We saw “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai” at the Mariinski Theater in St. Petersburg, a ballet based on an 1823 narrative poem by Pushkin. The ballet debuted in 1934 in the same theater, which was then called the Kirov (and St. Petersburg was called Leningrad). Alison, Mark, and Shaw have already posted vivid descriptions of the opulent theater and the gorgeous ballet. I’m adding on in an attempt to capture a thought-provoking conversation with Alison the next day. One of the great benefits of traveling with Davidson professors is that you get to reflect on what you see, augmenting your impressions with their rich insights and diverse perspectives.
Alison raised the question of why this particular Pushkin story was revived in 1934, during Stalin’s rule. What was it about the story that resonated in 1934?
The ballet begins with a scene of a sultan wracked in grief. It then dramatically shifts to a European palace, where a nobleman is hosting a ball to celebrate the engagement of his beautiful daughter Maria to the dashing young Vaslav. The festivities are interrupted by an attack by Tartars, who murder all the aristocrats and kidnap Maria, whisking her back to their Oriental palace.
Naturally, the sultan, Khan, is transfixed by Maria’s pure, celestial beauty, and immediately loses all interest in the erotic charms of Zarema, his harem favorite. Zarema stabs and kills Maria in a jealous rage. Khan, unable to bring himself to kill Zarema, has his minions push her over the walls of the palace. The ballet concludes where it began, with the sultan wracked in grief over the loss of his beloved.
There’s no obvious political allegory here, and the story can simply be interpreted as an Orientalist fantasy in which the Occident celebrates its own moral superiority by depicting the erotic excess and violent brutality of the Orient. Even though the ballet delivers this predictable lesson, however, it also exalts the sultan as a powerful ruler who controls, kills, and suffers. We are invited not to critique the sultan, but to marvel at his power and grandeur and to weep at his suffering. Perhaps in 1934, the ballet sent a message to the audience that a great leader suffers even more than the people he executes. In this way, the ballet’s powerful, mysterious, tragic aura may have helped consolidate and ennoble Stalin’s authoritarian rule.
Of course, it’s also possible that the ballet was produced not for any political resonance at the time, but because of the timeless popularity of Pushkin. As Amanda has explained, Russians have tremendous reverence for their great authors, who never seem to go out of print or production. Every square in Moscow seems dedicated to literary giant, with fresh flowers laid upon their statues.
When we asked Anatoly Smeliansky, the president of the Moscow Art Theater, why Bulgakov was so popular right now (we saw a play adaptation of his work at an artsy small theater, and the Moscow Art Theater had two of his plays in their current season), he explained that Bukgakov’s work was banned in the late 1930s, but revived in the 1960s and has been continuously popular since. There was no political reason for the current string of Bulgakov plays running in Moscow. It wasn’t that Bulgakov’s plays speak to the current moment, he implied, but that they speak to all times.