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Circopedia was originally created with the support of the Big Apple Circus,
and has been inspired and funded by the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.

In The Spotlight


There never have been many elephant acts in the Soviet and Russian circus. Several members of the Durov family have included one pachyderm or two in their animal presentations and a small number of animal trainers, such as Boris Fedotov, Sarvat Begbudi and Msistlav Zapashny have trained elephants. The Kornilov Dynasty, however, is the exception that confirms the rule: Since 1929, they have not only been the great Russian elephant-training specialists, but they also have been among the world’s very best—and the productions of their magnificent acts remain unequaled.

Born November 22, 1903 in Russia, Aleksandr Nikolaievich Kornilov (1903-1977), the founder of the Dynasty, began his professional life as a sailor. At the end of the 1920s, he landed in Samara, the great port city on the Volga river, where he discovered the traveling menagerie of Ivan Lazarevich Filatov (1873-1956)—the father of the legendary Russian bear trainer Valentin Filatov, and scion of an old family of itinerant animal trainers.

This unforeseen encounter changed Kornilov’s life: Although he was indeed fascinated by the Filatov Menagerie exhibitions, he was even more attracted to Masha, the pretty young girl who handled the box office. Masha (Maria Ivanovna Filatova, 1904-1975) was Ivan Lazarevich’s daughter: They quickly fell in love, and Aleksandr decided to stay on dry land and follow Masha, whom he eventually married.

Now part of the family, Aleksandr had to bring his contribution to his father-in-law’s business. Working as a simple cage and stable boy, he did his apprenticeship on the job. After having acquired enough experience caring for the menagerie’s animals, he finally made his public debut as a trainer in 1929 with a group that included brown bears, polar bears and lions. He presented also the menagerie’s single elephant in a sketch titled The Elephant at the Restaurant. (more...)

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CIRCOPEDIA is a constantly evolving and expanding archive of the international circus. New videos, biographies, essays, and documents are added to the site on a weekly—and sometimes daily—basis. Keep visiting us: even if today you don't find what you're looking for, it may well be here tomorrow! And if you are a serious circus scholar and spot a factual or historical inaccuracy, do not hesitate to contact us: we will definitely consider your remarks and suggestions.

Dominique Jando
Founder and Curator