For days, the only thing on state TV was a continuous loop of Swan Lake.
March 30, 2015 11:36 AM   Subscribe

Amelia Schonbek considers Swan Lake's place in Soviet politics for Hazlitt.

"It may seem like a random artistic choice, but to anyone who lived in the former USSR, it made perfect sense. For many Russians, the opening strains of Tchaikovsky’s score are as likely to remind them of political upheaval as they are the beauty of classical ballet."

More about Swan Lake:

The ballet's choreography has changed over the years...

Historical and modern costumes for Odette and Odile...

Memorable adaptations, from royal intrigue to Degas to Barbie and Black Swan...

posted by mynameisluka (6 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
That Schonbek essay is a good overview; thanks for posting it. I have to quibble with this parenthetical remark: "It’s possible that ballet got a pass in the end because Lenin understood the potential it had to transmit information to the largely illiterate Russian masses." No, that's not possible—Lenin had no such delusions about the masses. As I wrote elsewhere:
One of the strange things about that endlessly strange entity the Soviet Union was its official attitude toward the arts. You might think that a country created by a revolution ostensibly of workers and peasants and run ostensibly in their name would support their favorite leisure activities and prefer detective stories, comedies, and adventure movies to the highfaluting novels, symphonies, and classical paintings of the old regime. There were, in fact, many revolutionaries who felt that way; as the Wikipedia article on Proletkult, their official organization, says, “Under a workers’ state, some Marxist theoreticians believed, the new proletarian ruling class would develop its own distinct class culture to supplant the former culture of the old ruling order.” But the people who counted, Lenin and the other top members of the hierarchy, did not feel that way at all. They liked highfaluting novels, symphonies, and classical paintings, and as soon as the Civil War was over and they had time to deal with minor issues like aesthetics, they began promoting them—with new, improved, socialist content of course, but the idea was to bring the formerly oppressed masses up to the level of High Culture, not to destroy that culture and build something new in its place.
Doesn't affect the essay particularly, but I think it's worth bearing in mind.
posted by languagehat at 12:45 PM on March 30, 2015 [6 favorites]

That attitude to art goes back to Marx himself, who was unapologetically high culture in his personal tastes. And it keeps going: Dad the Emeritus Historian of Graeco-Roman Egypt has a Latin grammar from the first part of the twentieth century which has a preface about the radical potential of teaching Latin to the working classes.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:02 PM on March 30, 2015

A post about Swan Lake wouldn't be complete without a mention of Peter Martin's fabulous revival of the Balanchine Swan Lake, with the restored tragic ending. It pretty much lauched Sara Mearns career, a role in which she's absolutely iconic. My favorite modern Odette/Odile not named Svetlana Zakharova.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 2:02 PM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I love this post, and look forward to diving in! There's a beautiful movie available streaming on Netflix called Ballerina, which features some scenes from the Mariinski's Swan Lake with Svetlana Zaharova, along with interesting information about the ballet's place in both Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. The film also features the great dancers Diana Vishneva and Ulyana Lopatkatina.
posted by feste at 3:07 PM on March 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

The broadcasts were a stalling tactic, meant to block access to the news while the Soviet leadership settled on a succession plan. The same happened following the deaths of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.

I'm curious about the extent to which repeat broadcasts of Swan Lake had to have become a running joke for Soviet citizens in the early 80s - Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko all died within three years of each other.

I'm thinking of jokes like this one (pdf):

After Chernenko's funeral, the Kremlin gets a phone call.
"Tell me, please," the caller asks, "do you need a General Secretary?"
"What are you, sick?"
"Yes. very sick. And I'm very old, too."

In the west, there was this Spitting Image skit.

But there had to have been some subversive Soviet jokes about it.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:03 PM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

also, for some (unrelated?) reason, a short repeating loop of Swan Lake is the IBM Server tech support hold music.
posted by jrishel at 12:43 PM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

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