Whatever happens at the Oscars next Sunday, it is likely to bring on yet another wave of “Black Swan” mania. Meanwhile, in Russia, all eyes are on another ballerina horror show. This one involves a real Black Swan—the prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, who is famous for her long-limbed renditions of Odette and Odile in “Swan Lake.” She is also a notorious Moscow socialite—appearing frequently in the Russian tabloids for things like allegedly stealing a friend’s lover and starring in a Snickers commercial, in which she tells a group of basketball players to “kiss my tutu.” She didn’t help matters when, last month, she published naked photos of herself on her blog.
Earlier this month, Volochkova cut her ties with the country’s ruling party, United Russia, which had enlisted her as a celebrity spokesperson. She announced her decision in a radio interview—seemingly on a whim—and referred to the party of Vladimir Putin as “that fucking party” and “that shit into which I was careless enough to step.” United Russia posted a short statement on its Web site: “Women, like children, are inclined to changes in mood. In this sense, Anastasia Volochkova is a real woman.” Then, on February 11th, when Volochkova was on tour with her new show, “Applause,” in the southern city of Togliatti—Russia’s Detroit—a television segment celebrating her thirty-fifth birthday was scheduled to air during a popular talk show. She wrote on her blog: “At the very end of the show [in Togliatti], right before I entered the stage for the final number, my director told me that the show ‘Let Them Talk,’ dedicated to my birthday, had been taken off the air.” Volochkova blamed a man named Vladislav Surkov.
The channel on which the television program was scheduled to run, Channel 1, is the country’s main station, and is majority-owned by the Kremlin, and overseen by Vladislav Surkov. Officially, Surkov is the Russian President’s first deputy chief of staff. Unofficially, he is United Russia’s chief ideologist, its Karl Rove, its Grey Cardinal. Volochkova had been looking forward to watching the program—she had asked friends to tape it because she would be on stage in Togliatti when it aired. She found out backstage that the special had only aired in the Russian Far East and Kazakhstan before the switch was made.
“Of course, I was extremely upset,” Volochkova recalled on a recent wintry afternoon, in her office up the street from the Kremlin. Heavily made up, with tattooed eyebrows, she was sipping a cup of rum-spiked tea. Her bedazzled gold phone kept interrupting her with the chorus from Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” Swans adorned her bejeweled velvet backpack, as they do nearly every accessory she has. The last number of her performance in Togliatti was a song, “Applause,” written for her by one of her show-business friends. “I performed this song in one breath, trying not to show my audience that something was not right,” she recounted. “But at the end I started weeping, because I was extremely upset with what had occurred.” She went on, now angrily, “I don’t know what will become of me later. Because if this is the first step of this vengeance, then I don’t know what form the future steps will take.”
Volochkova, the daughter of a Leningrad table-tennis champion, became a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi Theatre at the age of twenty-two, in 1998. She excelled at her Swan Lake roles, but then, in 2003, the theatre fired her. Volochkova’s version is that it was because of the influence of a former boyfriend of hers, a powerful billionaire. The Bolshoi’s version is that Volochkova had simply gotten fat. The resulting public squabble—which included a New York Times reporter showing up at a Moscow restaurant to weigh and measure her, as well as a lawsuit, which she won—still brings her to tears. “Over the course of seven years, wherever I went, people would say, ‘Well you know, Anastasia, we thought you were so big and fat,’” she said in a recent interview. (The lesson learned? “I will fuck the shit out of the entire world. In a good way.”)
Volochkova joined United Russia in 2003, shortly before her problems with the Bolshoi began, but the party did not come to her rescue. Then, two years later, according to Volochkova, they set her up. She has two versions of how this happened, but the basic facts are the same: she joined other Russian artists in signing a public letter supporting the conviction, for tax evasion, of the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky—a charge most of the world saw as politically motivated. (Volochkova’s defense of this act sounds a bit like that of a teenager caught smoking pot: she didn’t know the letter referred to Khodorkovsky; the letter was brought to her by a cool and important person; all of her artist friends were doing it.) In 2009, Volochkova ran for mayor of the Russian town Sochi, which is scheduled to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. The United Russia party kicked her off the ballot on a technicality. Since then, she says, she has had trouble getting bookings in the region.
In Volochkova’s account, the last straw in her troubled relationship with the Party came in January, when she published the naked photos. They showed her lollygagging on a beach in the Maldives, with what looks like an arrow of strategically placed pebbles running down to her nether regions. During her birthday show, Elena Drapeko, a Soviet actress and parliament member, lay into Volochkova for the photos, and advised that, at her age, it was better to be “wise, rather than luxurious.” The fact that Drapeko was from a different party didn’t tame Volochkova’s wrath. Why, Volochkova wondered, were people focussing on this instead of building art schools? “But when I put up my beach shots on my own blog—not the Party Web site—they suddenly remember that Volochkova is a United Russia member,” she told an interviewer at the time. After all, she added, “I showed them my breasts, not my member!”
To Volochkova and her fans, the cancellation of her birthday broadcast was reminiscent of the days of the Soviet Union when official Party artists were showered with privilege while the blacklisted foundered, were arrested, or, like Joseph Brodsky, were forced into exile. “I was convinced that I live in a free country, and I thought that the leaders of the party were sane people, that they wouldn’t start battling me, a woman,” Volochkova said. “And for what? Just because I decided to stay out of politics?”
The day after her tearful performance in Togliatti, Volochkova went hunting with the locals of the nearby city of Samara. They hunted groundhogs, the plural accusative for which, in Russian, is “surkov.” “It turns out the groundhog is a cowardly animal,” Volochkova wrote on her blog. “It spends all its time hiding in its den and won’t go more than five yards from it.” As a result, Volochkova wrote, “during my hunting trip, not one groundhog was hurt.”
Russia’s Black Swan [TNY]