How ‘Swan Lake’ became a symbol of protest in Russia

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(NEW YORK) — As Russians seek to subtly protest the invasion of Ukraine amid a crackdown on anti-war sentiment, “Swan Lake” has been a go-to symbol.

The famous Russian ballet may seem like an unlikely choice to foreigners, but it is a powerful historical reference for Russians that is being used as one of several coded forms of protest during the war, according to Russian State University anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova.

“It’s quite dangerous now to protest in Russia,” Arkhipova, who was abroad when the invasion started and has decided not to return to Moscow, told ABC News’ podcast “Start Here” from Berlin.

Anti-war demonstrations in Russia have been shut down by authorities and led to mass arrests. A law passed by the Russian parliament in early March criminalizes public opposition to the war — and makes it illegal to call the “military operation” a war.

“It’s almost impossible now in Russia to protest in direct forms, like to go in street and say, ‘Putin, go away,'” Arkhipova said. “But people are trying to invent as many other ways to protest as possible.”

One of those ways is through the image of ballerinas from “Swan Lake.” Graffiti depicting the line of four ballerinas in the “Dance of the Cygnets” has been popping up on walls in Russian cities. Earlier last month, when independent Russian news outlet TV Rain signed off indefinitely due to pressure over its coverage of the conflict, it did so with a clip from “Swan Lake.”

The moment was a nod to when Soviet state TV interrupted programming by airing the ballet on a loop after the death of Premier Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 while Soviet leaders selected a successor. The same thing happened again after the deaths of Yuri Andropov in 1984 and Konstantin Chernenko in 1985, as well as during a failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 — becoming a sign of political instability and upheaval.

“In the late Soviet times, this ballet was a symbol of all of the deaths of the Soviet leaders,” Arkhipova said. “And so that’s why it became a sign that we are waiting for Putin to die.”

“Swan Lake” graffiti has popped up before the war as well, including when Russian President Vladimir Putin was inaugurated to his fourth presidential term.

Another type of coded message that’s been popping up “everywhere,” including on the walls of buildings, is a slogan with eight asterisks that stands for “no war,” or “net voyny” in Russian, Arkhipova said.

“Very often, people are changing their avatars in social media to these eight asterisks,” she said. “It’s the way to say no war instead of saying no war.”

Despite the risk of fines or possibly jail, protesters persist in an attempt to cut through the misinformation and “informational blockades” about the circumstances of the war, Arkhipova said.

“Many Russian people, they even don’t know what is going on because the blockage is quite severe,” she said. “The more people can hear about massacre in Bucha, about violence, about soldiers killed from both sides, about bombing and so on, the harder for them to accept the fact that we are not saviors anymore, we are aggressors.”

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