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Tanks and Tutus: a glimpse into the strange affinity between pirouettes and politics

By Fran Osborne

Moscow 1991 — as residents awoke on the 19th of August 1991, they’d have been forgiven for thinking it was a perfectly ordinary summer morning. That is until they turned on the TV and were confronted with all major channels showing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake on repeat. Whilst we might find it unusual, or even comical, or simply put it down to error, for Muscovites and others in the Soviet Union it was clear that something seriously wrong was happening somewhere in the Union… a death of a key figure perhaps, or the illness of its leader, or — as it was in this case — an attempted coup.


The athletic, musical, visually arresting art form of ballet arrived in Russia from France and Italy in the 1700s as part of a Westernised cultural revolution. Over the centuries, the dance was reformed and refined in the conservatoires of Moscow and St Petersburg, establishing Russia as the centre of a classical ballet tradition. So much so that ballet became almost synonymous with Russian culture; even Westerners with no knowledge of Russian art or literature had heard of the Bolshoi and the Kirov. Just as long as its creative development in Russia are ballet’s political associations; in the 19th century performances were staged as reflections of Imperial aims, often at the coronation or birthday of a Tsar. But it was not until the 20th century that ballet became an artistic weapon welded into the political armoury of Russian society. The Swan Lake recording, played on screens for three days straight during the 1991 coup, is testament to this, but its history and its legacy go far beyond this single ballet.

A scene from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake staged at the Bolshoi Theatre of the USSR/RIAN

Archive 854874/Wikimedia

Following the revolution of 1917, as the Bolsheviks began to enforce their utopia, questions over culture emerged: what to keep? What to abolish? Anatoly Lunacharksy, Lenin’s first minister of culture, fought for ballet and the Bolshoi theatre to be retained, as well as its school and various other conservatoires around the country — on the condition that the ballets had to reflect their brave new world. Like visual artists around Russia and the Soviet Union, ballet adopted an almost socialist realist style, its corps de ballet in their peak physical condition reminiscent of the ideal young socialist. Soviet dancers were dancing for their country, as well as for their art form, and this would remain an undercurrent throughout their history for the next hundred years.

But, the perception of Russian ballet was very different outside the Soviet Union. The itinerant Ballets Russes had reinvigorated the art form in Europe with modern and ground breaking performances, perhaps most famously the Rite of Spring that shocked the Parisian public into near hysteria following its 1913 premier. Both the imperial regime and the emerging Soviet Union disliked the avant-garde, perhaps due to its uncontrollable nature. Traditional ballet’s regimented repertoire could be utilised effectively by both pre- and post-revolutionary Russia to reflect their social and political motives, but the new Ballets Russes were distinctive for their depiction of Russian folklore, traditional design motifs, and music that had a foothold in a more regionalised Russian past. A period of ‘Russomania’ took hold in Europe, in spite of the Socialist revolutionary condition of Russia and the Soviet Union at this time, which provided a fertile playground for European and Russian creative and visual artists. Unsurprisingly this was deemed degenerate by the Soviet Union; the Ballets Russes never performed in Russia and disbanded in 1929.

As the respective ideologies of the West and East diverged, so too did their approaches to ballet. Whilst the West favoured ballets that illustrated their social and creative freedoms, the Soviet Union was interested in how the narrative could be used or altered to uphold their Communist aims. Classics like Giselle emphasised the dangers of a class-segregated society, whilst new ballets like Spartacus illustrated Soviet strength and prowess against Western hegemony. Even so, there were moments of cultural thaw and exchange during the Cold War which facilitated the travel of both Western and Soviet ballet companies to each other’s countries. One of these occurred at the moment of the highest tension in the whole of the Cold War during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when the Bolshoi were touring the United States and the New York City Ballet were visiting Moscow. As the crisis subsided, President Kennedy and his wife Jackie conducted a bit of cultural diplomacy of their own. In addition to the statesmanship that had defused the tension, they attended a performance of Swan Lake, and clapped louder and longer than anyone else in a bid to restore relations between the two countries. The thaw continued through the 1960s and 70s. Tours by St Petersburg’s Kirov Ballet were particularly well received in the West, yet they came with a risk as well. In the decades that followed, ballet provided spectacle of a different kind as a number of high-profile Soviet dancers took the opportunity to defect to the West whilst on state sponsored cultural tours. The first and most eye-catching of these was Rudolf Nureyev, a Tatar-born sui generis dancer, whose defection to West is dramatised by Ralph Fiennes in his feature film The White Crow.

Bolshoi Theatre, Archive/ABBYY

Ballet’s political significance in Russia has continued beyond the end of the Cold War. The Swan Lake recording shown on all USSR channels following the deaths of leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, has resurfaced as a political meme over the last 20 years, notably in response to events in Ukraine from the 2015 invasion to today. In March 2015, Russian leader Vladimir Putin went missing for eleven days; in the old Soviet spirit of censorship little was said of his disappearance. Ukrainian citizen Andrii Kapranov set up a website counting down the minutes and days of Putin’s disappearance, accompanied by a looped video of Swan Lake. It was a masterful act of cultural trolling, repeated at the beginning of March 2022 when Ukrainian resistance fighters intercepted Russian state television and broadcast the same Swan Lake video to interrupt the propagandist rollout of Russian news following the February invasion of Ukraine.


As the Russian government’s war on Ukraine continues, Russian culture — including Russian ballet — has largely fallen off the Western world stage. Ballet dancers from Ukraine have responded to attacks on their culture in different ways. Many of those who have left the country joined the United Ukrainian Ballet Company, a troupe whose aim is to keep the ‘cultural soul’ of their nation alive, whilst others have adapted traditional ballets as a means of opposition to Russian cultural hegemony.

The United Ukrainian Ballet poster for a charity performance of Giselle.

Even Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the much-loved composer of The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty has become a figure of controversy, as despite his Ukrainian roots he is widely perceived as a composer emblematic of Imperial Russia. Some argue that his works should be totally boycotted and ballets such as The Snow Queen — a fairytale by Danish author Hans Christian Anderson — have reworked their scores by removing passages written by Tchaikovsky. It is clear with such moves that ballet has lost none of its political potency in the 21st century.


Indeed, nothing illustrates Russia’s peculiar affinity to ballet as a political weapon better than the Moscow Times’ coverage of the Combat Olympics of 2021… As the orchestra blasts Tchaikovsky’s immortal tunes, ballerinas pirouette with combat dancers on top of tanks, gun turrets twirl, and tanks leap through the frame in a demented vision of Swan Lake on manoeuvres. It is hard to describe, and impossible to convey the strangeness of the moment. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to follow the link and marvel at it for yourself. It is perhaps the most surreal expression so far of the pas de deux that the Russian government has danced with ballet since its migration from Europe in the 17th century.


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