In 1938, at the height of Stalin’s Great Terror, Russian ballet dancer Nina Anisimova was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Her alleged crime was working as a Nazi spy. While she couldn’t be found guilty of espionage, she still was branded “socially dangerous”, and sent in a cattle wagon to the Karlag gulag in Kazakhstan, one of the biggest labour camps of the Stalinist period. She was released in 1939, and resumed her successful career — first as a dancer, then as a choreographer — yet the horrors she experienced in the labour camp remained a dark episode that overshadowed her life, despite being rarely mentioned in other biographies.
Published in August 2021 by Elliott & Thompson, Dancing for Stalin, a book by Soviet cultural politics and Russian ballet historian Christina Ezrahi, is now shedding light on this neglected facet of Anisimova’s life. It charts the dancer’s life from her bright debut at the age of 17 with the prestigious Leningrad Kirov Ballet ensemble, to her sudden fall from grace and subsequent exile. It also recounts the horrors that Anisimova witnessed at Karlag, and how the dancer was only able to survive thanks to the performances she organised for prison guards. It also recounts how the ballerina’s husband fought for her release from Leningrad, mobilising previous colleagues to testify in her favour.
Unlike many other gulag prisoners, Anisimova was ultimately freed, and even managed to resume her ballet career. Despite the suffocating grip of the Stalin era, and the later devastation brought by the Second World War, Anisimova went on to become an icon of the Kirov Ballet. In 1949, after she retired, she was awarded the Stalin Prize, one of the Soviet Union’s highest civilian honours.
Anisimova’s life was heroic and turbulent, and Dancing for Stalin captures it vividly, with gripping prose of cinematic quality. The product of many years of archival research, Ezrahi’s book uncovers previously unknown details of the ballerina’s life: from original declarations made at her arrest, to testimonies from Karlag and reflections on her later determination to restore her reputation.
Dancing for Stalin is an unfiltered, extraordinary portrait of Anisimova’s fierce and restless character, and a tale on the power of art in the most miserable of circumstances. Ultimately, the book poses difficult questions on human nature under oppression —including whether it is worth enduring hardship and injustice in a bid to simply survive.
Buy the book here.