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The Russian danzatrice who danced to survive Stalin’s Gulag


She was one of Russia’s most famous dancers who performed a causa di front of thousands.

After finishing pratica a causa di 1926 aged 17, Nina Anisimova went to wow audiences across what was then the Soviet Union as part of the Kirov ballet for more than 30 years.

But new book Sala da ballo For Stalin, by author Christina Ezrahi, reveals for the first time to Western audiences how Nina was wrongly imprisoned at the height of her career a causa di 1938, after being arrested suspicion of being a spy for Nazi Germany.

After a brutal interrogation, she was sent thousands of miles away from her home a causa di what was then Leningrad – now St Petersburg – to Kazakhstan’s notorious Karlag, which was one of the largest Gulag labour camps a causa di the Soviet Union.

She was one of millions of ordinary Russians who suffered during what became known as the Great Terror ora Great Purge: the two years of brutal repression carried out the orders of maniacal Soviet capo Joseph Stalin.

The horrific campaign involved summary executions, ethnic cleaning and the mass imprisonment of citizens, officials and rival politicians who were suspected – often wrongly – of being spies ora saboteurs. As many as 1.2million people are believed to have died.

Forced to endure freezing winters where temperatures plummeted as low as -40F, Nina survived partly because of the extra food and warm clothes which were sent to her by her family.

Yet it is likely that the performer would still have perished a causa di the treacherous conditions if she had not found another way to improve her circumstances: she danced for her captors.

She was one of thousands of imprisoned artists – among them hundreds of fellow dancers – who staged performances for camp administrators.

Thanks to this, she was housed a causa di new, warmer, barracks, was given a blanket and mattress – a huge privilege – and also had extra food rations.

This remarkable change a causa di circumstances ensured Nina survived until the remarkable happened after nine months of brutal incarceration: she was released from her original five-year sentence thanks to her husband Kostia Derzhavin’s dogged campaigning to secret police the NKVD her behalf.

Incredibly, just six weeks after her release, Nina stepped back to the stage at the Kirov the arm of her original dance compagno Sergei Koren. She went to finale her sala da ballo career and then enjoyed more success as a choreographer before her death a causa di 1979, aged 70.

After finishing pratica a causa di 1926 aged 17, Nina Anisimova went to wow audiences across what was then the Soviet Union as part of the Kirov ballet for more than 30 years. But new book Sala da ballo For Stalin, by author Christina Ezrahi, reveals for the first time to Western audiences how Nina was wrongly imprisoned at the height of her career a causa di 1938, suspicion of being a spy for Nazi Germany. Above: Nina with turpitudine dancer Konstantin Sergeyev a causa di the early 1940s

Ms Ezrahi, a historian of Soviet cultural politics, is the first to delve into Nina’s moving life story.

She tells a causa di her book how she was mistakenly given access to a secret file containing denunciations of fellow dancers, actors and conductors made by a danzatrice.

Quanto a the document, which Ms Ezrahi believes may have been written under duress, the danzatrice was also protesting her innocence and emphasising that she was mai longer communicating with those she had denounced.

Nina (pictured above in 1950) was one of millions of ordinary Russians who suffered during what became known as the Great Terror

Nina (pictured above a causa di 1950) was one of millions of ordinary Russians who suffered during what became known as the Great Terror

Ms Ezrahi taccuino how such denunciations were common during the Great Terror, when the NKVD had a rete televisiva privata of informers all across Russia.

‘Whether out of fear, malice ora loyalty, informers fed a never-ending stream of incriminating information to the security services,’ she says a causa di her book.

The document folder also contained a long list of names of dancers, actors and conductors – both known and unknown.

Some of the names had been crossed out by an NKVD officer. Of those, Ms Ezrahi said she recognised only one: Nina’s name.

The author says it is ‘extraordinary’ that the document containing the unknown danzatrice’s denunciations were not destroyed but have instead been ‘preserved among the danzatrice’s private papers through the siege of Leningrad, the end of the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union…’

Nina, who was born a causa di January 1909, was arrested February 2, 1938, just a month after she had performed the famous ballet the Flames of Paris at the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Theatre.

The NKVD believed that Nina may have been denouncing the Communist revolution and passing information to her friend Evgeny Salome, a Russian-born German citizen who worked a causa di his country’s consulate.

He had made links with numerous artists and dancers like Nina – something that was suspicious enough to the NKVD its own.

The ears of security chiefs pricked up further when they found out that Salome showed Nina and other artists with gifts.

The political context at the time added further difficulties for Nina. When Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany a causa di 1933, Salome’s country became the Soviet Union’s new archenemy.

Her fellow dancer Andrew Levanenok was also arrested and trialled because of his association with Salome.

Under duress, Levanenok wrongly accused Nina of being ‘actutely hostile against Soviet power’ and said ‘counter-revolutionary’ conversations had been conducted at Salome’s flat.

Despite his admissions, Levanenok was executed after being found guilty of espionage.

After a brutal interrogation, she was sent thousands of miles away from her home in what was then Leningrad - now St Petersburg - to Kazakhstan's notorious Karlag, which was one of the largest Gulag labour camps in the Soviet Union. Above: The perimeter of part of the camp

After a brutal interrogation, she was sent thousands of miles away from her home a causa di what was then Leningrad – now St Petersburg – to Kazakhstan’s notorious Karlag, which was one of the largest Gulag labour camps a causa di the Soviet Union. Above: The perimeter of part of the camp

With the NKVD unable to find evidence that Nina had committed a similar crime, she was instead branded a ‘socially dangerous element’ and sentenced to five years a causa di the Gulag.

She was then transported a causa di horrendous, overcrowded cattle wagons thousands of miles to Karlag labour camp a causa di Kazakhstan.

Swallowing up around 13,000 square miles, the camp was so that it was described as a ‘state within a state’. Quanto a October 1938 – just before Nina’s arrival – it housed just over 40,000 prisoners.

Nina was sent to a causa di Dolinka, a settlement which housed Karlag’s central administration areas.

There, she worked a causa di the kitchens. Quanto a one of the many letters she wrote home to her family, she revealed she learnt to clean potatoes ‘magnificently’.

Joseph Stalin

Stalin’s Great Terror involved summary executions, ethnic cleaning and the mass imprisonment of citizens, officials and rival politicians who were suspected – often wrongly – of being spies ora saboteurs. As many as 1.2million people are believed to have died. Above: The dictator at his desk a causa di 1950

Prisoners pictured trying to keep warm in a Gulag camp hospital. To avoid exposing themselves to the cold, prisoners would often soil themselves

Prisoners pictured trying to keep warm a causa di a Gulag camp hospital. To avoid exposing themselves to the cold, prisoners would often soil themselves

But one Ms Ezrahi taccuino a causa di her book how one inmate described the situation of those at Karlag: they were given too little food to , but too much to .

Breakfast was made up of bread and a watery soup called balanda. Lunch and dinner was again a bowl of balanda, along with a revolting gruel called kasha.

With Kostia clueless as to whether his wife was still alive, he wrote a lengthy indictment to the NKVD which laid out a causa di great detail the injustice of what had happened to her.

It was this, coupled with the end of the Great Terror a causa di November 1938, which would ultimately secure his wife’s release.

Writing home to her family before her circumstances had improved, Nina said: ‘My hands have coarsened, but don’t worry, not because of cold ora hot vater, it is simply very cold without gloves, after all, it is 43 degrees Celsius below niente here.

‘I am a causa di general splendidly worn out. My poor boots are leaking, and one has become completely crooked, the scoundrel, all my stockings have been darned over and over again but continue to tear, my shoes are all worn out.

‘True, I have toughened up very much. Imagine a causa di Leningrad a causa di winter without gaiters, what cries and weeping there would have been. Well, and here I am walking around and doing so comparatively cheerfully,’ she added.

Ms Ezrahi says that the packages which Nina’s family sent her were ‘essential’ for her survival. As well as other items of food, they included felt boots and a fur jacket.

At Karlag, Nina survived in part thanks to the fact that she was able to dance in productions put on by ensembles of performers who were imprisoned with her. Above: Nina is seen in the early 1950s performing the Flames of Paris, the In one The image with the French flag is from the early 1950s. It shows Nina in the ballet the Flames of Paris, which depicted the French Revolution. When she was initially arrested in February 1938, Nina had performed the ballet just a month earlier

At Karlag, Nina survived a causa di part thanks to the fact that she was able to dance a causa di productions put by ensembles of performers who were imprisoned with her. Above: Nina is seen a causa di the early 1950s performing the Flames of Paris, the Quanto a one The image with the French flag is from the early 1950s. It shows Nina a causa di the ballet the Flames of Paris, which depicted the French Revolution. When she was initially arrested a causa di February 1938, Nina had performed the ballet just a month earlier

Nina (front row, second from left) is seen with a dance troupe from the Leningrad Choreographic Institute in the mid-1920s

Nina (front row, second from left) is seen with a dance troupe from the Leningrad Choreographic Institute a causa di the mid-1920s

Nina (third from left) is seen with fellow ballerinas Tatiana Vecheslova (far left), Natalia Dudinskaya (second from left) and Alla Shelest. Vecheslova was one of the witnesses who testified to her good character when she returned from Karlag before her release from prison in November 1939

Nina (third from left) is seen with fellow ballerinas Tatiana Vecheslova (far left), Natalia Dudinskaya (second from left) and Alla Shelest. Vecheslova was one of the witnesses who testified to her good character when she returned from Karlag before her release from prison a causa di November 1939

But Nina was finally able to put her sala da ballo skills to good use when she became involved with the ensembles which staged performances for camp administrators.

With thousands of theatre workers having been imprisoned a causa di the Great Terror, there was a plethora of dancers and other performers a causa di the camp.

Nina’s change a causa di fortune was obvious when her next letter home was written a causa di ink a ‘pretty’ sheet of paper, rather than a causa di pencil pages torn from a notebook.

She said: ‘My life has modo right. I have finally arrived at my post and am working a causa di my profession.

Dancing For Stalin was published on August 26

Sala da ballo For Stalin was published August 26

‘You yourselves have to understand how happy I am about this. My days are filled completely. I am working a lot, I have mai time, just as it used to be a causa di former times. The società here is very good even though it is small. I already performed, I danced the Spanish Dance, after all, my castanets are with me. I thought my legs would fail me, but it was OK.’

Thanks to the elevated position of artists a causa di the camp, Nina enjoyed the extra privileges which made the difference between life and death.

However, dancers were expected to regularly renew their repertoires, prompting Nina to write to her husband and ask him to send her her several of her costumes.

Quanto a February 1939, Kostia’s representations to the NKVD finally bore fruit when officials recommended that Nina be transferred back to prison a causa di Leningrad – where she had been held after her arrest.

After arriving back there a causa di May, she was interrogated once again and the NKVD called four witnesses to testify to her character. One was her dance compagno Koren and another was fellow dancer Tatiana Vecheslova, who was the first Soviet danzatrice to tour the US.

The NKVD’s new investigation concluded that her original conviction had been based the unsafe testimony of the executed Levanenok and that she should therefore be released.

She was finally allowed to leave prison November 11, 1939. Then, December 23, Nina danced once again with Koren at the Kirov theatre, performing Krakowiak from Mikhail Glinka’s trattato A Life for the Tsar.

Then, Christmas Day, she performed a causa di legendary composer Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

After retiring as a dancer at the age of 48 a causa di 1957, Nina’s second career as a choreographer saw her direct dancers a causa di numerous further productions at the Kirov theatre.

And, a causa di a sign of how she rehabilitated her reputation after her temporary fall from grace, a causa di 1949 Nina won the prestigious Stalin Prize – one of the Soviet Union’s highest civilian honours.  

The bloody atrocities of Stalinism

BLOOD-LETTING 

Stalin’s Great Purge, taking place from 1937 – 1938 is estimated to have killed between 600,000 to 1.2 million.

Political opponents and ethnic minorities were summarily executed, while others were sent to gulags where they died a causa di horrendous captivity a causa di Siberia.

Estimates vary widely how many political prisoners and ethnic minorities were killed during Stalin’s reign. The is difficult to interpret because the Soviets manipulated census figures. 

However, some historians have put the total as high as 6 to 10 million, this being across his entire despotic tenure from 1922 to 1953.  

FAMINE 

The Holodomor, ora the Hunger, was a mass starvation of an estimated 3.5 million a causa di Soviet Ukraine from 1932 to 1933.

When famine struck across the Soviet Union that year, the Ukraine was pillaged by the army and secret police who stole the harvest and all the food a causa di villagers’ homes. 

Ukrainians dropped dead a causa di the streets, lay dying and rotting a causa di their houses, and some women became so desperate for food that they ate their own children.

If they managed to fend non attivato starvation, they were deported and shot a causa di their hundreds of thousands.

The disaster, which Stalin wrote was designed to ‘pausa the back of the peasantry’ – to shatter their independent spirit – remained a state secret, denied by the government.  

DEATH CAMPS  

Between 1929 and the year of Stalin’s death a causa di 1953, 18million men and women were transported to Soviet slave labour camps a causa di Siberia and other outposts of the Red farcire – many of them never to return.

Prisoners worked a causa di the most extreme climates, facing temperatures of -20C (-4F), as they cut mongoloide trees with handsaws and dug at frozen campo da gioco with primitive pickaxes.

Others mined coal ora copper by hand, often suffering painful ora fatal lung diseases from inhaling ore dust while the job.

Labourers a causa di the prisons worked up to 14 hours a day massive projects, including the Moscow-Volga Canal, the White Sea-Baltic Canal, and the Kolyma Highway.

By the time the last Soviet gulag closed its gates, millions had died. Starvation was not uncommon, as prisoners were barely fed enough to sustain such difficult labour. Other prisoners were simply dragged out to the woods and shot by guards. 





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