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Pussy Riot escape from Russia recalls Soviet dancer’s dramatic defection

Italian ballet star Carla Fracci and Rudolf Nureyev are congratulated by Italian President Sandro Pertini after their performance in “Giselle” at the Rome Opera House in 1980. (Gianni Foggia/AP)
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Decades before a member of the all-female Russian band Pussy Riot escaped from Russia after criticizing President Vladimir Putin, the Soviet Union’s top ballet star, Rudolf Nureyev, made a dash for freedom at the Paris airport.

Just before the prestigious Leningrad State Kirov Ballet troupe boarded a plane to London in June 1961, the 23-year-old Nureyev broke away from KGB agents and ran, shouting in English, “I want to be free! I want the French police to protect me!” France gave him political asylum, and he went on to international stardom.

Nureyev was the first of several ballet dancers and artists to escape from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, including the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who, in 1974, slipped his KGB handlers to defect in Toronto. After Russia attacked Ukraine this February, star Bolshoi ballerina Olga Smirnova left Moscow, saying she was “against this war with every fiber of my soul,” and joined the Dutch National Ballet.

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Now Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina, who was under house arrest in Moscow for protesting the war, has fled the country disguised as a food courier, as she revealed in an interview with the New York Times this week. She went to Vilnius, Lithuania, where she met up with fellow band member Lucy Shtein, who had quietly escaped earlier.

The band leader followed in the footsteps of Nureyev, who was born on a Trans-Siberian train in Siberia. He gained ballet fame in the U.S.S.R. as a teenager and was promoted to lead male dancer in the Kirov Ballet, now known as the St. Petersburg Marinsky Ballet. In Paris, young Nureyev had performed to rave reviews. Le Monde compared him to iconic Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.

The rebellious Nureyev was known as the “Lone Wolf,” and Soviet officials worried he might go off on his own. On Saturday, June 17, 1961, at Le Bourget Airport, then the main international airport in Paris, the ballet troupe was preparing to fly to London. The tall, handsome Nureyev “was holding a bouquet and talking to admirers,” Reuters reported. “Suddenly, six guards crowded in on him and said, ‘You are not going to England, you are going on the Moscow plane.’ Nureyev paled.”

The burly men, according to various news reports, first told the dancer he had to return to Moscow to do a special performance for Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Then they told him his mother was deathly ill. Nureyev knew that wasn’t true because he had recently talked to his mother by phone.

Nureyev refused to go with the men and joined some fellow dancers for coffee at the airport’s Flying Saucer bar. The Soviet guards followed him there. “The newspaper France-Soir said six Russians tried to lead Nureyev away,” the Associated Press reported. “There was a short struggle, and the dancer broke loose and ran to policemen.”

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The gendarmes escorted Nureyev to the airport police office. “There in the presence of the Soviet officials, he declared that he had made his decision in ‘full liberty’ and under no pressure,” the New York Times reported. Despite protests from the Soviet officials, the French airport police freed him from his Soviet minders. “When he emerged from the police office, he appeared joyous.”

Nureyev said he wanted asylum. “Then relaxed and looking almost gay, he was put into a car with a police escort and driven into Paris,” the AP reported. Nureyev showed a moment’s panic when the driver suddenly changed routes to avoid a traffic jam. “Soviet embassy?” the Russian anxiously asked. But the driver took him to the French Interior Ministry.

The dancer’s defection — described as a “leap to freedom” — generated headlines around the world, except in the Soviet Union, where it wasn’t mentioned in the press. Soviet ballet officials denied that Nureyev had fled. “He was returned to Leningrad because his mother is dying,” one told reporters. “That could happen to anyone.”

France quickly granted Nureyev asylum, but the French Interior Ministry declined to say where he had gone because of “the possibility of harm coming to him.” News services quoted the dancer saying he had received numerous death threats and declaring, “I will never go back to the Soviet Union.” Former Paris Opera Ballet master Serge Lifar called Nureyev’s decision a “disaster for the Leningrad Ballet, of which he was the unquestionable star.”

Within a week after his defection, Nureyev was signed by the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in Paris to perform in “Sleeping Beauty.” The production was opening in a few days. “Dancers like Nureyev don’t need very many rehearsals,” the ballet’s administrator said. On June 27 — just 10 days after his escape — Nureyev performed to “thunderous applause, cries of ‘Bravo, Bravo’ and 15 minutes of curtain calls,” the AP reported.

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Nureyev continued to perform in Europe. That December in Frankfurt, Germany, he told reporters his defection wasn’t about politics. He said his main concern was “there might have been some danger that I couldn’t dance anymore. So I jumped to this side where I felt I still would be able to dance.” But he added about his new freedom, “I didn’t like the way I was dished up as a sensation. I resented the public curiosity about everything concerning my person.”

According to biographers, Nureyev lived in fear he would be kidnapped by KGB agents and returned to the Soviet Union. He was tried for treason in absentia and sentenced to seven years in prison. The Soviets didn’t allow him to return to visit his family.

In late 1961, he began teaming up with British Royal Ballet star Dame Margot Fonteyn for performances in Europe and the United States. He became part of the international jet set, socializing with Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury and Andy Warhol. In 1983, he became director of the Paris Opera Ballet. He finally returned to Russia in 1987 to see his dying mother after obtaining consent from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Nureyev, who was bisexual, had a long relationship with dancer Erik Bruhn of the Royal Danish Ballet. Around 1984, Nureyev contracted HIV. He died of AIDS on Jan. 6, 1992, at age 54 and was buried at the Russian cemetery in Paris. The New York Times called him “one of the most charismatic ballet stars of the 20th century.”

Nureyev was succeeded as the world’s premier male ballet dancer by Baryshnikov, who also was the lead dancer at the Kirov Ballet when he escaped in Toronto on June 30, 1974, at age 26. He had been traveling with the ballet company in Canada when he planned an escape after a show. “It was actually funny,” he told People magazine in 1995. “Fans are waiting for me outside the stage door, and I walk out and I start to run, and they start to run after me for autographs. They were laughing, I was running for my life.” He ran to a waiting getaway car a few blocks away.

Baryshnikov became lead dancer for the American Ballet Theatre in New York City and a U.S. citizen in 1986. Two weeks later, he performed with Nureyev at the Lincoln Center’s “France salutes New York” festival before a sellout audience, including first lady Nancy Reagan.

“We were friends,” Baryshnikov once said of Nureyev in an interview. “I learned a tremendous amount from his experience.”