The mysterious Филаретов

On our first visit to Olga and Misha’s house, we tell them about Nicholas Filaratoff, our great-great-great-grandfather who’s faint trail has brought us here to St Petersburg. We have very little information about him – the only physical item remaining from his life is a Russian medal that we were told was from the Crimean war. When we were working in Hull in 2010, we also visited his grave, which showed that he died in 1903, aged 89. We believe he lived in St Petersburg before emigrating with his daughter Ann. Misha confirms that the medal is from the Crimean war (1853-56) and is a common medal awarded to all soldiers who fought in the war. They also tell us that Filarefoff (Филаретов) is a Russian name, which raises questions about Nicholas’ Jewish identity, and yet again reminds us how names get altered through migration and translation.

Olga kindly offers to take us to the National Library, to see if we can find any more clues about who Nicholas was, and what he did to eventually be described as a ‘Gentleman’ on his daughter’s marriage certificate. The trip to the library is quite an experience – it’s a grand building, commissioned by Catherine the Great as the first public library in Russia. Gaining access isn’t easy – you have to show your passport, fill in a form, enter a booth to be questioned and photographed and then finally are issued with a library card. Olga leads me upstairs into a beautiful reading room, lined with old books, with strict looking librarians sitting at various desks. She talks to one librarian, who gives us a form to fill in, and we take it to another who finds two huge volumes for us. These are directories of directories, which Olga searches through. Eventually she finds a reference to something promising: street directories from the 1860s and 70s. We return to the desk, and are sent to another room, where a large, grumpy librarian looks annoyed at being disturbed. A long conversation ensues, of which I understand nothing. It turns out that to look at these books, you need a special letter from an institution. So after several hours of searching we drew a blank, but Olga said that she will return when she gets the chance.

Katy’s book about the Jews of St Petersburg gives us some idea about the areas where the Jewish community would have lived here. But we have nothing specific to go on, and even less certainty about the Filaratoffs movements than we had about the Beinarts in Lithuania. This trip has involved a good deal of searching for something we can’t find. We both expected this to be the case, but perhaps we harboured a secret hope of uncovering something new. Wanting to mark our ancestor’s presence in this city, and our own week of walking these streets making our own memories, we perform a departing gesture. Leaving the apartment on Galernaya Street for the last time on Sunday, we use our remaining South African salt to mark an Ф on the pavement. Filaratoff’s initial is also the symbol for the golden ratio – a mathematical problem that intrigued and mystified great minds for centuries.

R Beinart


Galernaya Street

We arrive at our home-from-home in St Petersburg and notice the incredible disparity, walking from the Admiralty end with totally renovated buildings, to further down the dilapidated facades of communal apartment buildings, reflecting the history of the past century or more. Strangely enough we discover that the street was central to Jewish life in the city in the 19th Century, when we believe our great-great-great-grandfather Nicholas Filaretov lived here.

At no. 20, now looking very run-down, lived Jewish banker Baron Horace Yevselevitch Guenzberg, the ‘richest and most famous Jew in St Petersburg’ (1883-1909). He founded the first modern-style bank in Russia in 1859, I. E. Guenzberg, was a patron of the arts and a philanthropist – many met at his house including Turgenev. At no. 25 was the country’s oldest Jewish organisation, the Society for the Spread of Education among the Jews of Russia (OPE), with branches all over Russia, promoting the reformation of Jewish customs and culture, collecting a mass of statistics on Jewish peoples, and promoting educational activities. There is a plaque on the building, now owned by Gazprom, and nicely done up in yellow with shiny doorplates.

No. 61 belonged to Horace Guenzberg’s son Alfred, where he ran the Society for Hygenic Cheap Apartments for Jewish People. Also on the street lived the Polyakov brothers, Yakov and Lazar, whose interests included railway construction, banking and philanthropy. After the pogroms of the 1880s, the Jewish community began to fragment, and split between those willing to assimilate and others who were more orthodox. Some left St Petersburg, and those who stayed were subject to stricter and stricter laws, and persecution. Gradually the great involvement of the Jewish community in the social and cultural life of the city faded.

Under the Soviets, these huge buildings were divided into communal apartments where families would live in a few rooms, sharing kitchen and bathroom facilities. We talk to family friends Olga and Misha about life under Soviets, who tell us that sometimes as many as 10 families lived in an apartment, taking it in turns to have weekly baths. There was an allotment of 4 ½ sq metres per person, so every centimetre counted. You can see the remains of this system in the layout of the apartments we are staying in, which have subdivided rooms and corridors which have sometimes been reconnected.

In the new Russia, people try to sell their rooms but a whole apartment of families have to agree, which can create dischord. After selling their rooms, few can afford to stay in the centre. Companies are buying up buildings which then stand empty, or they rent them out to illegal migrant workers who pay over the odds, large numbers crammed to a room. Meanwhile, politicians have sold off state assets, so wealth is held in a few private hands, who then control the fabric of the city.

Walking along on street level are a mix of some private hotels and restaurants who have renovated parts of buildings so you see glimpses of glamour, and food shops with little signage which feel like a remnant of Soviet times, with dusty shelves of vodka and sparse looking refrigeration counters. Olga gives us her soap ration tokens and tells us how they would have to carry empty bottles and jars around on the off-chance that the shops would have fresh food in – no jar, no food.

Around the corner, New Holland island was used for shipbuilding and contains fantastic warehouses, built at different heights to store timber vertically, and a grand arch by Jean-Baptiste de la Motte. It is currently being subjected to ‘Urban Regeneration’ after being bought by Abramovitch, following the collapse of a competition won by Norman Foster. Walking into the high-security gated area, we could be back in London – there are containers housing trendy bars, and gallery spaces, a ‘rent a box’ communal garden, table tennis tables and big plans. I can’t help but feel that this new ‘cultural urbanism’ as the website calls it holds little reflection of the complex and multiple histories surrounding it.


The Jews of St Petersburg, Mikhail Beizer, 1989




Rokiskis & Obelai

The records we have found for the Beinarts lead us to the town of Rokiskis and the nearby village Obelai, in north east Lithuania. In Yiddish, these Shtetls were known as Rakishok and Abel. Online, we find a ‘Rokiskis Special Interest Group’ in the US, started by other migrant families with a similar history. We end up having a long skype conversation with the eminently knowledgable Philip Shapiro, in Virginia, who tells us all about the Jewish history of the area.

Dad joins us in Vilnius and we hire a car to drive north. The smart city centre soon gives way to soviet era blocks of flats and older ramshackle wooden houses, and then the forested countryside. We pass storks nesting on top of telegraph poles, drive through the beautiful lakes area, and see lonely wooden farmhouses. It’s not hard to imagine this area a century earlier. We are welcomed to Rokiskis by a large road sign, a defunct factory and soviet flats. The main street is a mixture of slightly neglected 20th century concrete buildings and the old wooden houses that only seem to get more picturesque as they decay.

We visit the local history museum, housed in the grand old Tyzenhaus mansion. There’s a small section on the Jewish history of the town. It confirms what we have read in our research, and in the holocaust museum in Vilnius: that Rokiskis had a large Jewish population in the 19th century – up to half the total population. In 1941, as carefully documented by the horribly efficient SS, 4,000 Jews were ‘transported 4.5 kilometres before they could be liquidated’. It’s even more chilling to read about this slaughter in the place where it happened.

There’s not a lot of information about the Jewish families who lived in the area before the wars. We meet one of the historians at the museum, Onute, and her husband Zigmas. He offers to take us to see the local jewish cemeteries. In the area beyond Synagogue Gatve, where old wooden houses are laid out along dusty un-tarmacked roads, we find Rokikis jewish cemetery. It is overgrown and neglected, mature silver birch trees grow out of some of the graves, the most recent of which date from 1940. The Jewish population ceased to exist here after that. The graves are hard to decipher, Dad traces the fragile letters with his finger, trying to make them out and trying to remember his hebrew alphabet. Behind us is a hill, overgrown with very tall grasses and wild plants. Zigmas tells us this is also part of the burial ground. We pick our way gingerly between old graves, buried in vegetation, and half expect to see protruding bones.

As we drive out to Obelai, Zigmas tells us more about the countryside, which looks quite unmanaged. During the Soviet era, this was all collective farms and was a very productive area – particularly for flax which was exported to Russia via the railway. He sounds a little wistful when he remembers this – he says that now people can’t afford to cultivate the land, there are no jobs for young people so they leave for the cities. It’s another reminder of the intense conflict and change this region has undergone in the past century and more.

We reach the windmill on the main road, and follow a small track into what looks like someone’s allotment. Behind the vegetable patch is the Obelai jewish cemetery, marked by a wonky picket fence. It looks like a wildflower meadow. I find this place beautiful, but I wonder if we romanticise neglect. There’s something alluring in a place that feels undiscovered (although it is of course discovered) or unknowable. In the introduction to ‘Ruins’, Brian Dillon writes: ‘the cultural gaze that we turn on ruins is a way of loosening ourselves from the grip of punctual chronologies, setting ourselves adrift in time. Ruins are part of the long history of the fragment, but the ruin is a fragment with a future; it will live on after us despite the fact that it reminds us too of a lost wholeness..’

R Beinart


Offere II

Our sourdough bread culture – which will be three years old in October – has travelled with us from Oxford to South Africa, Hull to London and formed the basis for khlebolsony rituals at multiple thresholds. It has accompanied us on this trip, and we bake bread again in Vilnius, adding Lithuanian flour (miltai) to the cultural mix.

We visit the Jewish cemetery in Obeliai, the shtetl where a lot of the Beinarts lived in the 19th century. The cemetery has graves going back perhaps 300 years, but stops in 1940 when the holocaust took place here. Some of the stones have recently been righted, but the site is very overgrown and has become a wildflower meadow in-between the graves. Our Dad, who has joined us for a week, attempts to decipher some of the graves, tracing the faded Yiddish words with his fingertip and trying to remember the hebrew alphabet. We soon realise that we are unlikely to find a Beinart grave without a translator and a thorough search.

The novella ‘It Has To Be This Way’ follows the story of an amnesiac preoccupied with old photographs. One of the characters says of the photographs: ‘They could not be indicative of memory, they were uncoupled from the past. Instead the photographs could only be memory in the making.’ I feel like the sites we visit have the same quality for us – there is no living history, no personal memories to connect us to these places, we do not feel their significance except through understanding them historically.

Katy and I bring our sourdough bread and Burgerspan salt to the cemetery. We make a performance in the graveyard, Offere II, meeting in front of the gravestones to share bread and salt – an echo of the film we made at the Salt Pans in South Africa. We don’t know for certain if this is where Woolf was born, but we bring an offering of salt from the place he is buried. These actions we perform are a form of memory in the making.

The traditional bread and salt ceremony marks the crossing of a threshold, often to a new home. But perhaps we are re-enacting this tradition in reverse: bringing with us the histories of lives that stemmed from this place but were lived out in an unimaginable future. A threshold between different timezones, different possible fates, diverging paths.

R Beinart

Ref: M. Anthony Penwill/Lindsay Seers, It Has To Be This Way. Matts Gallery 2010

1 Comment


“A cipher is any method of encrypting text (concealing its readability and meaning). Its origin is the Arabic sifr, meaning empty or zero.”

In her text on Souvenirs, Susan Stewart writes: ‘The souvenir is destined to be forgotten; its tragedy lies in the death of memory, the tragedy of all autobiography and the simultaneous erasure of the autograph. And thus we come again to the powerful metaphor of the unmarked grave…’

As we attempt to locate and de-cipher traces of our ancestors, we hit many problems. We are having to negotiate multiple languages and translations, from Lithuanian to Russian to Yiddish to Hebrew and around and around in a never-ending circle of confusion. Names have been recorded in one language, translated to another, then another, through several scripts. We hit on using google translate in a playful advertising campaign around Vilnius old town, pretty sure that the mis-translations offered by a cybernetic interpreter reflect the truth of our search.

In a short text published as part of Documenta 2012, Eyal Weizman talks about the ancient greek idea of prosopopoeia, or translating or interpreting the inanimate, giving a voice to objects, to cities and buildings. This idea of buildings/places as sensors/agents, somehow aware of what passes through them, is correlated in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s (Documenta curator) text in which she asks, do objects of art which observe traumatic events become themselves traumatized? If our role as artists is therefore to somehow read and interpret these objects or places, the fear that one can encounter is of the emptiness of the cipher, of the futility of the search. We seem to keep drawing blanks (literally), in following the official routes of historical source materials, museums, archives etc.

Perhaps this is where as artists, we do have another mode of translation to offer, that of embodying the past in the present, which can offer another, richer, re-reading of these sites. As Anke Bangma writes in Experience, Memory, Reenactment, ‘Remembering is an act in the present…(it is) an ongoing process of mediation;…memory is not something we have but something we do, in an act that does not merely reflect past reality ‘as it was’ but acts upon reality by organizing it and attaching specific meaning to it.’ We write our own biographies back into the places or ancestors lived, the autograph returns, the cipher is not deciphered, necessarily, but a new script traces over the old, giving it form and meaning, not emptiness and erasure.

K Beinart



Anke Bangma and Steve Ruston (eds), Experience, Memory, Reenactment, Piet Zwart Institute, 2005;

Documenta notes No. 62, Eyal Weizman, 2012.

Documenta notes No. 40, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, 2012.

Brian Dillon (ed), Ruins, Documents of Contemporary Art series, Whitechapel Gallery, 2011.