Vladimir Putin’s enemies are keeping a close eye on a bird in pointe shoes, because a broadcast of “Swan Lake” may reveal his demise.
The ballet—a more-than-century-old staple of our own highbrow culture—is one of Russia’s most famous contributions to the arts. It is a work that contains all the pathos and depth of the modern Russian nation, a dark story with a tragic ending. (Or a happy one, if one delves deeper in the ballet’s evolution.) It’s also a secret key to the state of things in the Kremlin.
Swan Lake has all the elements of a modern-day binge-able series: young, scantily dressed women, a winged sorcerer, an evil stepmother, a handsome prince, a double suicide. On March 3rd, Swan Lake played a role in the Ukraine war, when State authorities in Moscow shut down Russia’s youth-focused, independent and often Kremlin-critical TV Rain. The staff walked off the set and asserted their power to have the last word through Tchaikovsky’s dramatic music and the disciplined dancing of a corps of ballerinas. The airing of the Soviet recording of the ballet made NBC’s nightly news two days later, leaving many Americans puzzled by the telecast of old Swan Lake footage during dead airtime. But TV Rain’s gesture was perfectly legible to Russians. Symbolizing much more than nostalgia, it was the latest in over a half-century of Russian and Soviet media utilizing the ballet as an indication of crisis—and even leadership change.
There are several Swan Lakes, and while the image of swans dancing to Tchaikovsky’s score has become a symbol of change in Russia, it also alludes to the very question of war and peace. So yes, someday soon, state-owned Russian television may play Swan Lake, but which Swan Lake will they air: the original version, the Soviet version, or a liberated version that hasn’t been seen yet?
First, a bit of history about why so many historians and Eastern Europeans took to Twitter to pray for Swan Lake’s swift appearance. To see dancing swans is, to use @asiktspolitruk’s words, “the equivalent of white smoke from the Sistine Chapel’s chimney in Rome announcing a new Pope.” The broadcast would indicate that the end of Vladimir Putin was near.
When Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982, state-run television broadcast a full-length Swan Lake in lieu of a death announcement. The same footage was aired after the deaths of Yuri Andropov in 1984 and Konstantin Chernenko in 1985. In her book Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia, Janice Ross suggests that these screenings of the Russian ballet were used as a stalling tactic, allowing Soviet leadership time to plan while “soothing the masses.” Ballerinas would dance and the public would wait, calmly, applauding the screen.
The same technique was used in 1991 when communists attempted to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev. Swan Lake aired for three days straight while the public waited it out. In 2011, the Russian national television channel Kultura aired a rebroadcast of Swan Lake to commemorate the attempted coups’ 20th anniversary. Newsweek
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