The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A famous dancer is one of the latest victims in Ukraine. His death may help us process the unimaginable.

Artyom Datsishin of the National Opera of Ukraine has succumbed to injuries sustained last month.

Sand bags and steel barricades are placed on a road leading up to Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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On Friday, Ukrainian ballet dancer Artyom Datsishin was reported to have died of injuries sustained under Russian artillery fire three weeks earlier. The 43-year-old principal dancer with the National Opera of Ukraine is the latest of several celebrities in the country that have been killed since the Russian invasion began last month. On Thursday, Kyiv’s National Academic Molodyy Theater announced that actress Oksana Shvets, 67, had been killed in a rocket attack in the capital city. And Pasha Lee, 33, a Crimean-born stage and film actor who did voice work for the Ukrainian-dubbed versions of “Lion King” and “The Hobbit, was killed during shelling in Irpin on March 6.

The deaths contrast with the more hopeful images circulating on social media showing influencers and celebrities who have taken up arms against Russia. Just a day before his death, Lee, who had recently joined Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, posted a photo of himself and a woman, both dressed in military gear. In the caption, he noted the heavy bombing they’ve faced. “We are smiling because we will manage,” he wrote.

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To be sure, no one in Ukraine has been spared by the conflict. But there is something about a celebrity death, according to psychologists, that drives the war home, showing that people we place on a pedestal are not impervious to violence.

In a Facebook post, stage director Anatoly Solovianenko called Datsishin a “beautiful artist” and a “wonderful man.” Russian American choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who worked at the National Opera of Ukraine, described his “unbearable pain,” calling Datsishin “a beautiful dancer loved by his colleagues.” Shvets’s death was also met with a public outpouring of sorrow: In a statement on Facebook, the Molodyy Theater, where she worked, expressed “irreparable grief,” adding that, “There is no forgiveness for the enemy that has come to our land!”

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The response to the deaths of the famous — perhaps out of proportion in a war with so many casualties — calls to mind a quote, sometimes attributed to Joseph Stalin, who as the architect of the Holodomor — the man-made famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s — has his own dark history with the former Soviet republic: “A single death is a tragedy,” Stalin is said to have remarked. “A million deaths are a statistic.”

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Baruch Fischhoff, a professor at Carnegie Mellon who studies risk perception, argues that telling the stories of these famous victims can lead to larger truths about the nature of the conflict.

“It might be that even celebrity does not protect people from the indiscriminate violence,” he wrote in an email. “Or it may be that there are people who choose not to exercise the privilege that comes with celebrity, but show solidarity and share the fate of everyone else.”

Elizabeth Cohen, a media psychologist at West Virginia University, has studied the way that the perception of celebrities facing danger affects the broader public. In 2020, she looked at how individuals responded to news of Tom Hanks’s covid-19 infection, and found that people felt they were more at risk of illness themselves after learning of his diagnosis.

A celebrity death, Cohen argues, may have a similar effect. When a “godlike person” is victimized by illness or war, “I think it might actually put our own risks more in perspective. It actually brings it closer to home,” she says.

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Celebrity deaths loom large, Cohen says, because famous artists and performers “mean something to us as individuals. But they also mean something to us as a community. We can all rally behind them.” Cultural figures such as Datsishin, who was part of a long-standing artistic tradition, can also be representative of the collective culture. “In Ukraine,” Cohen says, “they are symbols of a nation, what the nation values.”

Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, has studied how human sympathy decreases as the number of people affected by a tragedy increases — a paradoxical effect created by what he calls “psychic numbing.” His research has even suggested that increasing the number of people affected by a crisis from one individual to two decreases our compassion.

On the Arithmetic of Compassion, a website on which Slovic details his research, he likens our inability to scale our emotions in proportion to lives lost to the limits of sensory perception. “Just as we don’t notice the difference between 30 lit candles and 31 lit candles,” he writes, “our feelings do not register the difference between 30 deaths and 31 deaths.”

One way to combat this tendency to overlook mass tragedy is through telling the stories of individuals affected by a crisis, and creating what Slovic calls “narrative empathy.” The fact that a famous ballet dancer, onstage and vital just months ago, or an actor taking swimming pool selfies earlier this year, can fall victim to an attack brings unimaginable, catastrophic violence to a human level.

Cohen sees an upside in telling the painful stories of these celebrity deaths: “I think there’s a very good chance that the stories about the celebrities that are getting told are generalizable, and people are translating them to understand the experience of everyone.”