The following is part one of “Defections to Freedom.” This is a series that tell the story of historic defections to the west from communist countries. These are stories that aren’t brought up much in schools or the media. However, we must keep alive the belief in the preciousness of our freedom.
The Longing for Freedom of Expression
In the summer of 1974, the Moscow-based Bolshoi Ballet traveled to Toronto, Canada. The Communist government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had arranged the trip as it always did for the few performers and athletes allowed to travel out of the country.
After an evening performance of Don Quixote on Saturday, June 29th one of most famous Soviet defections to the West began to unfold.
In today’s world, it seems unimaginable that a highly regarded group of professional artists would be directed by the government in all aspects of their art and business, including when and where they could travel. And that it would take years of planning, cajoling and usually bribery to have the right to perform.
But in Communist Russia during the cold war, travel outside the country was extremely rare and controlled and monitored like that of North Korea today.
Soviet artists and athletes lucky enough to be traveling abroad were assigned “handlers” from the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB, who would travel with them as baby-sitters to ensure they would return to the USSR. Choosing to leave the country was not an option for its citizens, no matter how famous.
But that summer night in Toronto the world’s greatest male ballet dancer made it an option.
Mikhail Nikolayevich Baryshnikov the renowned 26-year-old dancer, was on loan to the Bolshoi that fateful night from another Soviet ballet company, the Kirov, because the government had arranged two simultaneous tours, one in England, the other in Canada.
Baryshnikov was born in Riga, USSR (now Riga, Latvia) in 1948 to Russian parents. He began his ballet studies in Riga at the age of 12. By 1967 he had been assigned to the prestigious Kirov Ballet and became well known and respected internationally, New York Times critic Clive Barnes called him “the most perfect dancer I have ever seen.”
But, even with fame and relative comfort, Baryshnikov found himself unhappy, restrained by confinement to one country and the strictly traditional world of Soviet ballet, who rejected Western choreography. Baryshnikov became aware of the wider world of dance through occasional tours and films. He has said his main reason for leaving the Soviet Union was to work with these innovators and have the freedom to “expand his art”.
“When I was in Toronto, I finally decided that if I let the opportunity of expanding my art in the West slip by, it would haunt me always,” he told The Globe and Mail in his first post-defection interview. “What I have done is called a crime in Russia… But my life is my art and I realized it would be a greater crime to destroy that. I want to work with some of the West’s great choreographers if they think I am worthy of their creations.”
So at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 29, after the Bolshoi’s final Toronto show, Baryshnikov chose to commit the Soviet crime of seizing his own freedom.
Kevin Plummer of The Torontoist describes the defection,
“That evening, however, the plan began unraveling almost immediately…. When Baryshnikov emerged on-stage for his final number—the pas de deux from Don Quixote—he was already 15 minutes behind schedule. And by pouring all his energy and emotion into what he knew would be his last performance, Baryshnikov prompted another delay by earning curtain call after curtain call from the ecstatic crowd.
Rushing to his dressing room, he learned that the whole company was expected on a bus as soon as possible to attend a mandatory closing reception. Heading out the stage door in street clothes, just a few feet from the waiting bus, Baryshnikov stopped to sign autographs for a gathered crowd.
Sensing that this was his final opportunity, he slipped into the crowd of autograph seekers. As voices from the bus called to him—”Misha, where are you going?”—he broke into a run, with fans streaming after him across the parking lot.
Not knowing exactly where he was going, he sprinted into the street. With brakes squealing, a car nearly hit him.
By this time, the getaway car’s driver had grown worried because Baryshnikov was a half-hour late. He decided to head to the theatre to investigate whether the dancer might have changed his mind or been caught. As soon as he emerged from the parked car, the driver spotted a figure moving quickly through the night and hustled Baryshnikov into a passing taxi. They made their way to the farmhouse in Caledon Hills.”
In recounting the defection to People Magazine in 1985 Baryshnikov said, “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 autograph. They were laughing, I was running for my life. It was very emotional moment, I tell you.”
After evading his KGB handlers, the dancer went into hiding in the Canadian countryside until he was officially granted political asylum in Canada. Soon after, he received political asylum in the United States, where he became a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet.
Baryshnikov has stated his decision was not for political reasons but for artistic. However, under communist rule everything becomes political and every personal moment is of interest to the government and to informants.
Attempting to remain politically neutral, he’d always avoided becoming a member of the Communist Party. But was being increasingly pressured to join.
In a 1999 interview, he told John Fraser of the National Post, “I knew the government was beginning to feel that it was time to do my duty: to marry my live-in girlfriend, to join the Party, to sign on to the system. Once you rose to a certain height professionally, they always came for you.”
The Kirov Ballet, like all Soviet institutions, was infiltrated by both official KGB agents and informants—and they made no secret of their surveillance of him. After his return from a dance tour to London in 1972, KGB officers informed him that they had a record of everything he’d done and everyone he’d seen abroad—including his romantic liaison with an American girl.
“It was during this period,” he told Fraser, “that I really began to take stock of my life and realize how uneasy I was feeling most of the time.”
Baryshnikov’s success in the West has been phenomenal. He became artistic director of the American Ballet Theater, spearheaded many of his own artistic projects, including promoting the modern dance forbidden in the USSR, and premiered dozens of new works, including many of his own. His success as a dramatic actor on stage, cinema and television includes the 1985 film White Nights in which A Russian American ballet dancer’s airplane is forced to land in USSR, where he’s “repatriated”. Baryshnikov has been the most widely recognized male ballet dancer of all time.
Back in the USSR after the defection, the KGB spread rumors that Baryshnikov had merely been allowed a short-term sojourn in the West. For years, officials maintained his apartment as he had left it to perpetuate the ruse that Baryshnikov might return at any moment. But posters of the ballet star were quietly removed from the streets all over the Soviet Union. It wasn’t long before “Baryshnikov’s name would be removed from books and his image on film and tape locked away.” Said Barbara Aria in Misha (St. Martin’s Press, 1989).
Baryshnikov has never returned to Russia but in 2017, the Republic of Latvia granted him citizenship for extraordinary merits.