Friday, June 16, 2017





June 16, 1961 - Rudolf Nureyev defects from the Soviet Union.

Rudolf Nureyev was born on March 17, 1938, on a train near Irkutsk in Siberia. (His mother was traveling to Vladivostok, where his father was a Red Army political commissar.) He had three older sisters, and was raised in a small village near the city of Ufa in Bashkortostan (an "ethnic state" within Russia for Bashkirs and Tatars).

He showed an early talent for dance and was encouraged to train formally. But the disruptions in the Soviet Union caused by World War II kept him out of dance school until he was 17, when he was accepted by the Vaganova Academy in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). His athleticism and attention to detail and form astounded his teachers, even though he was incredibly raw. He graduated in 1958 and joined the Kirov Ballet (now known as the Marinsky Ballet). He was given principal roles almost immediately.

By 1961, Nureyev had become a sensation in Russia. But he had also developed a reputation as a prima donna, nonconformist, and partier. He argued with teachers and directors; he refused to dance in anything but tights (even when the role required something else); he criticized rehearsal facilities and would walk out to practice on his own if he didn't like anything. Moreover, after graduating from ballet school, he began expressing his homosexuality for the first time -- cruising for sex in "pleshak" (gay cruising grounds like public parks or streets) or in "marshrut" (a "circuit" of hotel lobbies, metro stations, public toilets, and the like when men had sex). And Nureyev was insatiable: Even though he had at least one moderately long-term lover during these three years and socialized fairly openly with a group of gay friends, Nureyev could be found most nights working the pleshka and marshrut. The KGB even tried to entrap him, having him room with a handsome fellow dancer. Nureyev indeed put the moves on the other man. But when the KGB burst in them, they took too long to break down the door; Nureyev fled out a window and managed to avoid arrest.

Nureyev was so suspect in KGB eyes that they originally refused to allow him to travel internationally after 1960. But with the Kirov scheduled to tour Austria, France, and England in 1961, French organizers urged the Soviets to let him dance. They grudgingly permitted it.


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Nureyev had no intention of defecting. But he was desperate to take advantage of the lack of restrictions that came with international travel. While in Vienna, Nureyev refused to obey curfew and routinely partied with local dancers (male and female) into the early hours of the morning. In Paris, his behavior worsened. He openly consorted with gay dancers and non-dancers alike, and had an affair with blond 18-year-old dancer Jean-Pierre Bonnefous. The KGB began tailing him, hoping to catch him in bed with a man.

The Kirov was due to fly from Paris to London on June 16. As usual, the staff had control over everyone's airline ticket. At Le Bourget airport at 9 AM, Nureyev saw that a group of his new French friends had come to see him off and have one last drink. Among them was Bonnefous, "jeune, beau, et blond". As they drank in the bar, the director of the Kirov came over, took Nureyev aside, and told him that he was to fly back to Moscow rather than proceed to London. Kruschchev had ordered a command performance in the Kremlin. Moreover, Nureyev's mother was ill and asking for him. Nureyev was instantly suspicious. The rest of the Kirov began going through customs, and Nureyev panicked -- realizing that, once he was alone, the KGB would force him back to Moscow. If he returned to the Soviet Union, he'd be exiled to Ufa, never permitted to dance again. And that was death to him.

The three KGB agents who were present wanted Nureyev to go to the Aeroflot lounge, where he could be isolated. Nureyev hissed that he would start screaming if they laid a hand on him. Nureyev begged Bonnefous to get him a taxi so he could flee, but the frightened 18-year-old said he couldn't. The other male and female dancers and directors present didn't speak; they wanted to travel to Russia to perform, and remain on good terms with Russian officials. The KGB men got Nureyev to sit down, with the men on either side of him.

Bonnefous made a decision: He called Nureyev's French friend Clara Saint. She was a young socialite who was engaged to the son of Andre Malraux, French Minister of Culture. She'd just spent the night drinking with Nureyev and escorting him around Paris. Saint arrived at the airport at 9:30 AM. She found Nureyev sitting in the bar, sandwiched between the two massive KGB agents. Playing the coquette, she drew Nureyev away to "say goodbye". The KGB foolishly let him move a few feet away. Speaking French (which, as a ballet dancer, Nureyev had studied and understood), she asked Nureyev if he wanted to stay in France; he said yes. He asked her to "do something". They kissed, and he returned to his seat.

Saint rushed to the police office in the airport. She told the border control officer, Gregory Alexinsky, that a Russian was being held against his will in the bar. Alexinsky's father was a Russian who was forced into exile by the Communists in 1917. He hated the Soviet Union, but had no idea who Nureyev was. Nevertheless, he told Saint that it was against the law for the police to approach Nureyev. Nureyev had to walk over to them and request to stay. Alexinsky and his deputy agreed to sit in the bar a few feet from Nureyev, but Nureyev had to come to them.

Saint went back downstairs, and pretended to be the blushing, infatuated girl again. She got Nureyev away from his guards and whispered to him what he had to do. Then she kissed him again, sat at the bar, and ordered coffee.

Nureyev sat down. Then he jumped up and rushed toward the bar and the French police. A KGB agent intercepted him, standing in front of him and asking what was wrong. Nureyev stepped around him, took the six steps toward the French police, and asked for asylum. The three KGB agents attempted to seize Nureyev, but the French police shouted, "No! You can't touch him! You are in France now!"


The police took him to their office. The Russian consul rushed to the airport, and demanded to see Nureyev. He spent 20 minutes berating him in Russian, and Nureyev became hysterical -- even threatening suicide. The police intervened: French law required an asylum seeker to be left alone for 45 minutes. The consul left, spitting mad. Alexinsky told Nureyev that one door led to a hallway and the departure lounge where the KGB were waiting; the other led to the police. At the end of the 45 minutes, he had to choose which door to take.

At the end of the 45 minutes, Nureyev opened the door leading to Alexinsky's office and sought asylum once more. To distract the KGB and the press, Saint held an impromptu press conference in the airport lobby while the police quietly moved Nureyev out a side door and to the Ministry of the Interior -- where his asylum was formally processed and awarded.


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By the end of the year, Nureyev had met Danish dancer Erik Bruhn. He had seen amateur footage of a Bruhn performance in 1958 or 1959, and become infatuated with him. Bruhn returned the favor. The two men remained lovers despite Nureyev's extensive promiscuity until Bruhn's death from lung cancer in 1986.

Rudolf Nureyev died of AIDS on January 6, 1993, in Paris.



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