When Georgi was born one cold January day in 1904, he was his mother’s first illegitimate son. It was official: he was number 160 on the list of newborns at the Church of the Nativity on the Sands in St. Petersburg, where Maria Nikolaevna Vasil’eva had dutifully registered his arrival. On this critical document establishing Balanchine’s existence in the eyes of God and the Russian state, his father was absent, and his mother, the authorities noted in a neat hand, was Orthodox but “unwed.” The problem was not only that Balanchine came into the world in a half-fallen bastard state, somehow discredited from the start; it was also that without a father, Georgi had no patronymic, and without a patronymic his entire genealogy was in doubt. Who was he, even?
His older sister, Tamara, born two years earlier, was illegitimate too. Ditto his brother, Andrei, who came a year after Georgi, in 1905. On Tamara’s document, “ILLEGITIMATE” was even scrawled like a scarlet letter in bold capitals under her name. Had Maria’s children been born in Western Europe, they might have held some rights through their mother, but this was Russia, and children automatically took the legal status of their father. The sad fact was that without a paterfamilias none of them had any legal standing at all. They hardly existed. There was only one way back into the social and political fold: in special cases, usually with influence and money changing hands, a child might be legitimized ex post facto by imperial consent and the word of the czar himself.
A cramped note in new ink amending Tamara’s, Georgi’s, and Andrei’s birth documents tells us that this is exactly what happened. On March 18, 1906, the district court legitimized the birth of each of Maria’s three children, and on September 23, the Church recognized this change in status too. It was all verified, for anyone who cared to look, in document no. 13025. When Georgi was later asked for his birth certificate, he was able to present an official dictum—Birth Certificate no. 5055—grandly stating that by imperial decree at the St. Petersburg County Court of the Seventh District and acting on a decision from March 18, 1906, it was hereby affirmed that Georgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze had in fact been born to legally wedded parents, both of the Orthodox Christian faith and both married for the first time. His father, it was proclaimed, was the “Hereditary Honorable Citizen Meliton Antonovich Balanchivadze.” Stamps, signatures, office duties paid.
This administrative sleight of hand may have normalized Balanchine’s birth, but it did nothing to change the facts. If Georgi’s parents ever did formally marry—no record has been found—it was not, at least in Meliton’s case, for the first time. When Georgi and his siblings were born, Meliton had a whole other family: a wife and two children back in his native Georgia. Many years later, Balanchine would wistfully tell his first biographer that this unnamed and faceless first wife, whom he never met, had died and that his father had been a widower—but she hadn’t, and he wasn’t.
The matter was serious, if not unusual. There were growing numbers of illegitimate children in St. Petersburg in these years, as peasant women, scarves wrapped tightly around their heads and carrying their belongings, fled their villages for new opportunities in nearby urban centers. Marital traditions loosened their hold on these and other urban mothers—townswomen, craftswomen, women filling jobs in businesses and factories, Georgi’s mother perhaps among them, who found themselves at once independent and vulnerable in new ways. Official shelters, called “angel factories,” even paid two rubles per head for abandoned babies in an effort to absorb the increase in children left by their often struggling and unwed mothers. Even for those with the advantages of rank or wealth, the consequences could be serious: illegitimacy precluded the inheritance of family wealth—Pierre’s problem in the early pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace; Alexander Herzen’s problem in life. Wealth was not a Balanchivadze problem, at least for now, and nobility was out of the question. “If you are noble,” Balanchine later said, “you always want to find out where you come from, my French so and so, my mother was so and so. . . . But they were simple people, nothing, not important.”
And so at the moment of birth, there were already complications, uncertainties, revisions, and pasts that would never quite reveal themselves fully or that later took on the aura of secrets and blank spaces in his mind. Balanchine may not have cared that he was officially illegitimate or known that his parents later maneuvered to “correct” the record, but it was a fact of his parents’ lives, and children always absorb their parents’ facts. Balanchine never had the confidence of his past, and when he looked back down the long corridor of his life to that distant point where it all began, he saw only shadows and vague outlines. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” he would say when pressed, winding his voice around the question and trying to find something to fill the hole in his mind. Thus emerged the first truth of his life: the bedrock was sand.
Meliton Antonovich Balanchivadze came from a clan of state peasants in the rural enclave of Banoja, just outside the small town of Kutaisi in western Georgia. You can go there today and meet the Balanchivadze descendants still living there and see the sprawling graveyard of Balanchivadze ancestors buried in fenced outdoor plots, each like a miniature home complete with a small graveside table to make visitors comfortable, since talking with the dead was part of life. You can read in the church records going back into the nineteenth century that Khosia was the father of Otia, who was the father of a monk and his brother Kaikhosro, who married Tula, and together they bore Balanchine’s grandfather Amiran.
The family were peasants, but they were rising, and this very Amiran pulled himself up from the unglamorous business of soil and dirt in one of the only ways possible at the time: the Russian Orthodox Church. He managed to attend seminary in Kutaisi and become a parish priest, a deacon, even, and part of the white clergy, so he changed the Georgian Amiran to the more Russian-sounding Anton. Others in the family joined the more ascetic black clergy of celibate monks—the ancestral monk, to begin with, and later an uncle whose investiture Balanchine would witness as a child. Anton married a local peasant girl, and together they produced Meliton—the first of several children, only four of whom would survive. Meanwhile, Anton was becoming something of a local leader, and his parishioners were apparently so partial to him that they built in his honor the small gray stone church of St. George, which sits high on a hill overlooking the cemetery and the village. Meliton was raised down the hill and across the dirt road, in the shadow of St. George and at the center of what was then a small and impoverished farming community.
It mattered that it was St. George, who would be little Georgi’s patron saint too, and this modest church is the only firm structure that ties Balanchine to that dusty place in his family’s past. St. George, whose image Balanchine would keep near him in icons all his life, lost his mother at age ten and devoted himself to brave military feats in the name of God. In his martyrdom he was Christlike and is said to have suffered tortures including a caustic lime pit, iron hooks, and being crushed by stone, broken on a wheel, and burned with a torch. An angel often protected him. St. George famously appeared in paintings and icons riding a white horse and radiating light as he speared an evil dragon worshipped by terrified pagans and saved the beautiful maiden they had offered in sacrifice to this vicious beast. The maiden then led the dying dragon to the town center, where St. George slew it for all to see, a performance that freed the damsel and her people and brought them to the Christian faith.
The village of Banoja sits in the narrow valley of the Rioni River near the town of Kutaisi and some 143 miles west of Tbilisi, at the foot of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. The Caucasus are the highest range in Europe and stretch from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, setting Kutaisi, Tbilisi, and the whole of Georgia dramatically (at times violently) apart from Russia and its capital of St. Petersburg, where Balanchine would be born and raised. Some thought of Georgia as Russia’s “southern Siberia,” since the only way in from the north was over a perilous military highway with hairpin curves through a rocky and beautiful wooded mountain pass, a region romanced in tales by Pushkin and Lermontov.
Since the early nineteenth century, the entire region had been forcibly incorporated into Russia and its diverse, fractured, and at times warring regions ruled by the vast and byzantine administrative structures of the czar. From the imperial point of view, there was no such thing as “Georgia,” and the censors forbade even the use of the word, at least in Russian. Education was in Russian, not Georgian (which has its own beautifully ornate alphabet), and the Church was the Russian Orthodox Church, not the far more ancient Georgian Orthodox Church, with its deep pagan influences and ties to antiquity.
Copyright © 2022 by Jennifer Homans. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.