Skip to main content
Ballet dancers on stage performing 'Swan Lake'

Swan Lake's link to political turmoil in the Soviet Union

What comes to mind when you think of 'Swan Lake'? Elegant dancers? Emotional music? In the Soviet Union, this ballet was associated with political unrest, a sentiment that still lingers to this day.

Image: A_Lesik /

What comes to mind when you think of the ballet Swan Lake? If you’re in the UK, you might think of elegant dancers, the Romantic music of Tchaikovsky, or perhaps the 2010 film Black Swan. But in Russia, the ballet has quite a surprising connotation.

Russians who oppose their country’s war with Ukraine are unable to speak out publicly for fear of retribution. Instead, they’re forced to express themselves in subtler ways – like leaving graffiti of ballerinas dancing as Swan Lake’s swans in public places.

In fact, when the Russian station TV Rain was forced to shut down in 2022 because of its anti-war sentiment, it played Swan Lake as its very last broadcast.

That’s because, in Russia, the iconic ballet has become associated with political unrest.

Swan Lake and the deaths of political leaders

The years 1982, 1984 and 1985 all saw the deaths of Soviet leaders – Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, respectively.

In the period of potential political disturbance after each death, Russian TV began to play Swan Lake on a loop. While the goal was perhaps to distract and calm viewers, the ballet actually became associated with the deaths of leaders and with political instability.

In August 1991, Swan Lake again returned to Russian TV. But this time, it wasn’t signalling that someone had died.

The political environment of 1991

The political situation in the Soviet Union, or USSR, in August 1991 was shaky. Food was scarce, and inflation was incredibly high. Moreover, there were deep divisions about the political direction the union had been taking.

Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet President, had been instituting reforms that were not welcomed by his hardliner colleagues. Generally, his approach was to reduce the Soviet Union’s authoritarianism, hostility against other nations, and iron control over its member republics. Indeed, Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his contributions toward ending the Cold War.

To this end, Gorbachev had introduced the principle of glasnost, translated as ‘openness’ or ‘transparency’, which allowed his people a little more freedom of speech. His other core principle, perestroika, or ‘restructuring’, somewhat decentralised political and economic decisions – taking the Soviet Union one step toward becoming a free market.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall was torn down, literally removing a division between the Soviet Union and capitalist nations like the US, Britain and France. Moreover, in 1999, four republics had declared that they were independent from the Soviet Union.

On 20th August 1991, Russia was to sign the New Union Treaty, which had been approved by a referendum of Soviet states. The treaty essentially decentralised power in the union.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin supported the reforms to some extent – except that he felt they didn’t go far enough.

On the other hand, some top political leaders in the Communist Party strongly opposed the reforms – and they were prepared to take dramatic action before the New Union Treaty was signed.

The Soviet coup attempt of 1991

On 19th August, the Vice President of the Soviet Union, Gennady Yanayev, and seven other political leaders imprisoned Gorbachev in his country home in Crimea and attempted to institute a coup. This group, later known as the ‘Gang of Eight’, called themselves the ‘State Committee on the State of Emergency’. Their goal was to halt and reverse Gorbachev’s policies.

That morning, Swan Lake played again on Soviet state television. Russians instantly understood that it was not a good sign.

However, this time the ballet did not play alongside the death of a leader. Gorbachev survived his detainment in his house, and the coup attempt failed after only three days. Boris Yeltsin’s role proved pivotal. He famously stood on a tank outside the parliament building in Moscow and gave a speech that dissuaded soldiers from entering the building to support the coup.

The consequences of the coup

Having intended to preserve the Soviet Union, the conspirators saw the opposite occur. They were arrested and tried. While they were eventually amnestied, they lost their places in the government.

Through the rest of 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed as more and more of its members declared their independence. On 26th December 1991, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved.

Gorbachev resigned that December and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was also dissolved. Yeltsin, the President of Russia and proponent of radical reforms toward democracy, was left in power.

It’s no surprise that memories of Swan Lake during this pivotal moment in history remain strong among Russians. As graffiti of Swan Lake dancers appeared on Russian walls in 2022, their message brought to mind the failure of authoritarianism during those pivotal days in 1991 – and the hopeful moments of the following December as Russia took steps toward democracy and freedom.