Acid, Mafia and Scandal at Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet

Moscow police may be getting to the bottom of a mystery that has rocked the Russian cultural scene: Who and what were behind a sulphuric-acid attack on the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet?

In January, an unknown assailant splashed the acid on the face of the director, Sergei Filin, as he was about to enter his Moscow apartment building. The attack seriously damaged the 42-year-old dancer’s eyesight. He has undergone repeated surgeries in Moscow and Germany.

Police this week detained three men in connection with the investigation: the previously obscure Andrei Lipatov and Yuri Zarutsky, and top Bolshoi dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko, whose roles include the lead in a production of “Ivan the Terrible.” On March 6, the website LifeNews published a video of Dmitrichenko admitting to organizing the attack, but saying that he had not intended to do such permanent harm. LifeNews reported that Zarutsky had chosen to use the acid, which he prepared from ingredients purchased at an auto parts store.

The high-profile investigation highlights the sorry state of the Bolshoi, one of Russia’s national symbols and a hotbed of intrigue opaque to all but the parties involved. The theater reopened in October 2011 after a five-year, $1.15 billion renovation that had been a personal pet project of former president and current Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. Despite the official patronage, the Bolshoi is still unable to control even its own ticket sales. A well-organized “mafia” sells about 50 percent of the tickets to every performance, working quite

LifeNews offered a prosaic motive for the attack: Dmitrichenko was unhappy with the roles being given to his wife, ballerina Angelina Vorontsova. Other observers have tied the attack on Filin to a smoldering conflict between Iksanov and premier danseur Nikolai Tsiskaridze, an ally of Dmitrichenko. Iksanov appointed Filin to run the ballet company after someone published pornographic photos on the Internet featuring Filin’s predecessor, who was forced to resign. Iksanov has publicly blamed the scandal on Tsiskaridze, whom he accused of plotting to take the artistic director’s job.

Now, according to Iksanov, the principal dancer is angling to take his job. “No one at the theater has any doubt that it was Tsiskaridze’s stand that led to this situation,” Iksanov told Snob magazine. “I am not accusing him of this particular crime but I am accusing Nikolai of creating a fraught atmosphere at the theater.”

Tsiskaridze, also interviewed at length by Snob, indignantly denied the charges and badmouthed Iksanov for everything from botching the renovation - flimsy boards on the main stage, he claimed, were dangerous to dancers - to poor personnel decisions.

Ballet fans strongly suspect that the power struggle involves forces acting behind the scenes, within Moscow’s ruling bureaucracy, backing both Iksanov and Tsiskaridze. Some of President Vladimir Putin’s friends have been named as interested parties, but the rumors are unverifiable. In any case, control of the Bolshoi, with its annual budget of $120 million and its special place in Russia’s pantheon, is a prize worth fighting for.

The theater’s organizational dynamics are a subject more fitting for a herpetologist than an art critic. Alexei Ratmansky, the ballet master responsible for reviving the musty, backward-looking Bolshoi in the 2000s with a number of modern productions, was forced to leave in 2008 because of the incessant intrigues. “The Filin disaster is no accident,” Ratmansky commented on Facebook after learning of the attack on Filin. He noted what he called the Bolshoi’s many “diseases,” including “the disgusting claque that befriends dancers, the ticket scalpers, the half-crazy fans willing to dig their teeth into the throats of their idols’ rivals.” Ratmansky now lives and works in New York.

One cannot envy the investigators’ task of making sense of the enmities, grudges and scandals in the nation’s grandest theater. The Bolshoi, with its 3,500 employees, has always been a difficult place to work and a harder one to run. Many observers see the theater -- located across the street from the Kremlin -- as a metaphor for Russia under Putin, or at least for the clique that runs the nation. “The Bolshoi’s tragedy is in its geographic location: a theater facing the Kremlin willy-nilly has to be the mirror of the nation’s government,” critic Dmitri Renansky wrote on the website soon after the attack on Filin.

As the drama unfolds, the reputation of one of Russia’s few exportable miracles is being destroyed. The nation’s leaders have chosen not to interfere. Iksanov’s contract runs out next year, and there is no indication that he will be forced to leave earlier. Tsiskaridze also remains at the Bolshoi, dancing his share of leading parts. “The Bolshoi is still the imperial theater,” wrote Snob editor Nikolai Uskov, who interviewed the warring parties for the magazine. “Only the emperor himself is absent. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has not visited the theater since its reopening.”

What better symbol for a country that is being torn apart by corrupt officials while its leader remains above the fray, only occasionally plucking out some unlucky victim for punishment?

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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