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Angry Birds: Russia’s New Censorship of the Arts

“Ballerinas dance anti-Putin Swan Lake in Odessa.” The headline sounds like a set-up for a sketch comedy routine but it was deadly earnest. This past May, four Ukranian ballerinas donned tutus and pointe shoes and interlaced arms to dance the four little swans quartet from Swan Lake as an act of protest against Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Staged outdoors, and with a military tank as the backdrop, this anti-Russian feathered routine was intended as a gesture of defiance against Russian forces when they invaded Ukraine in the Spring of this year. The choice of Swan Lake was a deliberately satiric nod by the Ukranians to the soviet era tradition of televising the ballet Swan Lake to signal a change in the country’s leadership.

“We are here to send a message that by unleashing aggression against Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has made a fatal mistake,” regional lawmaker Oleksiy Honcharenko told Ukrainian television cameras when introducing the Swan Lake excerpt. “Today Odessa, as a cultural capital, performs for him this portentous composition.”

Russian censorship may be considered a vestige of the Soviet years and its use of a ballet to portend traumatic events dated, but this summer, not too long after the Ukranian Swan Lake protest, these practices came roaring back. On July 1 new prohibitions were signed into law by Putin, censoring the use of curse words in the arts and restricting the freedom of speech, artistic expression and criticism of the Russian government.

Last year Putin had banned the use of curse words in Russian media – primarily words describing male and female reproductive organs, copulation and “women of loose morals” according to the BBC. But these newest prohibitions, in targeting artists, carry a particular chill. Dating from the Russian Revolution, the political force of the arts in Russia has been viewed by leadership as both symbolic and deeply practical. Through the reign of Stalin and into the present moment the arts, and particularly time-based art like film, theatre and dance, were considered important mediums of ideological persuasion.

These newest censorship laws were conceived in the shadow of the 2012 arrest of the punk protest group, Pussy Riot, whose members were incarcerated after they performed a song in Moscow’s main cathedral that was considered offensive. Affecting books, films, music, theatre productions among other art forms, the new law punishes any artist or cultural institution that uses curse words with fines of $70 and $1400 respectively.

Ballet in Russia has existed in the net of propaganda and control for a long time. The ties between Swan Lake and Soviet power reached its height in the post Brezhnev to Gorbachebv era. During this decade whenever a political event was about to unfold state controlled television preempted all regular programming and began broadcasting… Swan Lake in its full-length, four-act, three-hour expanse. This was the precise scenario in 1982, 1984, 1985 and 1991 when announcement of the deaths of Leonid Brezhnev, then Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, and, finally, the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, were all heralded by official silence and a TV broadcast of the work most emblematic of the purest form of classical ballet, Swan Lake danced to a score by the trademark Russian composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

In an ironic citation in 2011, long after the dissolution of the USSR, the twentieth anniversary of the 1991 putsch attempt was commemorated with documentaries and a rebroadcast of Swan Lake on Kultura, the Russian national television channel. This time however, columns of tanks were not grinding through Moscow streets as they had two decades earlier when the ballet had been used, in part, as an information blockade and social palliative through squadrons of “tutus.”

This pairing of Russian ballet classicism with Soviet power shifts through TV broadcasts of Swan Lake at crisis points may seem puzzling to outsiders. However, those who experienced it within the Soviet system say it rapidly came to trigger just what it was supposedly intended to defuse – heightened anxiety about an imminent political shift and the awareness that someone (or something) had died:

When seasoned lawmaker Sergey Filatov, a leader of a group defending the Russian White House from the August 1991 anti-perestroika coup, turned on the TV while relaxing at the southern resort of Zheleznovodsk on August 19, 1991 he recounts his rising anxiety: “(I) (s)aw the swans dancing. For five minutes, 10 minutes, for an hour. Then I realized that something had happened because we learned to read between the lines in Soviet times,” he said. Those looping Swans made Filatov jump on the next plane to Moscow where indeed an anti-perestroika coup by Communist Party hardliners was in progress.

The use of Swan Lake as a hedge against saying anything in a time of political emergency, offers a unique window onto the dense calculus of ballet and power in Soviet Russia. Even highly placed political figures like Indulis Bērziņš, Latvia’s former foreign minister, have spoken of remembering the sound of Tchaikovsky’s score for the ballet as producing a more chilling effect and lasting memory than the tumult and Soviet tanks in the street. This was because since once they seized control of state television, Communist Party hardliners who were attempting to save the Soviet Union through that 1991 coup, immediately aired Swan Lake.” Vasiliy Starodubtsev, a coup organizer and former fighter pilot and governor in Russia’s Tula region, told the Washington Post in 2011 that the coup’s failure was that it misjudged the need for public relations. “Instead of broadcasting Swan Lake, we should have been explaining what we were doing,” he said.

To the astute dance observer however, Swan Lake actually did offer an explanation. Through the medium of dance a vision of idealized nationalism can be performed – a trigger for sentiments of kinship at the inherent “Russianness” of these bodies on that stage, in those formations. There are few stronger visceral images of social harmony on stage than an ensemble of bodies rehearsed into that tight unison of the corps de ballet and few more seductive images for the spectator that prompt the illusion of vicarious participation, than the assembly and dispersing of circles/lines and diagonals of identically costumed women in swan feathers. It is like some primordial flock to which we all secretly yearn to belong.

This rising censorship against the arts in Russia however, suggests artists there may do well to revisit the strategies that enabled their artistic predecessors to survive and make art under totalitarian rule in the previous century as they ponder the growing shadows.

Janice Ross, Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at Stanford University, is the author of Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia, (January 2015), Yale University Press. 

A similar post appears on Yale Books Unbound.