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01.21.13

The Dark Secrets of the Russian Ballet

An acid attack severely disfigured its artistic director. But many other scandals have plagued the Bolshoi in Moscow. By Anna Nemtsova.

It was a terrifying attack that shocked Russia’s artists, and the wider world. Last week, the artistic director of the Bolshoi Theater, Sergei Filin, was returning home after a theater performance. He parked his car and was walking toward his apartment building when a masked man approached, carrying a can.

Filin, wearing a hooded jacket, seemingly didn’t notice. But CCTV in the apartment building’s courtyard, captured the horror: the man emptying the can of liquid in Filin’s face; Filin, crumbling, then trying to wash out his eyes with snow as the sulfuric acid burns his face and hair.

Though doctors were able to save the director’s life, months of plastic surgery await to reconstruct his disfigured face. It is still unclear if he will lose his vision—a devastating loss for anyone, and in particular a director, who depends on his vision. Doctors said that the wounded director is deeply depressed about the mutilation.

Throughout the weekend, Moscovites speculated and gossiped about who might be behind the sinister attack, and cryptic pronouncements from the theater have only added to the mystery. Bolshoi’s press secretary, Yekaterina Novikova, told Izvestia that the Bolshoi leadership suspects one of its own employees. Somebody “interested in letting the theater down” was apparently behind the attack in what seems a harrowing case of artistic jealousy or intrigue.

Reportedly, Filin started receiving threatening phone calls about a month before the attack, and his mother suggested he should go to the police for protection. But it was not in his character to be fearful, friends say.

Whether the motive was jealousy or financial is still unclear. But the looming neoclassical theater across the street from the jagged Kremlin wall has often served as the backdrop to dark conspiracies and malfeasance. Ballerinas have accused the management of sexual harassment and excruciating psychological pressure. There have been reports of death threats and anonymous frightening phone calls.

“I have no doubts that it is a … well-planned crime,” Anastasia Volochkova, a former prima ballerina at the Bolshoi tells The Daily Beast. When she was fired from the theater, allegedly because she had become too fat, she sued—and was promptly retaliated against, she says. “I was blackmailed and discredited by the Bolshoi. Men with knives threatened to kill my ballet partners unless I withdraw my complaint.”

In a story that made headlines across the world, sexually compromising photographs of the Bolshoi deputy director, Gennady Yanin, surfaced on the Internet in 2011—reportedly payback because he didn’t give in to financial blackmail. Embarrassed by the controversy, the company’s dancers demanded Yanin be fired.

The theater has also been embroiled in financial scandal. After six years of restoration, state auditors found that the final cost of the project was 16 times what had been originally budgeted—suggesting corruption and greed on an operatic scale. The restoration, which eventually cost Russian taxpayers almost $1 billion, was criticized by the Bolshoi’s own leading ballet star, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who described the work as “vandalism.”

The looming neoclassical theater across the street from the jagged Kremlin wall has often served as the backdrop to dark conspiracies and malfeasance.

Filin, 42, rose to fame as a dancer, performing the most challenging parts in Russian ballets; by the mid 1990s, he had become one of the most sought-after dancers in the world. After winning several prestigious awards, however, he injured his hip. Forced to retire as a performer, he continued to work as a director.

The former Bolshoi ballerina, Volochkova, who worked with Filin for years, sang his praises as an artist. “He has a remarkable precise and virtuous technique, as well as powerful directing skills.”

Before the accident, Filin rehearsed La Bayadère with his troupe. The centuries old Bolshoi is a well-tuned machine—the premiere will take place in spite of the tragedy.

Filin’s friends and colleagues were distraught by the vicious assault on a much-admired director, once known as Russia’s Ballet Prince.

Alexander Sergeyev, leading dancer at Russia’s other major ballet theater, the Mariinsky, characterized Filin as “a self-confident man of unbending principles.” Like others, he was shocked by the attack. “Ballet turns out to be a dangerous activity,” he said.