On Sunday night, viewers of Russia’s state-owned Channel One saw a dance performed by an Olympic champion in figure skating Tatyana Navka and a well-known actor Andrei Burkovsky. The dynamic dance routine featured spins and jumps and other complicated moves. A few times both dancers shined smiles at their audience.
There was just one extraordinary feature, which made some television viewers stop talking last night and freeze with open mouths: the dancers came onto the ice with made-up gaunt faces, dressed in the striped uniforms of Nazi concentration camps prisoners, with Stars of David on sewn onto them.
The scandal erupted even before the dancers finished their double-axels. But as many Russian stories, this one had several meanings and messages buried between the lines, open to various interpretations. Navka, for one thing, is not an ordinary figure skater. She is a Russian and U.S. citizen and also the wife of Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
Her name brought the focus of attention on “the Holocaust on ice,” as Russia’s bloggers immediately called the dance, to the very top of the Kremlin’s power vertical. “The performance illustrates the level of late-Putin era hypocrisy and cynicism,” Russian opposition leader Ilya Yashin told The Daily Beast. “They put young girls behind the bars for a twerk dance, which they find disrespectful to the memory of those who fought in the Second World War; but today they give highest points to an entertaining dance program which features Holocaust symbols.”
Yashin was referring to a case from last year when three Russian women — the youngest 18 years old — were punished with up to 15 days of jail for dancing by a Soviet-era monument. Prosecutors at a district court in the Black Sea port city of Novorosiysk demanded prison for the dancers and the young women went to jail for offending Russian patriotism. But no such fate awaits Peskov’s spouse even if she made light of a genocide which the Red Army helped put an end to.
Russia’s main channel presented the ice performance as something great and normal. The live audience applauded it; the dancers smiled; and the jury gave Navka and her partner the highest points for figure skating and acting. One member of the jury explained that Navka and her partner managed to satisfy the requirement for the televised competition and stage a piece from Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni’s 1999 tragicomedy set against the backdrop of the Holocaust.
“The show was awful,” Moscow-based Russian historian Irina Sherbakova told The Daily Beast in an interview on Monday. “It demonstrated how tasteless and deaf the authors were, that to them anything, even the symbols of the massacre that murdered six million can be entertaining, can be sold for money.”
Shoah mockery came at a particularly sensitive moment in Russian historiography. Last week, the famed human rights center Memorial published up to 40,000 names of Soviet officials, who served in the NKVD — the predecessor organ of the KGB — in 1935-1939, the period of Stalin’s Great Terror, during which the Soviet government murdered between 600,000 and 1.2 million people. “The reaction was overwhelming, thousands of people entered our web site looking for their relatives’ names,” Alexander Cherkasov, the chair of Memorial Human Rights Center told The Daily Beast. The archive was unique. Now everyone can see if their family members were executors or victims.
The Kremlin was more outspoken about this act of transparency, however, than it was about a tasteless sporting event. None other than Peskov, Putin’s flack, criticized Memorial for uploading the names of Stalin’s accomplices. “This topic is very sensitive,” he said, “obviously many people have different opinions, some mirror opposite points of view.” He had no such opinion of his wife’s number.
Peskov and Navka have been in the center of various public controversies before. Liza, Peskov’s daughter from his first marriage took her mother’s side and publicly criticized Peskov during her parents’ divorce. Last year anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny found that the spokesman’s Richard Mille watch was worth more than $400,000 — far more than Peskov officially earns on a public salary. To explain away the luxury item, he immediately said that Navka had bought it for him with her own money. Withal, he has survived the scrutiny and his wife is likely to survive ignominy.
“Putin seems to like Peskov a lot, they are both convinced that Russian people can be fooled and brain washed,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, a presenter at Russia’s only independent TV Rain. “Peskov and Navka hang out at social events with the most liberal crowd, they say they want to live in the United States. Peskov says that he is one of us, a Rain TV viewer. They are both cynical.”
Navka, for her part, can’t understand why people criticized her. As she told reporters on Monday, “I am surprised to see such a reaction. Probably people have not seen that wonderful film, which won awards at the Cannes Film Festival and three Oscars. Our number featured the theme of that wonderful movie.”