When tanks rolled into Moscow on 19 August 1991 during a dramatic anti-Perestroika coup by Soviet hardliners, the USSR’s state-controlled airwaves offered a curious response - a continuous loop of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Ballet, of all things, served as balm for the revolution underway.
Yet most Soviets weren’t fooled. A series of deaths by recent Soviet premiers - all greeted by broadcasts of the regime’s beloved Swans on television - had taught Russians to view Tchaikovsky’s classic as far more than art. It was a harbinger for political wrangling deep inside the Kremlin. Amid the dancing and pirouettes on a grainy screen, Russians saw hidden choreography affecting their lives and country. Tchaikovsky’s swans had become canaries in the coalmine, sparking mass protests that brought an end to the Soviet empire.
A quarter of a century on, this programme traces the strange and elaborate pas de deux between Tchaikovsky’s ballet classic and the Russian psyche - revealing how a work considered a flop upon its premiere emerged as a powerful instrument of Soviet propaganda, and - later - a soundtrack that failed to disguise impending political turmoil.
A mosaic of Russian voices recall their impressions of the swans through a richly layered tale of ‘looped reporting’ and encounters, rare archival audio, contemporary interviews and digital mash-ups to chronicle how Swan Lake has shaped the history of modern Russia and - even now - emerged as a powerful political meme in the Putin era.
Produced by Charles Maynes and Cicely Fell with Swan Lake loops by Rombix. A Falling Tree production for BBC Radio 4.