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Swans of the Kremlin

Ballet and Power in Soviet Russia

Christina Ezrahi

Publication Year: 2012

Classical ballet was perhaps the most visible symbol of aristocratic culture and its isolation from the rest of Russian society under the tsars. In the wake of the October Revolution, ballet, like all of the arts, fell under the auspices of the Soviet authorities. In light of these events, many feared that the imperial ballet troupes would be disbanded. Instead, the Soviets attempted to mold the former imperial ballet to suit their revolutionary cultural agenda and employ it to reeducate the masses. As Christina Ezrahi’s groundbreaking study reveals, they were far from successful in this ambitious effort to gain complete control over art. Swans of the Kremlin offers a fascinating glimpse at the collision of art and politics during the volatile first fifty years of the Soviet period. Ezrahi shows how the producers and performers of Russia’s two major troupes, the Mariinsky (later Kirov) and the Bolshoi, quietly but effectively resisted Soviet cultural hegemony during this period. Despite all controls put on them, they managed to maintain the classical forms and traditions of their rich artistic past and to further develop their art form. These aesthetic and professional standards proved to be the power behind the ballet’s worldwide appeal. The troupes soon became the showpiece of Soviet cultural achievement, as they captivated Western audiences during the Cold War period. Based on her extensive research into official archives, and personal interviews with many of the artists and staff, Ezrahi presents the first-ever account of the inner workings of these famed ballet troupes during the Soviet era. She follows their struggles in the postrevolutionary period, their peak during the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s, and concludes with their monumental productions staged to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution in 1968.

Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press

Front Cover

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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii

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Acknowledgments/Note on Translation

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pp. ix-xi

The sublime dancers of the Mariinsky-Kirov and the Bolshoi, who elevated the art of ballet throughout the tumultuous twentieth century, inspired this research. I would like to thank the staff at the Central State Archive of Literature and the Arts in St. Petersburg and of the Russian State Archive of...

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pp. 1-9

On 26 February 1917, Mathilda Kschessinskaya received an urgent call from General Halle, the chief of police of the fashionable Petrograd district where she lived. Kschessinskaya was not only prima ballerina assoluta of the Mariinsky Ballet, but she was also the former mistress of Nicholas II...

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1. Survival: The Mariinsky and Bolshoi after the October Revolution

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pp. 10-29

On 25 October 1917, as Bolshevik forces were besieging the Winter Palace, the Mariinsky Theater was preparing for that evening’s ballet performance dedicated to the memory of Tchaikovsky.1 Tamara Karsavina left her flat near the Winter Palace around five o’clock in the afternoon. The ballerina...

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2. Ideological Pressure: Classical Ballet and Soviet Cultural Politics, 1923–1936

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pp. 30-66

If the survival of Russia’s prerevolutionary cultural heritage was put in question by the violent political and social watershed of the October Revolution, the new political masters soon demonstrated that, in the sphere of high culture, they were not so much fanatical iconoclasts as propagandists...

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3. Art versus Politics: The Kirov’s Artistic Council,1950s–1960s

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pp. 67-101

By the 1950s, the former imperial ballet had metamorphosed into an intrinsic part of the official pantheon of Soviet achievements. In his memoirs and at a speech given in Los Angeles in September 1959, Nikita Khrushchev reminisced about his generation’s meteoric rise from uncouth ignorance to...

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4. Ballet Battles: The Kirov Ballet during Khrushchev’s Thaw

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pp. 102-136

After Stalin’s death in March 1953, the new leadership of the country had to face the wide-ranging consequences of Stalinism. The Khrushchev era was marked by the dilemmas that arose out of this complex process. If late Stalinism had sucked the life out of the Soviet utopia, the reforms of...

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5. Beyond the Iron Curtain: The Bolshoi Ballet in London in 1956

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pp. 137-168

The Cold War struggle for victory between democratic capitalism and Soviet socialism took place on several battlefields. In the nuclear age, as the consequences of military action became unfathomable, the ideological battlefield assumed increasing importance. With the onset of the Cold War,...

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6. Enfant Terrible: Leonid Iakobson and The Bedbug, 1962

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pp. 169-200

In her autobiography, Natalia Makarova remembers that in her first year at the Kirov, she was “fabulously lucky”—she fell into the hands of the choreographer Leonid Iakobson, the choreographic enfant terrible of Soviet ballet, a person of notoriously difficult character who was known as the...

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7. Choreography as Resistance: Yuri Grigorovich’s Spartacus, 1968

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pp. 201-231

By the 1960s, the Kirov and Bolshoi Ballet companies were nationally and internationally celebrated as major Soviet cultural achievements, but the glory of the Soviet ballet continued to rest primarily on the prerevolutionary classical repertoire. Within the Soviet cultural project, the position of classical...

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pp. 232-240

In 1917, the violence of the Russian Revolution shook Russian civilization to its core. Standing seemingly triumphant on the rubble of Russia’s old political, social, economic, and cultural order, the Bolsheviks claimed they were setting the country on a path toward socialism and sought to enroll art as a...

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Appendix 1: A Who’s Who

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pp. 241-256

The following biographical entries focus on those aspects of each individual’s life that are most relevant for this book. Unless noted otherwise, entries are based on Russkii balet entsiklopediia (Moscow: Bol’shaia rosiiskaia entsiklopediia, “Soglasie,” 1997); Arsen Degen and Igor’ Stupnikov,...

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Appendix 2: Ballets

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pp. 257-272

This appendix provides information on the production of ballets mentioned in the text. It therefore does not provide information on other productions of these ballets unless relevant for this book. I will give production details...


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pp. 273-300


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pp. 301-307


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pp. 309-322

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780822978077
E-ISBN-10: 0822978075
Print-ISBN-13: 9780822962144
Print-ISBN-10: 0822962144

Page Count: 368
Illustrations: 50 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2012