Dancing for Stalin by Christina Ezrahi

Dancing for Stalin by Christina Ezrahi – A True Story of Extraordinary Courage and Survival in the Soviet Gulag – was a book I was very keen to read. The book is about Nina Anisimova, born in 1909 in St Petersburg, who was a classical dancer. She was renowned during the stalinist period, but she was arrested as a Nazi spy by the NKVD and spent time in a forced labour camp in Kazakhstan. The charges were untrue, like most of them during the russian purges. Her husband, Kostia Derzhavin, did what he could to save her, putting himself in danger. The blurb of the book ends with: ‘Dancing for Stalin is a remarkable true story of suffering and injustice of courage, resilience and love.’

Dancing for Stalin by Christina Ezrahi

It has a lot of interesting details, but it was a let down for 2 main reasons, hence the 3 stars. Firstly, many of their letters are reproduced in full. I love primary sources, but when there are pages and pages of letters, it is too much. She could have included the most important ones as appendices. Secondly, she is in awe of Nina and an obvious russophile, meaning the book lacks any real attempts to analyse impartially what happened. My views on this country are obvious because of my stance of not using capital R when spelling russia, something I started to do soon after the full-scale invasion, unless I write something academic. But, I didn’t let my views encumber me when I wrote about russia’s history recently.

Ezrahi is insensitive when it comes to the countries that neighbour russia/ussr. She even calls them ‘buffer states’. Really?! It is like a file from russian propaganda. All those states wanted to be free and were conquered and oppressed by russians for decades.

Another issue is with this, about a ballet Nina staged:
‘…everyone celebrates the end of the harvest season. The closing scene combines Armenian, Kurdish, russian, Georgian and Ukrainian dances, the set depicting them surrounded by the blooming spoiler of this happy and triumphant land.’ (page 260)
This is a clear example of both cultural appropriation and being a part of the stalinist propaganda machine. How is this a story of love and courage?! Nina used peoples’ culture and traditions against them, by incorporating those familiar and loved aspects of their history into propaganda.
It’s not the first time this is mentioned in the book, as at page 302 she mentions Nina included a dance from Moldova to celebrate the 24th anniversary of the Red Army. Again… really?! Moldova was stolen from Romania, they were indoctrinated that their language was so-called Moldovan and forced to write with Cyrillic alphabet. This year their parliament passed a bill to change Moldovan to Romanian as the official language of the country. This is how much damage propaganda can do to a people. It took over 3 decades of freedom to finally go back to naming their language as Romanian.

With Ezrahi’s credentials I was expecting more analysis. At least to consider the themes of cultural appropriation and propaganda. She even dismissed the importance of the ‘Great Patriotic War’, the russian idea that WWII happened between 1941-1945 and completely ignoring the first two years when they were buddies with the Nazis and there occupying what Ezrahi calls the ‘buffer states’.
The book is worth reading because it offers a clear insight into the purges in a very interesting way, by focusing on a dancer. Just keep in mind, if you are reading this, that her biases influenced her writing and the book reads as a hagiography.

Dancing for Stalin by Christina Ezrahi

Details about the picture: –
My rating: 3/5 Stars
Would I recommend it: yes
Published by: Elliott & Thompson Limited
Year it was published: 2021
Format: Hardcover
Genre(s): History – WWII
Pages: 304

About the author: Christina Ezrahi is an award-winning historian of Soviet cultural politics and Russian ballet. Before undertaking her doctoral studies at University College London, she studied International Relations at the universities of Princeton and Oxford, and worked in Moscow for the United Nations. Her first book, Swans of the Kremlin: Ballet and Power in Soviet Russia (University of Pittsburgh Press) was awarded the 2017 prize for Best Dance Book published in France.
Born in Munich, Christina lives in Berlin with her husband and two children. She is also a trained classical dancer.
Website & Social Media Links: –



4 thoughts on “Dancing for Stalin by Christina Ezrahi”

  • I’m not sure that this one appeals to me either, however just about all I know of the Stalinist period, comes from having read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ at school. as part of my World History GCE syllabus. Like yourself, I am not a fan of letter or diary based narrative, when it overwhelms the storyline, so that alone would put me off. I know this is slightly off topic, however we watched a film the other evening called ‘The Mauritanian’, starring Jodi Foster. A true story about a prisoner rounded up and taken to Gauntanamo Bay after the 9/11 attacks in the USA. I won’t say what happened to him in the end, however I was still left wondering whether the outcome was the right one… Definitely well worth watching though.
    Yvonne @Fiction_Books recently posted…Lyrics For The Loved Onesby Anne GoodwinReviewMy Profile

    • I saw the movie, it was very good, I fully agree with you. Thank you for recommending it to me. xx

    • I had high expectations, as it follows the story of a dancer and the period covering the purges, interrogation, transport, and force labour are really interesting. The way she whitewashes, most likely without realising, the russian culture is the issue. It’s widespread in academia unfortunately.

      It would be unaccepted today to present the history of India or of the Native Americans through the eyes of the British or Americans, respectively. But it is fine if it’s about the ‘buffer states’ and the view is presented by russophiles.

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