Crime Story The Dark World of Moscow's Bolshoi Theater

The recent acid attack on the artistic director of the Bolshoi Theater has shocked Russia and the art world. As doctors fight to save his vision, rumors are circulating that the attack was prompted by professional jealousy, a ticket-scalping racket or sex.


By , , Wladimir Pyljow and

The man would like to be called "Andrei," which of course is a pseudonym. He was wearing a black turtleneck when he arrived at a Moscow café to speak with SPIEGEL after talking with the police.

For four hours, Andrei sat in the café and spoke breathlessly about the Bolshoi Theater as if he had to get something dreadful off his chest. He says he has dedicated his entire life to the theater. "It's our national treasure," he says, "but now its reputation is ruined." Andrei says the world-famous theater has degenerated into a "den of bandits."

Andrei's behind-the-scenes knowledge of the Bolshoi spans decades. He claims to know who took advantage of the €800 million ($1.1 billion), six-year renovation to decorate their dacha with Stalin-era vases and plates stolen from the theater. He also says he knows who earns money scalping tickets on the black market, and which dancer is an oligarch's current boy toy. He has given their names to the police, he says.

When Andrei talks about the Bolshoi, he speaks of scandals, corruption, sex and sordid business deals. But these are not the standard intrigues thriving in theaters everywhere, where battles are fought over who gets the leading role, who stages the production and who is allowed to direct the opening-night premiere. Theaters are the ideal biotope for narcissists and egomaniacs. Yet everything that Andrei recounts seems more extreme, more terrible.

The lines between permitted and not permitted, between moral and immoral, are different in Moscow than they are in Western cities. Here at the Bolshoi, it's not just art that mirrors society, but also the off-stage drama within the theater itself. The Bolshoi is a mini-cosmos, corrupt and crumbling, like the country in which it exists.

Attacked with Acid

The latest culmination in the battles at the Bolshoi was the acid attack on Sergei Filin, the theater's 42-year-old artistic director, shortly before midnight on January 17. After a gala performance, Filin was on his way to his apartment in a 12-story building, where he lives with his second wife and two of his sons. It's a good neighborhood, expensive even by Moscow standards, with monthly rents of €30 per square meter ($3.80 per square foot). Real estate brokers promote the area by mentioning that many artists from the Bolshoi Theater live in the neighborhood.

That night, the ground was covered with snow. Filin had almost made it to his building's entrance, when someone called his name. He turned around to find a masked man with his right hand behind his back. For weeks, Filin had lived in fear of an attack. At that moment, he thought he was about to be shot.

Unknown individuals had repeatedly threatened him, and his dancers witnessed how he constantly received intimidating phone calls with only a silent caller on the other end. In mid-December, Filin even asked Anatoly Iksanov, the theater's general director, for personal protection -- but it didn't work out.

Filin tried to flee, but the masked assailant was faster. From a container the size of a water glass, he sprayed sulfuric acid in Filin's face. A parking lot attendant ran to Filin and washed the acid off with snow. But his face, eyes and scalp had already been burned.

A hospital spokeswoman says that a number of operations will be necessary to restore Filin's face and save some of his eyesight. The cornea of his right eye has been severely damaged, and his scalp has been injured. It's likely that Filin will have to wear a wig. He has probably been disfigured for life.

Sulfuric acid draws all water from the skin, leaving the tissue shriveled and scarred. The acid clouds the cornea, which develops holes.

A few days after the assault, Filin granted a brief TV interview from his hospital bed. His face was wrapped in white gauze, and only his mouth, nose and eyes were visible.

Ballet is all about beauty, and all that dancers have is their looks and their bodies. It's the tool they use to make a living. The assailant didn't want to kill Filin, who still appeared boyish despite his 42 years. Instead, he wanted to destroy him.

'The War for the Roles'

The news spread fast throughout the world of ballet and culture. Andrei Busygin, Russia's deputy culture minister, calls the crime an attack on the nation, saying: "Nothing like this has ever happened before." Officials at the Ministry of Culture say that it was not just an assault on the great artist, but "rather against the entire Bolshoi Theater and Russian culture."

The Bolshoi is the national stage. The czars had the theater built in the late 18th century, and successively rebuilt it after fires. It was meant as a monument to their glory. Under the Romanov Dynasty, the stage curtain was adorned with the golden double-headed Russian imperial eagle. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks used the prestigious building to hold party conferences, and the old curtain was replaced with a new one, decorated with a hammer and sickle. Rumor has it that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had a secret tunnel dug from the Kremlin to the Bolshoi so he could directly access his theater box. Stalin loved the opera and ballet.

Even today, the Bolshoi is home to the world's largest and most famous ballet troupe, with 240 dancers. Every dancer accepted into the Bolshoi has laid the foundation for a global career. However, the real battle -- the struggle for glory -- only begins later. Dancers have very little time to pursue a career, perhaps 20 years. It's the ballet master -- in this case, Filin, at least until the evening of the attack -- who decides which dancer will become the greatest star among the stars and which dancer will win this cut-throat battle, known as the "war for the roles" at the Bolshoi. When Filin became the company's artistic director in March 2011, he knew what lay in store for him. From then on, many of his dancers saw him as their greatest enemy.

In January 2009, his predecessor, Alexei Ratmansky, left the Bolshoi because he felt that he had been undermined by his own people: "This theater has no morals," he said shortly after the attack. "Claqueurs, ticket scalpers, half-crazy fans who'll do anything for their idols -- all of this makes the Bolshoi sick."

After Ratmansky, Gennady Yanin became the ballet company manager. He also wanted to become the artistic director, but his career at the Bolshoi was cut short by a smear campaign. In 2011, somebody uploaded photos of him online and sent the link to 3,847 recipients. The photos purportedly showed Yanin having sex with men. Homosexuality is widely frowned upon in Russia.

Filin filled the vacant post of artistic director. He was highly ambitious -- perhaps too ambitious. The Bolshoi is the most tradition-minded of the world's leading theaters. Theater directors who refuse to limit themselves to "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker," and instead dare to stage contemporary productions, are vilified by the public and many critics. Every experiment is instantly branded as an attempt to "Westernize" the Bolshoi.

Nonetheless, Filin tried to modernize the Bolshoi Ballet. In November 2011, he enlisted the American dancer David Hallberg as the first foreign soloist in the company. For 2013, Filin has also signed up two foreign choreographers, Britain's Wayne McGregor and France's Jean-Christophe Maillot.

Over 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) west of Moscow, Vladimir Malakhov works as the artistic director and first soloist of the Berlin State Ballet. With a troupe of 88 dancers, this is the largest company in Germany. Malakhov trained in Moscow at the school of the Bolshoi Ballet-- and he is close friends with Filin. They had plans to attend Berlin's Tanzolymp international dance festival together in February to scout for new talent.

Less than an hour after the attack, Malakhov heard all the details in Berlin. "Are we back in the age of the Medicis," he asked "when people poisoned each other?"

Malakhov is familiar with the rumors concerning the reasons for the attack. He says that there is a "dark business" surrounding the sale of theater tickets, and he contends that life in Russia cannot be compared with life in Germany, saying: "There is no longer any sense of satisfaction in Russia." Malakhov believes that money has ruined everything -- some have too much, while others have too little.

He admits that he doesn't think the perpetrators will be found, but he hopes that God will avenge this vile act. For Malakhov, Moscow is far away and heaven is close at hand.


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