Dissent from Within Official Soviet Ballet

All forms of art in the Soviet Union were subject to government censorship. Collecting Russian Art is focused on Soviet painting, but a recent piece on Soviet Ballet for the Stanford News service caught my attention. The piece explores how choreographer Leonid Yakobson worked within the officially sponsored medium without completely compromising his artistic integrity. A part of the Western Cold War narrative of Soviet art is the idea of complicity with the failures of the Soviet regime. Official Soviet art is “cowardly” and ideologically subservient, and only the work of underground Non-conformists is considered truly courageous.

The work of Stanford University dance scholar Janice Ross begins to complicate these conventional divisions within Soviet art. In a new book Ross explores how, “Yakobson’s productions alternately accommodated and challenged ideas endorsed by the Soviet regime.” This idea of struggle from within is crucial to a more nuanced, post-Cold War understanding of Soviet Art. The relationship between the Soviet government and artists was not just one of repression, censorship and control. The arts also received enormous support from the Soviet state. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

In Ross’ analysis, the making of ballet in the Soviet Union had affordances and constraints.  Ballet was valued and privileged as a tool for conveying critical meanings and manufacturing the idealized Russian body. “Ballet gave the artist a certain status. It was worth the struggle because this was such a valued arena. And so they needed Yakobson as well,” Ross said.

While Ross’ work is focused on dance, fundamental concepts from her work can be applied to Soviet painting. The tremendous value placed on the arts by the state in the USSR was both a blessing and a curse. To say that art is important is simply a different way of saying art is dangerous.

Debates about censorship continue in Russia. A nuanced understanding of the Soviet legacy is essential to our understanding of Russia’s contemporary art landscape.

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Author: Barry O'Keefe

Artist/printmaker from Richmond, Va

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