Letter from Moscow
A scandal at the Bolshoi Ballet.
by David Remnick March 18, 2013
A dress rehearsal at the Bolshoi, a month after the acid attack on the company’s artistic director, Sergei Filin. Since the nineteenth century, the Bolshoi has uncannily embodied the society to which it belongs: imperial Russia, Soviet Russia, and, now, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Photograph by Misha Friedman.
Sergei Yurevich Filin, a man of early middle age and improbable beauty, sat behind the wheel of his car on a winter night driving toward home. It was 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the center of Moscow, a light snow in the air, snow on the rooftops, snow piled up in the lanes. Traffic was thick but brisk. Nearby, spotlights illuminated the Kremlin towers. Laughing skaters sliced along a vast rink set up for the season on Red Square. An immense white inflatable dome encased Lenin’s Tomb, sealing it off for structural repairs. Muscovites joked that the eternal resting place of their discredited forefather now looked like Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4.
When Filin was in his twenties and thirties, he had been a principal dancer for the Bolshoi Ballet. He performed the glamour roles: Count Albrecht, in “Giselle”; the princes in “The Nutcracker,” “Cinderella,” “Swan Lake,” and “The Sleeping Beauty.” He was not the strongest dancer—by the time he was thirty, his jumps were low, his turnout was vague—but, with his pointed chin and light eyes, he retained a dashing presence. He was an effective mime. When Giselle would go into her mad scene, Filin had a way of putting his hands lightly to his temples as if to signal to the audience that he required three aspirin and a glass of water. He was forty-two years old now, but his face was still unlined, his hair shaggy in a teen-idol sort of way. His gaze was, it always seemed, confiding and unworried—despite the great change in his life. Nearly two years earlier, he had become the Bolshoi’s khudruk, its artistic director. He did not pretend to dictate policy in the Bolshevik style of Yuri Grigorovich, an imperious second-rater who ruled the company by decree for three decades, from 1964 to 1995. But Filin did control the crucial matters of scheduling, casting, promotion, and repertoire. The fortunes of more than two hundred dancers—many of them in a permanent state of anxiety about their mayfly careers—rested with him, with his judgments and his caprices.
Filin drove a black Mercedes S.U.V. In what was once the land of the Lada, Bentleys and Maybachs had become a cliché. Moscow was now an oil-and-gas capital, with more billionaires than any other city in the world. Soviet-era shops with their sackcloth names—Clothes and Shoes, Milk and Vegetables—had given way long ago to Dior and Chanel, Nobu and the Vogue Café. Filin savored his ride home. It gave him time alone to think.
It had been an unusual evening. Ordinarily, Filin would have attended that night’s performance at the Bolshoi—it was “Swan Lake”—and then gone backstage to distribute to the company his congratulations and, perhaps, some gentle corrections. But on this night, January 17th, he went instead to a performance a short walk away, at the Moscow Art Theatre, which was celebrating the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Constantin Stanislavsky, the theatre’s founder.
After the event, Filin walked back to the parking lot at the Bolshoi and got in his car. He pulled out of the lot onto Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street, turned onto the Boulevard Ring, and then onto the Garden Ring. Filin, his wife—a Bolshoi dancer named Maria (Masha) Prorvich—and their three young sons lived just north of the Ring Road, at 9 Troitskaya Street. Their building was populated largely by performers and administrators at the Bolshoi.
At around eleven, Filin, feeling tired and eager to see his wife, steered the Mercedes into a parking lot outside his building and headed for his door. The snow was icy and thick. Filin was reaching for the security buzzer when he heard someone behind him call out his name. Then the voice said, “Tebye privet!”—literally, “Hello to you!,” but more abrupt and menacing, as though someone were relaying an ominous greeting from a third party.
Filin turned and saw a man in front of him. He was neither tall nor short. He wore a woolly hat and a scarf wrapped around his face. His right arm was crooked behind him, as if he were concealing something.
A gun, Filin thought, in that flash of confrontation: He’s holding a gun and I am dead. Bolt! But, before he could move, his attacker swung his arm out in front of him. In his hand was a glass jar filled with liquid, and he hurled its contents at Filin’s face. A security camera in the parking lot fixed the time at 23:07.
The liquid was sulfuric acid—the “oil of vitriol,” as medieval alchemists called it. Depending on the concentration, it can lay waste to human skin as quickly as in a horror movie. Scientists working with sulfuric acid wear protective goggles; even a small amount in the eyes can destroy the cornea and cause permanent blindness.
Filin was in agony. The burning was immediate and severe. His vision turned to black. He could feel the scalding of his face and scalp, the pain intensifying all the time.
“In those first seconds, all I could think was, How can I relieve the pain?” Filin told me later. “The burning was so awful. I tried to move. I fell face first into the snow. I started grabbing handfuls of snow and rubbing it into my face and eyes. I felt some small relief from the snow. I thought of how to get home. I was pretty close to my door. There’s an electronic code and a metal door, but I couldn’t punch in the numbers of the code. I couldn’t see them. When I understood that I couldn’t get into the building, I started shouting, ‘Help! Help! I need help!’ But no one was around. I tried to make my way to another entrance, in the hope that someone would see me and help me. But that was not such a good idea, because I was falling down and getting up and bumping into cars and into walls and falling down because I couldn’t see any steps. There was so much snow. Snow was coming down. I kept rubbing it into my face.
“When I understood that there was no use shouting for help, I decided to reach into my pocket and put my mobile phone in my hand. I hoped someone would call me. I couldn’t see the screen, so I couldn’t dial. Usually, I get one call after another, but there were no calls for some reason. I tried to knock on the door of each entrance. I’m quite strong and I banged very loudly, but no one was coming out to help. Then the phone slipped out of my hand and I lost it in the snow. The pain in my eyes and face was so terrible that I had a wave of thought: I was dying. But I only wanted to die if it was in the arms of my wife. The pain was unbearable. I really thought this might be the end of me.”
Filin stopped talking for a while, gathering his memory. Then he said, “I remembered that at the parking lot there’s a booth with security guards, and I hoped there would be someone there. So I ran in what I thought might be the direction of the parking lot. My eyes couldn’t see, but somehow my bodily navigation was alert and it moved me in the right direction. I kept falling down and bouncing off the cars, as if I were the ball in a pinball machine. Eventually, I made my way to this booth and I started banging on the window. And here I finally lucked out. There was a guard there. He said he was absolutely shocked when he saw me. He immediately scooped up more snow and rubbed it into my face. By now I was trembling. I’d developed some sort of fever, it must have been shock, and I kept saying, ‘Please call Masha, please call Masha.’ I really thought I was dying. So he called an emergency number—for an ambulance—and then he called upstairs to Masha, who came out of the apartment and to the parking lot. I don’t want to discuss the nightmare that came next: my wife’s reaction, the reaction of my relatives who saw me in this condition. I could hear them crying and I understood that what they saw in my face was something . . . horrendous.”
The daily morning classes that every professional dancer must take are at once languid and exigent. The sessions are as routinized as a spring-training workout, but to miss them is an unpardonable delinquency. At the Bolshoi, an eleven-o’clock class is held in the biggest rehearsal studio, the Ulanova Room. (In mid-century, Galina Ulanova was the country’s prima ballerina assoluta—the “elusive soul” of dance, Prokofiev called her. In 1939, after Stalin signed his pact with the Nazis, in Moscow, he celebrated by taking Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, to the Bolshoi to see Ulanova dance.) I watched thirty dancers go through their routines, a gradual progression from a series of subtle exercises at the barre to, nearly an hour later, the grands jetés.
I lived in Moscow in the last years of the Soviet era, when tickets to the Bolshoi were cheap, and I used to go whenever I could, happily enduring even Grigorovich’s agitprop warhorses “Spartacus” and “Ivan the Terrible.” There was something magical about stepping off the freezing, chaotic streets of the city and settling into a velvet upholstered seat, a million-crystal chandelier twinkling overhead, the balconies crowded with older perfumed women swelling with cultural aspiration and sitting with their adorable pigtailed granddaughters. When the ballet was bad, as it sometimes was, it was still a pleasant escape from newspaper deadlines and the antics of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. When it was good, I was entranced. But now, to watch the dancers from this meagre distance was to see them as if with binoculars: the sinewy weave of a young comer’s quadriceps; the palm-in-the-breeze articulation of a woman’s arm. After a while, one became aware, as well, of the pungent result of increasing exertion. “I don’t understand anything about the ballet,” Chekhov wrote. “All I know is that during the intervals the ballerinas stink like horses.”
Alexander Vetrov, who was a leading soloist in the company a generation ago, directed the class, issuing instructions and corrections in a voice barely louder than a murmur. Until the pianist arrived, he hummed accompaniment. I sat on a bench with my back against a vast mirrored wall. I was there at the invitation of a clever yet beleaguered woman named Katya Novikova, whose job it now was to repair the image and the reputation of the Bolshoi “post-acid,” as she put it. Novikova comes from a distinguished theatre family in St. Petersburg, and she is well versed in the intrigues inside any Russian theatre: the intrusions of ideology and politics, the portentous buzz of professional rivalry and sexual jealousy. Foreign travel and defection were no longer sources of high drama. Money was. Money showed itself all the time, in the intrusions of rich boyfriends, in the impertinent demands of board members and politicians, in the campaigns to bring in more oligarchs to augment the budget. The dancers themselves worried about money; their base salaries were small, and they depended on Filin’s favor to be given the serious roles that would boost their income.
People at the Bolshoi liked to talk about its “mini-cosmos,” the hermetic world of dressing rooms and rehearsal stages on Teatralnaya Ploshchad—Theatre Square. Vadim Gayevsky, a ballet critic and historian who has been attending the Bolshoi since the Stalin era, compared the atmosphere there to the furtive goings on at the convent in Diderot’s “The Nun.” “No convent is immune to the depredations of the street,” Gayevsky said. Now that the artistic director had been attacked, the dancers understood their vulnerability, their exposure. As they stretched at the barre, Filin was undergoing one operation after another—more than a dozen—to rescue his vision and his looks. There was no guarantee that he would see clearly again.
When Novikova spoke about the ongoing police investigation, she lost her accustomed air of poised irony and sounded a plaintive note. “If it turns out that the guilty one is inside the company, I’ll be terrified,” she said. “This would be unbearable—to think that the person was in the same room with us!” And yet the company members knew that this prospect was far from unlikely. Novikova seemed about to cry, but she didn’t.
After class, she introduced me to Vetrov, who was disappointed to learn that I was interested less in the coming festival celebrating the centenary of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” than in the attack on Sergei Filin. “Look, the world is getting crazier and crazier, and you can see that in this affair,” he said. “I found out by watching television the morning after, and as I was watching I simply couldn’t believe they were talking about Sergei. The stories here in the past—all of this reflects Russia outside our door.”
I heard this all the time. Sometimes an institution has an uncanny way of embodying the society to which it belongs. For decades, the office of the heavyweight championship of the world—and the battles for that crown, from Jack Johnson to Mike Tyson—said something about the racial dynamics of twentieth-century America. So it is at the pinnacles of Russian dance. Since the nineteenth century, the country’s two principal stages—the Mariinsky, in St. Petersburg, and the Bolshoi, in Moscow—have acted as microcosms of imperial Russia, Soviet Russia, and, now, Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
In the days I spent talking with dancers, instructors, and administrators at the Bolshoi, it was clear that everyone had accepted some version of this theme: “What happens in the theatre reflects what is happening in the streets.” Russians, in the contemporary version of their fatalism, see their country as a landscape of endless bespredel, lawlessness, a world devoid of order or justice or restraint. One disaster is of a piece with another. The acid attack on Filin was of a piece with recent events like the broad-daylight assassination of Aslan Usoyan, also known as Grandpa Hassan, a renowned mobster. One afternoon, I visited Tatyana Kuznetsova, a former dancer and now the dance critic for Kommersant Daily; her parents had been dancers at the Bolshoi and she lives not far from Filin, in a building full of dancers and artists. “I just heard the news about one of our legislators!” she said. “They found him encased in a barrel of concrete! It’s just like what happened to Sergei Filin.”
For weeks preceding the attack, Filin had been subjected to anonymous threats and harassment. Someone was repeatedly ringing his cell phone and hanging up. Someone hacked his e-mail accounts; his in-box was flooded with crude messages. Someone slashed his tires. Someone set up fake Facebook pages in Filin’s name and posted obscene material intended to embarrass him.
All this was in addition to the usual pressures. Dancers insisted on promotions, on bigger parts, on more money. A veteran soloist named Pavel Dmitrichenko, for instance, loudly demanded that he get the lead in “La Bayadère,” and his girlfriend, Anzhelina Vorontsova, was agitating to get the lead in “Swan Lake.” Then there was Vorontsova’s mentor, a brilliant, if fading, dancer of Filin’s generation named Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who made no secret of his view that Filin’s job should have been his, and who was the Bolshoi’s self-appointed leader of the opposition.
Filin did his best to ignore the bullying, the bribes, and the blandishments. But where could he go? Whom could he confide in? He was convinced that his telephones at home and at the office were tapped.
Sergei and Masha didn’t talk often about the threats. “First of all, we didn’t have much time for that,” he said. Sergei was running the company and Masha was dancing in twenty Christmas and New Year’s performances of “The Nutcracker.” But one night Masha said, “Let’s get some security. Let’s at least get a driver, so that you’re not alone coming home late at night.” Filin’s mother warned him about the Bolshoi’s “toxic atmosphere.” Someone—a rival, a disgruntled dancer, the lover of a disappointed performer determined to set things right—could bring him down or do him in. Filin was not safe.
Filin’s family had reason to worry. In early March, 2011, the contract of the most recent artistic director, Yuri Burlaka, was expiring, and the job was coming vacant. Gennady Yanin, the company’s manager, was being considered for the promotion. He had been a well-regarded soloist in the nineteen-nineties, and he had proved himself to be an at least adequate, if not universally adored, administrator. Then came the morning of March 6th. Pavel Gershenzon, a renowned critic and artistic adviser to the Bolshoi, recalled, “I opened my Gmail account that morning. There was a link: it began with the ornate letterhead of the Bolshoi Theatre and some sort of announcement. There was a photograph of Gennady Yanin, smiling, wearing a tie. Fine. Then I scrolled down, and then—there was another picture of Yanin, with a dick in his mouth! What the fuck is this! I kept scrolling. There were a hundred and eighty-three such photos of Yanin. Gay sex. Some heterosexual, too. I looked at all those pictures and I turned red. It turned out they’d been sent all over the world, to all theatres, to all agents, dancers, to the whole dance world. They say it even reached Yanin’s teen-age daughter.”
This was the end of Gennady Yanin at the Bolshoi. Homosexuality is common and generally accepted in the Russian dance world, but, in large measure, it is taboo in Russia. Russian jurists and legislators have sought to outlaw “gay propaganda” (which is so loosely defined that it can include anything from gay-pride parades to holding hands on the street). Soon after the sex pictures went out on the Internet, a group of dancers at the Bolshoi met and decided that Yanin was unworthy of their support. Yanin’s resignation was accepted with little protest.
Not long afterward, Filin, who, upon retiring as a dancer, had been working as the director of the city’s second-best ballet company, the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Music Theatre, got the job as artistic director at the Bolshoi. From the beginning, he anticipated attacks similar to those which destroyed Yanin. He had led a healthy amatory life—he was the object of adoration by many female dancers and countless fans—and it was clear that he had rivals in the company, others who had hoped to lead the Bolshoi. In Russia, the destruction of a rival through kompromat—compromising documents, photographs, or videos—is common in politics and business. If the Kremlin or the secret services want to destroy an inconvenient satirist or an irritating journalist, they often find a way to lure him into the usual human temptations, record the proceedings, and make the results public. In 1999, on the eve of a national election, a prosecutor named Yuri Skuratov was investigating corruption at the Kremlin and among its oligarch allies. Now all that anyone remembers about Skuratov is the grainy black-and-white film of him attempting, without complete success, to have sex with two prostitutes; the film was broadcast nationally on state television, and that was the end of Skuratov and the investigation. (The head of the secret services at the time was Vladimir Putin.) For more than a decade, the Web site compromat.ru has posted troves of humiliating material, sometimes fabricated. And so when Filin started getting harassed by telephone and by e-mail in December, 2012, he sensed an imminent, if banal, danger from enemies he could only guess at.
“The tension was building up so rapidly, I felt there would inevitably be some sort of incident,” he told me. “The story would have a logical resolution. I thought it would be some sort of blackmail, an invented scandal using the media or the Internet. I was ready for anything. And since I got no threats of a physical attack, I anticipated anything but that! My biggest mistake, the thing I regret the most, came at the very end of December. I should have talked to the media. Maybe the story would have been otherwise.”
But, with the extended New Year holiday over, Filin met with Anatoly Iksanov, the general director of the Bolshoi—the man who runs the entire enterprise: the ballet, the opera, the staff of more than thirty-five hundred—to talk about the problem. Iksanov is a shrewd cultural bureaucrat. He worked in the theatre in St. Petersburg and took over operations of the Bolshoi in 2000. He is well accustomed to the internecine politics of the arts. His head is pale and moonlike; he is all pate, cheek, and mustache. He listens with intense amusement. He smokes continually. A humidifier sends a plume of steam into the air of his office. Filin spoke about the phone calls, the hacking, the vandalism. Still, he and Iksanov decided to take no extraordinary measures: they would not fire anyone in the company, even if they suspected that person of bad intent; they would not even hire a driver or a security guard to be with Filin.
“Maybe it’s just part of our profession,” Iksanov told Filin. “I’m in the same situation. No one has threatened me, but there are some attempts to discredit me. If we’re going to pay attention to that, then we won’t be able to work.” One reason that Iksanov was feeling under pressure was that Vladimir Kekhman, a fruit magnate, known in the press as “the Emperor of Banana,” had taken over the Mikhailovsky Theatre, in St. Petersburg, and, with Steinbrennerian aggression, was throwing big sums of money around to steal premier dancers from the Bolshoi.
“I feel like I’m on the front line of a war,” Filin said.
“I’ve felt that way all the years I’ve been here!” Iksanov said.
The Bolshoi is a ten-minute walk from the Kremlin. Historically, it might as well have been an annex. Stalin, an opera aficionado and balletomane, used to arrive at the theatre through a secret entrance and watch alone, in a first-tier box, shrouded from view by red velvet curtains. When the K.G.B. and the Soviet military staged a coup, in August, 1991, they solved the problem of how to announce the overthrow of Mikhail Gorbachev by broadcasting a continuous loop of the Bolshoi’s version of “Swan Lake.”
As the scholar Christina Ezrahi writes in her recent book “Swans of the Kremlin,” ballet was an art of the court, and a vehicle of self-celebration for the Romanov dynasty. In the seventeen-thirties, the tsarina established an imperial ballet school in the Winter Palace, and students were considered members of the royal household. When George Balanchine was twelve, in 1916, he performed in “The Pharaoh’s Daughter” for Nicholas II; afterward, Nicholas patted him on the shoulder and gave him a silver box filled with candy. On the day in the winter of 1917 when revolution broke out on the streets of Petrograd, Mathilde Kschessinskaya, who was the prima ballerina of the Mariinsky, the former mistress of the tsar, and the current lover of Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich, put on her velvet-and-chinchilla coat and abandoned the mansion that had been the reward for her favors. Not long after, the house became Bolshevik headquarters. Lenin issued proclamations from her balcony.
After the Revolution, the imperial theatres were not, initially, a priority for the Bolshevik leadership. “It is awkward to spend big money on such a luxurious theatre,” Lenin said of the Bolshoi, “when we lack simple schools in the villages.” In 1921, Lenin told Anatoly Lunacharsky, the cultural commissar, to “lay all the theatres in the grave”—to destroy them—and focus on the urgent needs of the workers and the peasants: literacy, food, medicine. But Lunacharsky noticed that, even with civil war consuming the entire country, peasants and workers were happy to fill the seats of the Bolshoi. And it wasn’t revolutionary theatre that captivated them. It was, in part, ballet. They lacked, at first, a certain connoisseurship. Some workers, Ezrahi writes, were so ignorant of the mute art of ballet that they asked one another when the performers would begin to sing. Nevertheless, Lunacharsky insisted that the workers “ceaselessly demand opera and ballet.” The Bolshoi, in the end, was not razed.
Under Stalin, the Bolshoi became the court theatre for a Communist regime. As Jennifer Homans writes in her book “Apollo’s Angels,” the Mariinsky style of ballet remained dignified, restrained, classical. The Bolshoi aesthetic came to reflect the regime itself: fiery, pompous, and, at its worst, crudely propagandistic. Stalin and his ideologists punished any trace of formalism and barred innovators like Balanchine, who had escaped Russia for Western Europe in 1924. After watching a 1935 production of the ballet “The Bright Stream” and, months later, the opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” Stalin ordered the editors of the Communist Party daily Pravda to publish denunciations of the composer, Dmitri Shostakovich.
Maya Plisetskaya, one of the leading ballerinas of the Soviet period, endured the keenest humiliations of the regime and enjoyed its highest privileges. Her father was executed in the Purges, and her mother was arrested on a night that she had taken Maya to the Bolshoi to see her aunt dance. (“I struggle now to remember how I ended up that evening at the theatre all alone,” Plisetskaya wrote in her memoirs. “Without mother. With a big bouquet of Crimean mimosas.”) Plisetskaya danced for Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev, as well as for visitors like Mao, Gandhi, and Ribbentrop. Khrushchev said he saw her perform “Swan Lake” so often that he dreamed of “white tutus and tanks all mixed up together.” Brezhnev groped her knee while singing “The Broad Dnieper Roils and Moans.”
For the Soviet leadership, the Bolshoi was a showcase, a glittering palace where it could bring foreign guests and hold Communist Party congresses. For the audience, the place had an entirely different meaning. “For us, the Soviet people, the Bolshoi Ballet was an oasis from Soviet reality,” Vadim Gayevsky, the ballet historian, told me. “When I was there in Stalin’s time, people were getting arrested, and being informed on. The photographs in question in those days were nothing like the pictures of Gennady Yanin. These were mug shots provided by the N.K.V.D. and the K.G.B. The Yanin pictures are child’s play.”
Stalin supported the theatre, no matter the cost or the conditions. “The Bolshoi was an imperial theatre with gaudy productions even during the worst times,” the critic Tatyana Kuznetsova said. “In 1946, everything was in ruins, and yet there was a grand production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’! It was meant to be the sign that the nightmare was over and the fairy tale had recommenced.”
Well, hardly all fairy tales. Yuri Grigorovich, who ruled the Bolshoi Ballet for three decades, favored lumpy allegories like “Spartacus,” the story of a slave revolt against the Romans that clearly was intended to mirror the uprising of the Russian proletariat in 1917. The sense of intellectual stagnation and over-all corruption, of dictatorship’s late-mannerist phase, was no less evident at the ballet than it was in the Kremlin.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1991, and the economy went into free fall, the Bolshoi lost millions in subsidies. The annual budget for the theatre dropped to twelve million dollars, hardly enough to pay the dancers, the coaches, and the staff, let alone develop new ballets. Then, a decade ago, Russia came into its own as an oil-and-gas economy. The federal budget stabilized and the Russian government hired Iksanov, who was soon able to bring the budget up to a hundred and twenty million dollars. Iksanov also hired McKinsey, the management consultancy, to help reconfigure salaries and ticket prices, and set up an outside board of directors; it attracted a small stream of oligarchs who were pleased to pay the still modest annual sum of three hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars to sit on the board.
The greatest achievement at the Bolshoi is the one nobody talks about anymore—the end of ideological control. The last time anyone in power, or on the streets, tried to restrict the repertory in a serious way was in 2005, when the Bolshoi Theatre staged the opera “Rosenthal’s Children,” a political fantasia written by the novelist Vladimir Sorokin and the composer Leonid Desyatnikov. Sorokin’s libretto featured the homosexual coupling of the clones of Stalin and Khrushchev, an encounter between Mozart and a prostitute, a murderous futuristic pimp, and other details sure to get the attention of cultural conservatives. There were street demonstrations led by a pro-Kremlin youth group, during which Sorokin’s novels were shredded and put in a makeshift toilet bowl, and hearings in the State Duma. In the end, the protests fizzled and Anatoly Iksanov thanked the legislators for the extra publicity.
An early indication that there was a cost to the new post-Soviet money rolling into the Bolshoi Ballet came, in 2003, with the case of the so-called “fat ballerina.” Anastasia Volochkova occupies a place in Russian pop culture these days somewhere between a ringer on “Dancing with the Stars” and a cast member of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” Curvaceous and bleached, Volochkova is the cartoonish epitome of garish, new-money Russia. She has made the intimate acquaintance of one obliging oligarch after another. When she finally married, the ceremony was broadcast on television; she had three wedding dresses—white, pink, and pistachio. In 2009, Volochkova declared her intention to run for the position of mayor of Sochi—the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics—but she was barred from contention after she failed to properly register her age on the forms. And yet Volochkova deflects mockery and disappointment with a flick of her fluttering fingernails. Living well, she knows, is the best revenge. Or, as she has put it, “I will fuck the shit out of the entire world. In a good way.”
Volochkova did not start out in this spirit. She was an earnest student at the Vaganova Academy, in St. Petersburg—the most élite ballet school in Russia—and, by 1998, when she was twenty-two, she was a principal at the Bolshoi. She was hardly an Ulanova or a Plisetskaya, but she was a capable swan—bigger-boned than some, indelicate, but with a vivid erotic presence.
Volochkova soon fell out with the theatre’s leadership, however. In class, she tended to ignore the regal former ballerinas who led the exercises, and went into her own desultory routines. She failed to maintain the strength and technique necessary, for example, to leap into the arms of a male partner without causing him to engage the services of a chiropractor. With time, Iksanov volunteered, Volochkova became as unwieldy as a “jellyfish.” The Bolshoi’s leading men refused to partner her; she relied instead on partners imported from out of town.
In 2003, Iksanov fired her, declaring her too “fat.” This was neither gentlemanly nor necessarily true. Volochkova said that she weighed a hundred and nine pounds. When I raised this with Iksanov one afternoon in his office, he smiled and said, “The last straw was when she came to see me right before a tour to Paris. We hadn’t been to the Paris Opera in years. She announced that she would dance all the best female lead roles. I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘It is my will!’ ” Iksanov was also indignant when he noticed a billboard announcing one of Volochkova’s performances: her name and picture were “gigantic,” he said, and the name of the Bolshoi barely visible. “It was this kind of thing every day,” he said.
“Yes, but you said you fired her because she was ‘fat,’ ” I said.
Iksanov took a drag on his cigarette. His eyes grew more hooded and mischievous. “But look at her size! She is not a subtle creature,” he insisted. “Even jellyfish can be small and light, but when you are that size things get rather awkward!”
There was something touching about Volochkova’s reaction to her dismissal. She announced that she had quit eating ice cream and was getting by on “spinach leaves and vegetables.” She complained of insidious persecutions. She said that while she was in the company her costumes had been “splashed with paint” and “rhinestones were plucked off.” She wrote on her blog that Yevgeny Ivanchenko, one of her hired-gun partners from St. Petersburg, had been assaulted before an opening-night performance, in 2003, of “Swan Lake” and was warned that things would get worse if he continued to dance with her. She also told reporters that the Bolshoi management was running, in effect, a terpsichorean escort service. “Parties are organized for oligarchs, for sponsors,” she said. “And they invite ballerinas from the Bolshoi. The girls are told, If you go to the party, you will have a future. If not, you won’t go on the next tour.” Iksanov, of course, denied all the charges.
The most prominent figure at the Bolshoi to stand by Volochkova at the time was Filin’s most vocal detractor, the principal dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze. He offered to partner Volochkova in “Raymonda,” as scheduled, but management cancelled the engagement.
Two years after the fat-ballerina affair, the Bolshoi Theatre closed its doors for six years. The building, so long neglected, was a wreck. The spiritual crisis inside the rehearsal studios had been eclipsed, at least for the moment, by the corrosion of the building itself.
The Bolshoi was chartered in 1776, during the reign of Catherine the Great, and opened four years later. It burned to the ground a few times before the theatre we know today was constructed, in just under a year, for the coronation of Alexander II, in 1856. The architect, Alberto Cavos, declared that he had decorated the main theatre as “magnificently as possible but also lightly in the style of the Renaissance; mixed with the Byzantine.” Critics can argue over the degree of gilt, but there is no disputing that the theatre was built on unstable ground. It rests on a tributary of the Neglinka River. In 1902, the foundation shifted to such a degree that the doors to the boxes jammed shut, and spectators were forced to climb out onto the balconies to make their escape. By 2005, the basements were flooded. There were foot-wide cracks in the walls that ran from top to bottom. The immense limestone columns at the front of the theatre were ravaged by pollution. After an initial inspection of the premises, one contractor told the press that the entire building could “collapse like a house of cards at any minute.”
It was left to Iksanov to appeal to the regime for help. Vladimir Putin is not musical. Unlike Stalin, who used to drag his Politburo henchmen to the ballet and force them to stay awake through performances of “Swan Lake,” Putin is a sportsman. He would rather fly a glider with migrating cranes, or track tigers and bears, than attend the Bolshoi. Indeed, one imagines that he would rather share a cage with tigers and bears than attend the Bolshoi. “Vladimir Vladimirovich is not, generally, a man of the arts,” Iksanov admitted with care. Rather, it was Dmitri Medvedev, the diminutive protégé to whom Putin loaned the Presidency between 2008 and 2012, who became the patron of the theatre’s colossally expensive refurbishment.
One afternoon, I met Alexander Budberg, a man of business, who is married to Natalya Timakova, one of Medvedev’s closest aides. (After Putin reacquired the Presidency, last year, Medvedev receded to being Prime Minister.) Budberg is the chairman of the executive committee of the Bolshoi’s board of trustees. We met first at a morning class—for female dancers—and then sat around a marble table in the Tsar’s Box, where we talked over tea. Budberg is corpulent and sly, and he wears a small beard and small glasses. He has the look of a friendly corner butcher who has come into an unexpected inheritance.
Budberg was forthright about the rebuilding of the Bolshoi. The Russian press has reported that the six-year project—which rescued the foundation, doubled the size of the complex, improved the acoustics, and modernized its stage—ran well over its initial cost projections. Indeed, according to an official audit, the costs were sixteen times as high. Budberg himself estimated the bill at nearly a billion dollars, and volunteered that, especially in the early years, many millions went to shady contractors, inspectors, venders, and bureaucrats.
Budberg talked about a contractor who was involved early on in the project. He smirked. “The guy was a crook,” he said. “But he didn’t have the scale to steal on a huge scale! He stole what he could, but he couldn’t steal enough! A lot of money that was budgeted was still there. So we were lucky. We got it done.”
This was Russia. Only the naïve flinch at brazen corruption. When I asked another member of the board of trustees about bribes, thievery, and waste at the Bolshoi, he shrugged. We were at a café near the theatre that was a hangout for dancers, models, and the businessmen who love them. The board member was shocked no more by the notion of financial malfeasance than he was by the fact that the young woman at the next table was evidently applying manual pleasure to her date.
“I could care less,” he said. “Either you are one of the top three theatres in the world or you aren’t. If you spend an extra fifty million dollars, who cares? What’s a few hundred million for a country like ours?”
On the night of October 28, 2011, Medvedev presided over the reopening of the Bolshoi and an audience that included politicians, priests, ballerinas, sopranos, tenors, oligarchs, and Monica Bellucci. Taking the stage, he said, “Good evening, dear ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, this is a happy day for us.” He wore a dinner jacket, and stood with his legs far apart, his hands wandering with nerves. “Our country, of course, is very big, but at the same time we have very few unifying symbols, national treasures, so-called national ‘brands.’ The Bolshoi is one of our greatest national ‘brands.’ . . . Thank you to all who worked for the return of our national miracle, our great national brand, the Bolshoi Theatre!”
The curtain, which now featured the double-headed-eagle brand rather than the hammer-and-sickle brand, rose to reveal a stage full of “workers” singing Glinka’s “Glory” chorus, from the opera “Ivan Susanin.”
An ambulance rushed Filin to a hospital known as Clinic No. 36, which has a burn center. Filin’s wife and family members brought him a radio so that he could hear the news late into the night. “It’s hard to describe what he looked like when I saw him after the attack,” his father-in-law, Alexander Prorvich, told a reporter for Russian television. “His eyes, eyelids, and face were swollen. He was pale.”
Filin and his family immediately concluded that his assailant was someone who was connected to the company and who wanted Filin humiliated, damaged, and out of office. “These are people with a mental illness,” his wife, Masha, said. “I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s jealousy that they aren’t as successful.” Filin’s mother went to her local Orthodox church to consult with the priests there, and one even came to visit Filin in the hospital. “I told him that I forgive everyone, and let God judge them, for man is weak,” Filin told the BBC. “I forgive everyone who is involved in this. But, if we’re talking about the earthly world, then we have investigative bodies, undoubtedly we have excellent professionals, and quite soon I think we will have answers to the questions that you are asking me now.” Filin’s father, Yuri, was in a less merciful mood, saying, “I really want to meet his attacker, even if I understand that it’s just a hired gun.” He said that if the assailant were found hanging from his own shoelaces he would gladly wear the laces as “a sign of triumph.”
The dance community in Moscow was accustomed to conflict at the theatre. Old-timers, like Gediminas Taranda, recalled on Russian television the emotional battles between Grigorovich and dancers like Plisetskaya, who came to regard him as a dinosaur. Officials in the K.G.B. and the Communist Party got involved in these battles. “There were meetings, strikes, people didn’t show up to perform; there were serious intrigues,” Taranda said. “But the theatre was always held together by one man, and at the Bolshoi that was Grigorovich.”
For some of the most important figures in the dance world, the acid attack was just another chapter for a theatre in turmoil. Svetlana Lunkina, a leading ballerina, said she feared for her safety and felt compelled to cancel all her performances for the year and leave for Canada. (It is unclear if her anxieties had to do with the atmosphere at the Bolshoi or with her husband’s business affairs.) Alexei Ratmansky, a dancer and brilliant choreographer who held the artistic director’s job at the Bolshoi from 2004 to 2009, made it plain on his Facebook page why he had left the Bolshoi: “There is an absence of ethics at the theatre.” When I spoke to Ratmansky, he said, “It is a great theatre, no doubt. Half of the people at the Bolshoi, they really serve the art, they are great talents. It’s a pity that these scandals do such harm to the arts, to the theatre, to its image and its atmosphere. I would be happy to work with dancers at the Bolshoi, but I wouldn’t like to go back and work there.”
On February 4th, Filin flew, by private plane, to Aachen, Germany, for further treatment. On the flight, Filin and his assistant, Dilyara Timergazina, talked not only about the many surgeries that lay ahead but also about who had done this. “We came to the same conclusion and agreed one hundred per cent,” Timergazina told me. “Basically, this was a bonfire of the vanities, and it all came together at one point.”
Later in February, I spoke with Filin. His wife and his sister were in Aachen with him, and so was his assistant. He spent as much time as he could during the day on the phone with people at the Bolshoi, taking care of business. But he was frequently interrupted by polite, yet insistent, German doctors and nurses. His life now was a stream of swabs and unguents, eye drops and operations. (“They take such good care of me, but I don’t have a minute alone!”) Because, after being splattered with acid, he had smeared his face repeatedly with snow and stood in a cold shower as he waited for the ambulance, the damage to his face and scalp would not be catastrophic. His skin was improving; it looked like a bad sunburn. The lingering question was his sight. It was too early to tell what lasting damage the acid would have on his corneas.
Filin radiated a reserved confidence about solving the crime. He made it clear that he knew, almost to a certainty, who, and what, had been behind it. “But I will let the investigators do their work before I say anything,” he told me.
For six weeks, theories and rumors circulated around the theatre. Maybe Filin had offended an old lover? (“He liked the ladies and the ladies liked him,” Tatyana Kuznetsova, the critic, told me.) Maybe he had a debt or had deprived someone of a role, a payment, an opportunity, a place in the company. The Russian theatre world, even at the highest levels, had hardly been immune to violence. In 2004, Dmitri Bryantsev, the ballet master of the Stanislavsky Theatre, went missing in the Czech Republic. Three years later, his body was discovered; he had been murdered. Bryantsev had become involved in the hotel business and probably was killed by an associate in that line. Did Filin have any outside business interests?
Within days, the gossip focussed on one man—Nikolai Tsiskaridze. The two men had shared a dressing room at one point, and they divvied up many of the leading roles of their time. Tsiskaridze, with his flamboyant style and exquisite waves of dark-brown hair, was hardly a perfect dancer; he had large, wayward feet that had a tendency to distract from his great stage presence, but he was a better dancer than Filin, and he continued to draw a passionate following. His greatest fan, however, was himself. “I am the last great star of the Bolshoi,” Tsiskaridze informed me one afternoon at a café near his apartment. But, unlike Filin, who had carved out a place for himself as an artistic director, Tsiskaridze now made his name as a media narcissist and the Bolshoi’s in-house scourge. In the past two decades, as the Bolshoi rolled out a procession of five artistic directors, Tsiskaridze lambasted them all. He made little secret that his preferred candidate was himself. (Iksanov maintains that Tsiskaridze has no real ideas, save for his own magnificence.) The only artistic director he has not derided and fought is the lion of the Soviet era, Grigorovich, who, in 2008, quietly returned to the Bolshoi as an adviser. In Tsiskaridze’s mind, the rest are “fakes.”
Nor does he miss any opportunity to embarrass the institution. Just before the grand reopening, he said of the new Bolshoi, “You have the feeling that you are in a hotel in Turkey that has been built in the shape of the Bolshoi Theatre.” He claimed that the stage was shoddy, the acoustics worse, the decorations vulgar. “As a Russian politician once said,” Tsiskaridze told me, quoting the late Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, “ ‘We hoped for the best, and it turned out as usual.’ ”
The amateur psychologists in dance circles ascribed Tsiskaridze’s chronic sense of aggrievement to the loss of his mother when he was twenty (she moved with him to Moscow from Tbilisi when he was an aspiring dancer) and to his inevitable decline as a performer. When Tsiskaridze was twenty-nine and preparing for a performance in Paris, he ripped the ligaments in his knee. After a complicated recovery, he could still dance, but he was never quite the same. Galina Stepanenko, a former prima ballerina and a former girlfriend of Filin’s, who has stepped in for him while he is recovering, told me that Tsiskaridze was engaged in a “sideshow, due to his age. His dancing career is coming to an end, and maybe he wants to remind people that he is still around.” Katya Novikova, the Bolshoi press spokesperson, was more forceful: “Tsiskaridze is against everyone. He is going crazy in front of the entire country.”
Filin and his allies at the Bolshoi had long wondered why Iksanov refused to get rid of Tsiskaridze. “Look, I have been saying this to him for a long time: Fire Tsiskaridze,” Budberg told me. “But no one wanted to escalate the conflict. It would have got shit on the theatre. We have to understand that Tsiskaridze has powerful friends who can make life worse for the theatre and the director.” Indeed, Tsiskaridze’s patrons in the government reportedly include Sergei Chemezov, a former K.G.B. officer and an ally of Putin’s who has made himself gloriously rich as the head of the state conglomerate Russian Technologies. Rain TV reported that Chemezov has lobbied in behalf of Tsiskaridze. (Tsiskaridze denies this.)
Last November, a dozen nationally known performers and leaders of various cultural institutions signed a letter to Putin saying that “the Theatre needs changes”; it called on the Russian President to replace Iksanov as general director of the Bolshoi with Tsiskaridze and thus “preserve its status as the world temple of great ballet and opera.” Putin did not respond. Some of the cultural leaders renounced their signatures and apologized to Iksanov for signing it in the first place. Tsiskaridze said that he had not been behind the letter, but many at the theatre believed otherwise.
Some sources at the Bolshoi said they thought that Tsiskaridze might even have been behind the “porn attack” on Yanin, though they offered no proof of it. No one was prepared to blame Tsiskaridze directly for arranging the attack on Filin. Iksanov’s view was that Tsiskaridze, with his divisive maneuvering, had “poisoned the atmosphere” at the theatre and created the conditions in which something like the acid attack could occur.
Tsiskaridze is an active reader of histories and novels that were outlawed in the Soviet era, and yet he yearns for the verities of Soviet life, particularly in the “micro-cosmos” of the Bolshoi. He is infected with a common malady—nostalgia without memory. Talking on television about the Latvian dancer Maris Liepa, Tsiskaridze said, “He was born in the happy Soviet epoch when the arts were important, and everyone who was involved in the arts understood that they were protected in society, so if you were number one in your profession you didn’t have to think about earning a living; it would all come to you. I was born at a time when this doesn’t exist at all.”
Tsiskaridze told me that he was engaged in a war of artists against bureaucrats. “You are talking to me because I am the most famous artist at the Bolshoi!” he said. “Why should Iksanov insult me?” He said that the “campaign” against him was “like the thirties”; in other words, he was comparing Iksanov and Filin to Stalin and himself to a victim of the Great Purge. “How else can I look at it?” he said.
Like Alex Rodriguez at the plate, Tsiskaridze always seems to be both watching himself and watching you watch him. He is acutely attuned to the effect he is having on others. Is he shocking you? Is he entertaining you? “Just never be dull” seems to be his credo, and though he is prepared to say anything to get a reaction, he is never dull. When I asked him if he sympathized with Filin, who, at that point, was on his tenth operation, Tsiskaridze rolled his eyes and said, “I don’t care about what happened. After Filin started pressing on my students to leave me, after he banned artists from going to my class, I just stopped talking to him. If he calls me about work, we talk, but nothing more. I’m not interested in this person.”
And Iksanov, the boss of the Bolshoi—was Tsiskaridze interested in him? “The situation with Iksanov is like what they say: Even a tick thinks that he is royal when he drinks the emperor’s blood.”
After the assault, police questioned Tsiskaridze at the Bolshoi. “We did it there because I am pretty famous, so there wouldn’t be reporters at the police station. It took two hours.” A policeman, he said, “wrote everything down. But he basically didn’t understand himself why we were doing this.” Tsiskaridze dismissed the notion that he was involved in any way with the crime: “If you like detective stories, then you know that he who shouts loudest to catch the crook is the crook.”
Tsiskaridze sipped some tea and sniffled. He was worried that he might miss a performance a few weeks down the road. “But does anyone care?” he asked. He sighed tremendously and ran his fingers through his magnificent mane.
Since he has slowed down as a dancer, Tsiskaridze has obviously felt insufficiently appreciated and rewarded. He told me that he felt “exactly” like Avdotia Istomina, a nineteenth-century ballerina who was the object of duels among love-struck counts and Decembrists and who appears in one of the most famous stanzas in Pushkin’s “Yevgeny Onegin.” As she grew older, Istomina was pushed out of the Imperial Russian Ballet and died of cholera and in poverty. Tsiskaridze feels that he might suffer the same fate for daring to confront the theatre, and so, day after day, he takes to the airwaves, saying whatever comes to mind.
“The law of the Bolshoi is kill or be killed,” he told one TV interviewer. “You have to arm yourself. If you don’t shoot first, you’re dead. . . . I’m a very cold and cynical person. . . . I tell my students, ‘Onstage, you must be a killer.’ ”
Perhaps the most notable of those students was Anzhelina Vorontsova, a radiantly pretty, blond dancer from the provincial city of Voronezh. Vorontsova had become a student of Tsiskaridze’s and a loyal member of his faction. Yet it was Filin who had spotted her first, in 2008, when he was still at the Stanislavsky Theatre, and Vorontsova was sixteen and full of promise. Filin arranged to bring her, and her mother, to Moscow, with the idea that she would train and, eventually, perform leading roles under Filin at the Stanislavsky. In preparation for Vorontsova’s arrival, the theatre ordered costumes for her roles. But while Filin was out of town, on tour, he received a call from a seamstress saying that the young dancer had refused to come in for a fitting. Filin called Vorontsova, but she wouldn’t speak with him. It soon became clear why: she had accepted an offer from the Bolshoi instead. At Iksanov’s request, Tsiskaridze helped lure her to the bigger, more prestigious theatre. “Sometimes in life you have to make a choice,” Vorontsova said, in 2010.
When Filin returned to the Bolshoi, as artistic director, Vorontsova was dancing in the corps de ballet and Tsiskaridze was her teacher. Her progress was encouraging, but not as fast as she might have liked. She had gained weight. At Tsiskaridze’s urging, she asked Filin to give her more and better roles, to accelerate her through the ranks, from the corps to soloist and on to ballerina. Others joined the campaign. In an article in Literaturnaya Gazeta headlined “THE SERF BALLERINA,” a rather batty critic named Yevgeny Malikov slammed Filin for failing to recognize Vorontsova’s “ideal” Russian beauty. He said that Filin had “ruthlessly” blocked her path and declared himself at war with him: “When the honor of a woman has been wounded, a man has no right to remain silent.” Filin, for his part, promoted Vorontsova and insisted that he was casting her in roles that were even a little beyond her capacities: good, substantive roles in “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Don Quixote,” and “Jewels.” She was a soloist, no longer in the corps, and, despite her limitations—and, in Filin’s eyes, despite her weight—she was doing well. He was not, he felt, holding her back.
But Vorontsova dreamed, above all, of playing the Odette/Odile role in “Swan Lake.” This was the most famous role in ballet, the role that most of the truly celebrated dancers were known for. Khrushchev had seen swans in his sleep! Tsiskaridze insisted that she was ready: she had, he said, “the full package” (and, besides, “we have plenty of dancers who are fatter!”), and even had an invitation to dance the role at another theatre. Filin, though, felt that the role was still beyond her. And so, for Vorontsova, the prospect of not quite being a star, of earning what she saw as a paltry salary, was maddening.
In the fall, the two met to talk it over. Filin told her that he was ready to consider her for the big part, but first she had to switch teachers, from Tsiskaridze to one of the former ballerinas who coached at the Bolshoi. To learn the leading female roles, he told her, you must study with a woman. Russian dancers say they learn roles “legs to legs,” from mentors who danced them onstage. This enraged Tsiskaridze, who had studied his own roles with women; he was sure that Filin was out to diminish his standing as a teacher at the Bolshoi and ultimately get rid of him. According to Timergazina, Filin’s assistant, Vorontsova had gone to the meeting with Filin wearing a concealed recorder.
In the meantime, Vorontsova had fallen in love with Pavel Dmitrichenko, a twenty-nine-year-old soloist and a devotee of both Grigorovich and Tsiskaridze; the couple lived together in Moscow. Dmitrichenko was known for his skills in the heroic, muscular roles in the repertory—“Ivan the Terrible” and “Spartacus.” (Ironists will note that he was well regarded, too, as Rothbart, the evil enchanter, in “Swan Lake.”) When Dmitrichenko joined the company, a decade earlier, he had a rocky beginning. He said that in the early part of his career he was constantly injured and had to undergo a dozen operations on his legs. But, he told the television channel Kultura, “When you have a dream and you set a goal, everything will come together.” He was deeply ambitious and unwilling to be patient or deferential. Filin had helped Dmitrichenko, promoting him to the rank of lead soloist, but that clearly was not enough.
Dmitrichenko was known around the theatre for his temper, for his unwillingness to conform. “He is a psychiatric case,” a source close to Filin told me. “He is very aggressive. He also has tattoos, which is hardly typical. A ballet dancer does not have tattoos!” One of the tattoos reads, “Life is struggle, to struggle means to live.” Dmitrichenko considered this his life’s credo, though he was not of the struggling classes. Born into a family of dancers, he once said that his mother had persuaded him to go to ballet school by offering him a chocolate bar.
In late December, Dmitrichenko confronted Filin, demanding the role of Solor, the male lead in “La Bayadère.” Filin, his assistant recalled, told him that he was not the “type” for Solor. Dmitrichenko was incensed and began to argue with him. The two had clashed publicly before. Dmitrichenko was a union rep, and regularly battled with Filin over financial issues. Filin had instituted new rules, tying attendance at daily classes, for example, to the dancers’ compensation. Dmitrichenko, who skipped class more often than some of his colleagues, demanded to know whether Filin thought he was some sort of “king,” running the Bolshoi as his private domain. He also resented Filin because he tried to exercise control over freelance performances—a prime source of extra income for dancers at the company. In a magazine interview, the Times reported, Dmitrichenko complained that “migrant workers would not agree to work on a construction site” for the kind of money that he and his colleagues were getting from the Bolshoi.
The confrontation culminated in dark ultimatums. After failing to persuade Filin to cast him in “La Bayadère,” Dmitrichenko declared that he and Vorontsova would soon be the stars of the company, no matter what. According to Timergazina, Dmitrichenko ended the conversation on an ominous note. “I will organize a new year for you,” he said, “that you will not soon forget.”
On March 5th, police arrested three men for the acid attack: Dmitrichenko; a thirty-five-year-old ex-con named Yuri Zarutsky, who allegedly committed the assault; and Andrei Lipatov, thirty-one, the driver of the getaway car. Police sources said that investigators had made the breakthrough on the case from a painstaking examination of cell-phone calls around the area of Filin’s apartment building, on Troitskaya Street, on the night of the attack.
The Bolshoi operates a coöperative complex of dachas, or country houses, in the town of Stupino, south of Moscow. Dmitrichenko was the chairman of the compound. According to the investigators, he befriended Zarutsky in Stupino and contracted him to carry out the assault. Zarutsky, they said, obtained the acid at an auto-body shop and then increased the concentration by boiling it down.
Police raided Dmitrichenko’s dacha, in Stupino, and his apartment, in Moscow, and he was detained and questioned at length. The morning after the arrests, police posted a short video showing Dmitrichenko—pale, bleary-eyed, his cheeks sunken, his hair dishevelled—admitting that he had “organized the attack, but not to the extent it happened.” At his arraignment, two days later, Dmitrichenko explained himself further. Speaking from a cage set up in the courtroom, he said, “It’s not true that I ordered him to throw acid at Filin.” Angered by financial issues at the theatre, Dmitrichenko said, he had turned to his friend in Stupino. “I told Yuri Zarutsky about the policies of the Bolshoi Theatre, about the bad things going on, the corruption. When he said, ‘O.K., let me beat him up, hit him in the head,’ I agreed. But that is all that I admit to doing. . . . When I heard what happened to Sergei, I was just in shock. I could not believe that the man who proposed beating him up went ahead and did this thing with acid.”
The judge wondered if Dmitrichenko wanted to ask Filin for forgiveness. “For what?” he replied. He said that he rebuffed Zarutsky’s offer to kill Filin, but admitted that he did call the ex-con on the night of the crime to tell him when Filin had left the theatre for home. “I admit that absolutely,” he said. Investigators said that Dmitrichenko paid Zarutsky fifty thousand rubles—or about fifteen hundred dollars—to attack Filin. The police, for their part, said that the case could now be considered “solved.”
Hardly anyone at the Bolshoi is satisfied. Filin’s confidants continue to blame Tsiskaridze for creating a toxic atmosphere at the theatre; they are also convinced that the circle of responsible parties around Dmitrichenko is wider and that investigators still have work to do. Tsiskaridze, for his part, says he doubts that there was acid in the jar: “They want to cast Filin as a saint and everyone else as bad.”
On March 7th, just hours after Dmitrichenko was arraigned, a Bolshoi source told me that “most people from the theatre suspect that Dmitrichenko was made to confess, probably under blackmail and torture.” The source described a meeting at the Bolshoi that day of two hundred dancers and teachers, including Tsiskaridze and Vorontsova. Some of the dancers who spoke said that while Dmitrichenko was a combustible personality and had serious issues with Filin, they thought he was “incapable” of such a crime and must have been forced into his confession.
“One of the girls said, ‘We know Pavel for many years and he can be quite rude and has a fiery temper, but he couldn’t commit such a crime,’ ” the source told me. “Then more voices were raised and then there was general applause for this idea.” Vorontsova also spoke. She thanked her fellow-dancers for their support and reminded them that Dmitrichenko was always quick to help another dancer in need. “She was greeted with universal applause,” the source said.
After witnessing so many phony trials––most recently of Pussy Riot—the Russian public has developed a general distrust of the country’s legal system. “Why is there no presumption of innocence?” the Bolshoi source continued. “The Russian authorities know how to get what they want. This is common in our legal practice. . . . We all know how this monster machine works. The Prime Minister”—Dmitri Medvedev—“said that the case should be solved in a short time, and so, of course, they found someone.” He said that Dmitrichenko had been questioned throughout the night, and that for a few hours his lawyer had not been present.
Tsiskaridze blamed it all, vaguely, on money. And Anastasia Volochkova, who still resents her dismissal a decade ago by Iksanov, went on Echo of Moscow, a popular talk-and-news radio station, and said that the arrests were merely a way for the Bolshoi administration to “deflect suspicion” from its own “corruption.” She asked, “What else needs to happen at the Bolshoi before the country’s leadership gets involved, I don’t know. Murder, shootings, war—what?”
No matter what course further investigations take, the Bolshoi Ballet is hardly the “brand” the Russian leadership had hoped for when the billion-dollar restoration was finished. It seems a degraded place, fuelled by money and malice, anything but a sublime refuge. Not even the haziest romantic could sustain the fantasy of the theatre as a world apart. Just as the great Kschessinskaya was forced to flee her gilded existence at the first sounds of revolution, Sergei Filin was doomed to return to a Bolshoi pervaded by recrimination and suspicion.
With all the treatments and operations, with all that he is holding in his head, Filin has not been sleeping well. His eyesight has been slow in returning––he has limited vision in his left eye and his right eye is worse. And, while the people at the Bolshoi talk about having him back by the summer or sooner, he is reluctant to make predictions. He is haunted. “For the first three weeks that I was here in Germany, I had a dream every night that I was again approaching the gate to my apartment building and anticipating something bad but trying to do something different to avoid it,” he said. “But it happens anyway! In spite of the fact that I’m a strong person, I couldn’t turn off my consciousness from this pattern of thought. I can say that only now the dream is passing.
“I have the feeling that I am waiting, and that one day I will open my eyes and wake up. But maybe I won’t wake up all on my own!” Filin was laughing now. “Maybe I will be kissed awake, like in ‘The Sleeping Beauty’! And maybe it will be Nikolai Tsiskaridze kissing me—and I will wake up! But, if it’s him, maybe it’s better that I fall back asleep.” ♦