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15 July 2017

What the Nureyev story tells us about today’s Russia

Vladimir Putin with a horse during his vacation outside the town of Kyzyl in Southern SiberiaImage copyright
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The Bolshoi hasn’t pulled a premiere so late in the day since Soviet times. So when it called off Nureyev: The Ballet, rumours immediately began to fly.

The theatre boss insisted the work was so complex it just wasn’t ready.

But another theory has persisted – that Rudolf Nureyev, who mesmerised audiences and defined an era in dance, was just too gay for today’s Russia.

The theatre denied that. After all, they knew Nureyev’s story when they commissioned the ballet: his love affairs and his death after developing Aids.

So why are so many so quick to disbelieve them?

Homophobia is pretty rife in Russia. Talk of gay rights often brings snorts about “Western values” that no-one wants imposed.

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For some, Rudolf Nureyev’s relationships with men as well as women have tarnished his reputation in Russia

Russia has a different culture, different values, say people from politicians and religious figures down. Tolerance doesn’t always seem like one of them.

Attempts to stage Gay Pride events have ended in punch-ups and arrests: anti-gay vigilantes have set up dates, only to attack the men on arrival and film it. And in Chechnya, it’s not long since reports emerged of dozens of gay men being rounded up by police and tortured.

The events in Chechnya are exceptional. But it seems that a rise in homophobia has matched a rise in anti-Western feeling more generally here, all of it part of a broader backlash against the chaos – others call it freedom – of the 1990s.

That decade is now painted as a time when the West was running the show here, supposedly “forcing” its alien ways and values on Russia, weak after the collapse of the USSR. Now back on its own two feet, this country’s busy shaking off that “domination”.

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Spreading harmony? The Russian and American presidents strike a familiar pose

It’s all led by the ultimate macho man, Vladimir Putin.

To his supporters, Putin is the judo black belt, teetotal athlete who’s taking on a degenerate, weak – even effeminate – West. He’s the president who strips naked to the waist and rides horses; he descends in submarines and soars through the skies in fighter jets.

Images of all of those adrenalin-pumped moments and more are plastered over souvenir mugs for sale in Moscow underpasses, so enthusiasts can enjoy their very own Putin pin-up with their coffee.

It’s under Putin that Russia’s been flexing its military muscle again too. Whether it’s flying fighter jets or launching cruise missiles in Syria or rolling tanks on parade across Red Square, this country wants to be seen as powerful again.

So it’s no surprise that Vladimir Vladimirovich is a big fan of manspreading.

From news conferences to receiving foreign presidents, sitting with his legs wide apart is Putin’s favourite macho pose. At the G20 summit in Hamburg, he and Donald Trump seemed to be competing to see who could spread furthest.

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The Bolshoi says that Nureyev will open in May 2018

All of this, of course, is painting with broad brushstrokes. Russia is not totally testosterone-fuelled but a place of nuance and variety.

If not, the head of Russia’s most celebrated theatre would never have chosen a ballet about Nureyev in the first place. The director would never have included love scenes, or men in drag and there would have been no vast, full-frontal nude portrait of the Soviet star.

One dancer I met called Nureyev the most important ballet he’s ever worked on – precisely because of the themes it tackles. But he fears the production may prove too radical for the Bolshoi, more like an antiques shop, in his view, full of old, admired classics.

The Bolshoi has promised that Nureyev will open – uncensored – early next May. If it does, then maybe President Putin could go. He could sit in the front row, minus the manspread, and show that he sees Rudolf Nureyev as a great Russian to celebrate – whatever his sexuality.

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