The impact of rigorous Russian choreographers and dancers on the history of ballet is almost incalculable — without Nijinsky, Balanchine, Nureyev, Makarova, Baryshnikov et al., the world’s ballet stages would be profoundly diminished. Until his resignation for “family reasons” on 4 April, the director of the Munich’s Bayrisches Staatsballet, Bavarian State Ballet, the formidable dancer and choreographer Igor Zelensky (no apparent relation to the Ukrainian president) stood firmly in that glittering, austere, tradition.
Igor Zelensky’s rather abrupt resignation — he had been the lauded and very successful director of the ballet since 2016 — came as somewhat of a surprise to Munich’s and the world’s balletomanes, and at the same time the resignation gave additional fuel to a joint journalistic investigative team, which included reporters from the well-regarded German newsweekly Der Spiegel (”The Mirror”), who were taking a close look at the man and his environment. The results, published by Der Spiegel on May 19 under a banner head alleging a “liason,” held that Vladimir Putin’s Dresden-born daughter, Katerina Tikhonova — the former rhythmic gymnast — had traveled some fifty-odd times within a 24-month period to Munich to see the renowned State Ballet director, and, further, that the happy couple had had a child.
However: Just because that (reported) child’s maternal grandfather has inexplicably launched and continues inexplicably to prosecute one of the more old-school, full-on, brutal ground wars that Europe has seen in the last few decades doesn’t automatically forbid his two (acknowledged) daughters from finding romantic partners of their choice. Nor does the war, or its many sanctions against Western Europe-loving Russian expatriates, forbid those two Putin daughters from procreation, however uncomfortable it may eventually be for any European country — other than Russia or Belarus — to host direct descendants of the Russian president. Nor does this very new member of the Putin family bear a shred responsibility for her grandfather’s internationally excoriated brutality.
Unstoppable as that war might now seem, the Russian strongman’s actions have had and will continue to have repercussions on his citizenry in countries far and wide, as Europe and the wider world engage the occasionally cumbersome machinery of sanctions against his inner power bloc of actors and supporters. We can say that the sanctions and their application globally have laboriously shifted gears in the last weeks to include Mr. Putin’s own blended, if barely-known, family.
Similarly, in Europe, the process of levying and enacting sanctions against the running battalions of Russian oligarchs in proximity to the Kremlin can be diplomatically described as well-meant, but lurching. Despite the seriousness of Ukraine’s and Europe’s plight, and despite the grim resolution of Western Europe’s security and financial agencies in their attempts to impound the to-date quite impressive array of superyachts, soccer teams and glittering real-estate parcels from Barcelona to the Cote d’Azur and on to London and beyond, we can look forward to much more of the Keystone Cops architecture of this chase — yachts disappearing from refits overnight, billion-dollar Premier League soccer clubs being “given” to their non-expat board members, and the like.
Ms. Tikhonova’s deep, recurring presence in Bavaria has been known for quite some time. In that sense, the German reporters and their Russian counterparts in the investigation have simply hardened — with leaked documentation of Ms. Tikhonova’s many flights, including the passport of a reportedly now-two-year-old girl — the flood of rumors that have been circling about the couple for some time.
With her sister, Ms. Tikhonova has been targeted by (some) sanctions, but her primary country of residence is Russia, so that, while the effect of the sanctions are primarily aimed at making her father uncomfortable in the largest, most international sense, the day-to-day effect on Ms. Tikhonova’s life will not be quite as pronounced. Mr. Zelensky, still a resident of Munich and very much a highly employable agent of and on the global artistic stage, presents a more nuanced, complex case for sanctions and/or sanctioning. His personal and artistic biography has been international from the get-go. As a major force in the shaping and administration of the Bavarian Staatsballet since his appointment as director in 2016, a version of that professional biography still glows brightly on the Staatsballet’s website.
As a well-known Russian artist-in-the-global-artistic-Diaspora, the one thing that can be gleaned from Igor Zelensky’s public record is that he got where he is, as a dancer, choreographer and discerning arts-world adminstrator on his own. Especially in dance, Zelensky’s is the most rigorous sort of professional upbringing one can have. The point is that the ballet master very much did not gain his laurels or his good fortune for the equivalent of pennies by “purchasing” Russian state businesses during the gold-rush of the Yeltsin era, nor did he come up through the ranks of Putin’s core group of military and industrial leaders.
Thus it’s possible to argue that Mr. Zelensky presents a wholly different figure than that of key Kremlin insider Roman Abramovich, one of the prime defacto negotiators for the Kremlin in the Turkish peace talks who has been made wholly unwelcome in his former home of London as the (former) celebrated owner of the Premier League’s Chelsea soccer team. In stark contrast to Mr. Abramovich, or for that matter to the ubiquitous steel magnate Alisher Usmanov, whose billion-dollar superyacht, the Dilbar, recently fell under the sanctions’ lockdown, we do not actually know Igor Zelensky’s politics, nor his opinions on or about the war, nor his relations, if any, with the father of his paramour/partner Tikhonova.
On the other side of that debate — namely, in the question of just-how-pro-Kremlin-is-he — we do know that Mr. Zelensky does remain on post in Russia as government arts administrator. And we know that, despite the fact that his hosts, the Germans in general and the Munich press in particular, have been most keen for him to issue some sort of statement since the outbreak of war in February, Zelensky has refrained from public comment on or about the war.
But it’s useful when engaging in after-the-fact Kremlinology, especially when analyzing the apparent shadowboxing by any Russian expatriate, to understand that as a tactic resolute silence is often performed in defense of loved ones rooted back in the vast motherland of Russia. In clear, Russian-expat-speak, that is specifically to say that among Vladimir Putin’s many talents, his ability to inspire loyalty and its corollary, wholly intimidating fear, in many notable Russian residents of Western Europe who desire to keep some sort of connection with their home country is literally boundless.
In short: Despite his apparent lack of response to the war at the moment, Mr. Zelensky may be firmly ensconced in Munich, or may plan now to relocate wherever his fate and his talents allow. But wherever Mr. Zelensky winds up, his family — including his own now-presumed daughter by Ms. Tikhonova — is in Russia.