As a ballerina from ages 3 to 15, my dream was to dance the part of Odette in “Swan Lake”—perhaps the most coveted character in all of ballet. Although I never publicly performed in “Swan Lake,” my ballet company taught us its choreography, and I will never forget the summer morning we learned the “danse des petits cygnets” (Dance of the Little Swans). With our movements, we expressed the emotions of being held captive.
So when the announcers for Russia’s independent news channel, TV Rain, silently walked off set declaring “no war” on March 3, and the “danse des petits cygnets” appeared on the screen, I saw a warning from those whose freedom of speech is now held captive. One Monday morning—11 days later—Russia officially banned Instagram. So, although many news sources have pointed to the fact that the Soviet state television played this exact recording on August 19, 1991, during the failed coup (and four more times in the following years, each time the Soviets selected a new, unelected leader), I felt there was more meaning in displaying the dance.
The Dance of the Little Swans is at the end of Act II of the famous ballet. Prince Siegfried has just declared his love for Odette, pledging to break the spell that holds the princess and her companions as swans by day. The dance of the swans, albeit beautiful and graceful, is the juxtaposition to their situation. They are not and cannot be free.
Effective immediately, Russians no longer have any access to information about the reality of the war. The New York Times is covering Russia’s suppression of freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which has so far resulted in the boarding up of newsrooms. Journalists (including the Times’) are being chased out of the country. With newsrooms no longer in operation and any platform of free speech banned to citizens, Russians are trapped in the dark. They, too, are under a spell, as they are told that what is happening in Ukraine is for the good of Russia.
Ukrainians have called family members in Russia to tell them what is happening. The response is often disbelief; to them, there is no war. Putin is telling his people, “All of our actions, if they occur, they occur exclusively, always, in response to ill-intended actions toward the Russian Federation.” No voices are allowed to challenge him.
Airing the danse des petits cygnets was a warning to the rest of the world about the censorship of speech and the press. We should continue to heed the warning as the country goes dark. Without these, a country is easy prey for authoritarian leaders.
It’s not just a warning to Russia; it should also make us reflect on the censorship and cancel culture we see in the U.S. Are we, too, in danger of suppressing free speech ourselves? We certainly are if we do not value the freedom of the press and of speech of those with whom we agree and disagree.
The ending of “Swan Lake” is tragic. Odette and her companions are condemned to be swans forever. The Prince and Odette chose freedom in death together over a life of captivity. As I write this, journalists in Russia are fleeing for their lives and Russians open their phones to only see what the government wants them to see. The price of freedom can be precisely that high. We here in the U.S. should also take the word of warning from TV Rain’s use of “Swan Lake” and examine ourselves, because as we’ve been warned, freedom requires eternal vigilance.