along the Neva River waterfront takes place in front of the Winter Palace while fireworks go off to classical music by famous Russian composers. Over the past few years, the Swedish brig “Tre Krunur” has served as the dream ship “Secret” for the parade, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
In 2011, it was estimated that about 3.5 million people watched the Scarlet Sails parade and fireworks show in person, which was recorded by Petersburg - Channel 5 for broadcast to an even larger audience around the world. The stated theme of the show remains much the same as the original: Russia – the Land of Opportunity.