Kerri Turner is an award-winning Australian writer based in Sydney. Training for a career as a ballet dancer, she eventually realised her love for dance stemmed from the history surrounding it and other performing arts. Since then she has focussed on writing historical fiction. A graduate of Faber Academy, she hopes to one day release a quartet of historical fiction novels which each touch on a different performing art. Through community centres she teaches ballet and tap dancing classes for adults, specialising in the unique needs of women over fifty-five.
Once considered the richest and most powerful woman in Russia, Mathilde Kschessinska had an early relationship with then-Tsarevich Nicholas Romanov, which lead to a lifelong friendship. She used this connection to help catapult her to the position of prima ballerina assoluta in the Imperial Ballet – the highest rank a ballerina could hold. Known for her influence, decadence, and simultaneous relationships with two Grand Dukes, she became a popular target of the 1917 Russian Revolution. She survived, only to have Vladimir Lenin commandeer her house for his headquarters and release propaganda defaming her. Not one to back down, Mathilde took to Lenin to court to fight for the right to her house. She lost, and was forced to dance for Lenin’s men, with the expectation she would be executed afterward. Mathilde Kschessinska saved her own life with her dancing. In the midst of ensuing civil war, she made a harrowing on-foot escape from Russia with her son. A refugee in France, she married her surviving partner and lived until she was ninety-nine – forty-seven years longer than Lenin survived.
I can hear them calling out my name. These are not the usual cries of anticipation I am used to. These men want me dead.
I know, because they are saying so.
I grind the flat toes of my pointe shoes into the ground; my wig is heavy on my head, and the tulle layers of my tutu skirt feel weighted. The very air itself, with its familiar smells of paint and old, dried sweat, is trying to drag me into despair. Instead, I am angered. The stage, the accoutrements that go with it, are my home. I latch on to the anger with the desperation of a babe searching for milk; it is easier to suffer rage than the fear which makes my heart tremor as though I were a corps de ballet dancer stepping out on to the stage for the very first time. I am not; I am Mathilde Kschessinska. Prima ballerina assoluta.
They will not have my life.
My eyes are fiery now, as black as their propaganda has named them. I direct them to the man posing as stage manager for this impromptu performance. Another communist traitor. He is taller than me by a foot, but I see him shrink back against my glare. Good. He hasn’t forgotten everything, then.
“How am I supposed to dance over such racket? I’ll not be able to hear my music.”
“I should think that’s the last of your concerns right now.”
I want to snap that he understands nothing of art, but he is right. Their chants have solidified into one. They are calling for my head. They want to see me dance, then see me die.
I glance back at the stage door. Guarded. There is no escape for me, except on to the stage.
Fine. It is there I will save my life, and defy Lenin and his comrades.
I reach once more for the anger that has been my constant companion since the Revolution, stifling my fear with it as I step out on to the stage.
That is the thing I have learned about fear. No matter how much of it you have faced, there always seems to be room for more. If the world worked in the way it ought, I would no longer know fear. Those days during the uprising, hiding while guns punctured holes in the walls around me, the slipstream of the bullets making themselves felt against my skin so I was sure I’d been hit, should have cured me of fear. It worked for Djibi, the dog who had been my companion through triumph and heartbreak. He reached the point where he could take no more, and his heart gave out. I suppose I am glad of that – no creature should suffer such circumstances. But the anger that sears across my skin is in the pattern of my little Djibi’s black and white patches.
Stage lights illuminate the empty expanse before me. I have chosen a costume plainer than those I wore in the past – no diamonds or emeralds to encrust it – because they wouldn’t allow me access to anything else. I flinch as I am revealed to the unfriendly audience; the jeers turn to a roar. They have been whipped into a frenzy by Lenin’s lies against me; they believe the newspapers and films and ugly, obscene comics. I take strength from that; he fears me, else he wouldn’t work so hard against me.
I half expect fruit to come sailing at me, but the thousands in the audience have not lost all restraint.
As I move to the centre of the stage, my eyes search for the conductor down in the pit. They have granted me a full orchestra. I am not sure why; it is only one solo, by one woman, and this crowd are not interested in the art. They are only interested in trying to intimidate me. They want me to dance for their mercy.
The conductor raises his baton; his face is blank, but from my position above I can see the glint in his eye, his mouth counting a silent introduction because he knows I won’t hear the music over the calls for my neck. It seems I have one friend left in Russia.
I begin to dance. It doesn’t matter that all I can hear are the increasingly graphic suggestions raining down on me; the music is there in my mind. It is Odile’s variation. I have chosen this piece carefully; they want me to yearn and plead, but that has never been my way. I am giving them the Mathilde Kschessinska of old, the one they think they want to be rid of. Brilliant, sharp, cutting. The Mathilde who swayed even the Romanov family.
My poor Nicky.
Thoughts of him catch my heart, make it go cold. He should have married me. Think of the power we would have had together; if I am a danger to Lenin now, imagine how it would have been with a Romanov by my side and a brood of healthy royal children. I move through the steps – commanding, seductive – and I am transported to a time when I was young and in love and dreams of becoming Tsarina seemed as though they might come true. So much since then seems a mistake. I think of Nicky’s beloved face smiling warmly at me, his ‘Little K’; but the warmth fades and his feature go still, and I remember he is in the ground, his body riddled with all the bullets I have managed to evade. Time has not dulled that pain; it stokes my rage, and I turn a triple pirouette that is not part of the choreography. Three turns on one toe, to show I can move just as fast as their bullets. Lenin’s army gasps, as well they should.
If I survive tonight, I am done with St Petersburg – Petrograd – Leningrad. Whatever she wants to call herself now. She has taken so much. My house, Lenin’s headquarters for three long years. Sergei, whose love was declared a dirty thing because it was shared with not just me, but Andrei too. The banks have stolen my money, supposedly for the people. Which people, I don’t know, as the streets are filled with as many hungry and homeless as ever. My other properties don’t have tenants, but men who hand over communist slogans instead of rent.
Lenin has taken almost everything, but his actions have only wounded me. I still have my son, and Andrei, and my life. I have fought Lenin for three years, and he has gained ground but not won. He will never win. If I have to, I will walk the length of Russia to escape his reach. And for the rest of his life I will taunt that man with the knowledge that he could destroy a whole country, but not this one woman.
So, I dance. The stage is mine and I do not back down; I take ownership, covering every inch of it with energy that bristles with fury. The voices begin to die down. I can hear the swell of the orchestra now, and know I am taking control. I command their eyes to follow me, to devour every movement and know the trance-like state that only Mathilde Kschessinska can create. A few determined comrades continue to yell, but then they are hushed by their own, and I know I have them. When next I am facing the audience, I flash a grin. A ripple runs through the crowd.
They will not kill me now.
Applause begins before I am finished. There will be curtain call after curtain call, just as there was when the Romanovs themselves were my audience. Word of their appreciation will get back to Lenin. Will he smash what is left of the windows and furniture in my house?
Let him. It will not change my triumph.
I am the greatest symbol of all that which Lenin wants Russia to forget it once was, and I have made his men love me.
I have won, yet history will not remember me.
History will remember the dangerous man, the one who changed the face of Russia, but not the one woman who was dangerous to him. The woman who defied death, who was not easily silenced like the Romanov family. The woman he stole from, lied about, and tried to have killed. The one who had the power to turn his men against their indoctrinated hate.
Even when Lenin’s reign is over, far into the future when cars will be as commonplace on the road as birds are in the sky, my stolen house will be dedicated as a museum to Lenin. I will be tucked away in a corner to surprise visitors with my part in events. The most powerful and well-known woman in Russia, carefully and purposely cut from the story, because even the memory of her is a threat.
We dangerous women get erased. But that does not mean we don’t exist. We have shaped the world in actions as big as declaring war or abdicating thrones, and as small as dancing for a few moments on an empty stage.
Longer, even, than Lenin.
He was right to fear me.
Kschessinska, Mathilde (1960) Dancing in Petersburg: the Memoirs of Kschsessinska Victor Gollancz
Hall, Coryne (1996) Imperial Dancer: Mathilde Kschessinska and the Romanovs The History Press
Breazeale, Helene (1995) In Search of Mathilde Kschessinska Dance Magazine