Cover Image: Dancing with Stalin

Dancing with Stalin

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This was an interesting story of a dancer under the vice like grip of Stalin. . A gifted dancer accused of being a spy and sent to prison and how she went on to dance with the Kirov
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A truly fascinating account about the life of Nina Alexandrovna Anisimova, a ballet dancer who was part of the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad. The story also follows the narrative of the clash between artists and the state in their view about art, something which reminds me of Václav Havel’s position in communist Czechoslovakia after the crackdown of Prague Spring in 1968, during which Havel’s plays were banned from the theatre world in his own country and he was unable to leave Czechoslovakia to stage foreign performances, resulting in his increasing political activities. Our heroine in this story, Nina Anisimova, also found herself labelled as a ‘socially dangerous element’ due to suspicion of espionage activities and only as of the result of one false testimony. Regardless of that, Nina was arrested and sent to Gulag in Kazakhstan.

Stalin’s Great Terror claimed many lives from the intelligentsia in the late 1930s, artists are among them. By highlighting a single individual in this story, the author attempts to recreate and remember the extent of Stalin’s repressions through a character who could be said was a Soviet cultural icon. It begs us to question the value of truth and human rights which are being compromised in the face of an unjust system, which put millions of citizens into prison camps with poor living conditions, effectively cut them from the outside world in the name of reeducating them into model Soviet citizens. The position of Nina’s art, ballet, which was closely identified with the already-defunct Romanov dynasty which popularised it and the ruling classes who had enjoyed it didn’t make things easier for her.

Gulag, which stands for Glavnoe Upravlenie LAGerei ‘Main Camp Administration’, becomes the major topic of Solzhenitsyn, which was frequently quoted in his testimony in this book as well. The Gulag in Kazakhstan’s Karaganda region where Nina was imprisoned, was home to the Soviet Union’s third-largest coal reserves that required enormous manpower to function. What I enjoyed the most in this book was the genuine letter exchanges between Nina and Konstantine Derzhavin, her husband, during the time of her imprisonment in the Gulag between 1938 and 1939. The author seems to be doing it on purpose, to show how love was an integral part of Soviet life, how Kostia decided to lobby colleagues, officials, and networks to locate Nina’s whereabouts and to beg for reevaluation of the decision of the authorities to put Nina in Gulag, despite the fact that doing so might endanger his own position as even corresponded with a Gulag prisoner might trip someone into the fate of ‘guilty by association'. The letter exchanges also highlight prisoner conditions that seem inhumane by current standards with heavy labour.

Besides the thriving of artists during the Great Terror, this book also provides some insights into the life of Soviet artists during the Great Patriotic War, Soviet’s term to refer to World War II. Leningrad became one of the major theatres of the War, with the siege that lasted several years until January 1944. During this time, many artists were evacuated to safer areas, such was the case of Nina’s Kirov troupe which was hosted in the city of Perm and staged the repertoire Gayané composed by Aram Ilyich Khachaturian, a composer from Armenia who wrote his magnum opus Sabre Dance during this period on the request of the director of the Kirov. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of contemporary art as well as Soviet history.
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This text has been selected for the BackStage Book Club, and this portal will be updated with the review upon publication.
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What a remarkable biography. It tells the story of Nina Anisimova, acclaimed Russian ballerina and choreographer, who was accused of espionage during Stalin’s purges in 1938 and sent to the Gulag. Amazingly, she managed to survive the harsh regime and clung on to her desire to dance. Equally amazingly, her husband Kostia Derzhavin fought back against the system on her behalf, at great personal risk, remaining loyal throughout and protesting her innocence. Many letters between them have survived and the author has drawn on these to complement her meticulous research into Anisimova’s life and cruel fate. Once she was released, she returned to Saint Petersburg and went on to have an illustrious career with the Kirov. I’d never heard of her before and found her story a truly extraordinary one, compellingly narrated here, along with an informative overview of the Russian ballet of that era. There are many histories of individuals caught up in the Gulag and this is a welcome addition to their number. I found the book a truly fascinating read.
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Nina Anisimova was a beloved character dancer in St. Petersburg before becoming one of the first Soviet female choreographers. She was also a victim of Stalin's purges, though she survived. Dancing for Stalin, written by historian Christina Ezrahi, explores the horrors of Stalin's forced labor camps and secret police tactics that killed many and traumatized even more. Following Nina's story, Dancing With Stalin starts with Nina being accused of being  Nazi spy for just a casual acquaintance with someone who attended the ballet. 

For readers fascinated by Russian history, or want to know the sheer horrors of Stalin's paranoia, Dancing With Stalin is an excellent placed to start. 

Dancing for Stalin is now available.
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Thank you to NetGalley, Elliot & Thompson, and the author for the chance to read and review an ARC of this title. An honest review was requested but not required.

This book is nominally a microhistory of Soviet character dancer Nina Anisimova, who was sent under the flimsiest of pretenses to a Kazakh gulag in the late thirties and somehow not only survived but thrived. The author has clearly researched her subject extensively and seems to this under-informed reader to be equally knowledgeable (or at least, informed) about this period of Soviet history as she is about minute details of ballet history. At times the extensive research, endless long Russian names, and multitude of footnotes were really distracting and made for some dense, slogging reading. It's not the author's fault but my ARC edition was very poorly formatted and most of the footnotes were plunked down mid-paragraph, making it difficult to follow the narrative. I appreciate the wealth of knowledge that the author is able to impart but frankly I think Nina's story would have benefitted more from a focus on Nina directly and less on the specifics of every last dancer, choreographer, theater supporter, and tangential character known to Nina.

The book particularly shines in the narrative portions where Nina's specific experience is explained - such as in the harrowing train ride to the gulag - and in her letters home. The translations of her letters made me wonder if some of her phrasing is typical for Russians, or more of a historical way of speaking? ("I kiss you strongly," etc.) I'd be interested to find out. At any rate, Nina was clearly an indomitable survivor and miraculously survived an experience that killed or benumbed so many of her compatriots, with her fiery artistic spirit intact and her creative drive going strong. I looked online to see if I could find any videos of her performing but sadly, I couldn't. The idea of a character dancer is kind of a new one for me, and I definitely fell down a YouTube wormhole looking at examples. 

I did assume from the title that Nina performed literally in front of Stalin at this point, but unless I misread, I don't believe that was portrayed in the book. (In case this matters to anyone.)

I would recommend this book to a reader with a strong interest in Soviet/Russian history, a reader who likes strong women, or a devotee of ballet history.
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I have always been fascinated by the major times of oppression in other countries (as well as my own). The idea of dictators specifically has always freaked me out so this book really opened my eyes as to what people did, feared, and hoped for while under the "leadership" of Stalin. Wonderfully written.
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A high-stakes tale of hope that sweeps readers into the Stalin era Soviet Union, where dancer Nina Anisimova moves from the Petrograd Ballet School to Kazakhstan gulag to the Kirov Ballet. Accused of espionage, the ever determined Anisimova fuels her passion for her craft as she overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds
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The story, that is full of tragedy and hope, and is also true. The tale of a dancer, who wasn't broken by one of the most ruthless regimes of the 20th century, but managed to survive everything, which life through at her (and that was way more, than any of us could even imagine). Impressive.
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As an ethnologist I really enjoy microhistory where I really get deep into a specific person and their life to fit into a larger picture. In Ezrahi's book this is exactly what I got as she presented the story of the Russian ballet dancer Nina Alexandrovna Anisimova who were arrested on false terms of treason and espionage in pre-World War Two.

The novel follows Nina through the archival documents - some uncovered by accident by Ezrahi - and paints a picture of Anisimova's life after being sentenced to prison for espionage and treason. We follow Anisimova through the initial interrogation process, through her sentence (where she's sent to a gulag in Kazakhstan) and her life after being released. 

It's an interesting look into Stalinist Russia/Soviet Republic and the hard reality many millions of people were subjected to during this era.
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This was an incredibly interesting and well researched novel. Ezrahi is clearly passionate about this time in history and telling Nina Anisimova’s story. She did not shy away from revealing the horrors and nightmares that Nina suffered, it painted an altogether clear image of her life and legacy. At certain points, I was unclear whether Ezhari was telling this as a non-fiction or fiction, nonetheless, it made for a compelling read.
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