Waiting for Swan Lake : the war against Ukraine and awaiting the end of Putin

“Every day we wake up and hope that they will be showing Swan Lake on TV.”

The ICC arrest warrant issued yesterday for Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian children’s rights commissioner, for the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children may make some Russians tentatively more hopeful that Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake will appear on their screens at some point.  While the UK is alerted to serious news by non-stop all-main-channels coverage complete with news alert banners and presenters in sombre dress, Russia has traditionally been alerted to significant changes by the replacement of ordinary programmes by ballet.

This “nothing to see here” tactic was first used in 1982, following the death of long-serving leader Leonid Brezhnev.  It came back in 1984, when Iurii Andropov died, and then once more in 1985, following Vitalii Chernenko’s death.  Mikhail Gorbachev, the young replacement for Chernenko, lived far beyond his own years in power, but a further Soviet airing of Swan Lake in response to a crisis still came in his time, when it played during the August 1991 attempted coup – for three whole days.

“so viewers had the opportunity to learn the performance by heart” (tongue-in-cheek comment re the 3-day transmission in 1991; from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5OwsjBern4)

It is therefore not surprising that anti-Putin Russians wait for it to be shown again.  The hint was dropped when the independent channel TV-Dozhdʹ (TV-Rain in English) were forced off air.  Their final transmission ended with the presenters saying the forbidden “net voine” (no to war) as the staff left the studio, followed by brief footage of Swan Lake.

Cambridge readers have access to a significant amount of Russian and Soviet sources through digitised backfiles and ongoing subscriptions.  On the 9th of March last year, film critic and opponent of Russia’s war against Ukraine Larisa Maliukova wrote about Swan Lake, discussing the history of the ballet itself and also its history in Soviet times and in the Russian present, with reference to Dozhdʹ.  She also discussed why this ballet specifically.  Her article (in Russian) can be accessed via Cambridge authentification here.

The ballet is also mentioned in Masha Gessen’s The future is history : how totalitarianism reclaimed Russia (UL borrowable copy here; non-borrowable here).  There isn’t a huge amount of obvious material to find in the library catalogue about the political role of Swan Lake, but its significance and metonymous status for huge political upheaval are quite clear from the plethora of results of internet searches and Twitter searches etc for the ballet and Putin or Russia or 2023 in English, Ukrainian, and Russian.  Let’s see.

Mel Bach

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