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Authors: Gloria Whelan

The Turning

BOOK: The Turning
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The Turning

Gloria Whelan

To Renée Cafiero

and all my copy editors at HarperCollins

those strict mothers who keep me

from terrible danger


Chapter 1 Escape

Chapter 2 Politics

Chapter 3 Sasha

Chapter 4 Guilty by Association

Chapter 5 The Rescue

Chapter 6 A Confession

Chapter 7 Making Trouble FDR Gregory

Chapter 8 Saving Sasha

Chapter 9 The Dangerous Errand

Chapter 10 Tanks in the Street

Chapter 11 Paris


About the Author



The moment my friend Vera Chikov heard our Leningrad ballet troupe would be going to Paris in August to perform, Vera began to plot her escape from the Soviet Union.

“Come with me, Tatiana,” she begged. “Russia is dreary, like a picture painted all in gray and black. No excitement, nobody laughs, everyone is gloomy.”

At first I could not take Vera seriously, but she talked about defecting day and night, exploring the possibilities as if she were an empress turning over the diamonds in her jewelry box. Instead of frightening her, the danger of defecting only made her more determined. I couldn’t help but be impressed by Vera’s courage.

After a while and just for the fun of it, I began to daydream about a life away from the Soviet Union. In the corner of our family apartment where I slept, I tacked up pictures of the river Seine and the Eiffel Tower and the Luxembourg Gardens, where you could sit by a little lake and read anything you wanted without worrying about someone reporting you to the KGB, the secret police. My favorite picture was of the Paris Opéra. I imagined myself dancing in that elegant building. Underneath the opera house was the grotto where the Phantom of the Opera was said to have lived. In the opera house museum you could see the ballet slippers of the great Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and the crown Anna Pavlova, the most famous Russian ballerina of them all, wore when she danced
Swan Lake

I didn’t want to leave my family, but the ballet meant everything to me. For as long as I could remember, I had sacrificed my life to endless hours of practice. Yet hard as I worked, I wondered if I would ever find in Russia the opportunity to further my career that I could find with the ballet of the Paris Opéra, or an even greater dream, the New York City Ballet in America. What at first began as an idle daydream began to be a possibility.

Vera told me of her plans: what she would take with her when she left Russia, and how, once she was in Paris, she would slip away and contact the authorities there, asking for asylum. It was hard not to be caught up in her excitement. We tried to guess what our chances would be of joining the Paris ballet. All these conversations were whispered. We knew what danger there would be in defecting. If we were caught, we would be thrown out of the ballet, perhaps arrested, certainly watched day and night. I was not sure I was willing to take the risk.

Vera shrugged off the danger. “The first thing I will do in Paris,” Vera announced, “is go to the Galeries Lafayette, the fancy department store, and buy lipstick that doesn’t go on as if it were wax and a dozen pairs of those sexy French thong panties. Then I’m going to a restaurant and order a big goose liver and two kinds of souffle for dessert.”

I laughed at Vera’s gluttony. “You’ll get fat and won’t fit into the panties,” I told her. Vera’s whole family was as hungry for things as Vera was. Unlike my family, her family had money, lots of it. The Chikovs’ apartment was ten times bigger than ours. Vera had a bedroom all to herself. There was a room just for eating in and a living room where no one had to sleep. There was a television set where Vera and I could see the things that went on in the world, though most of what was going on in 1991 seemed to be bad news: war in the Middle East; in Afghanistan a thousand people dead in an earthquake. In Leningrad, where we lived, it wasn’t much better. Night after night a TV show,
600 Seconds
, showed scenes of robberies and murders right in our own city.

Crowded into the Chikovs’ kitchen were a stove with four burners and a refrigerator and even a microwave oven. I loved to put a cup of water in the little oven’s belly and watch as the water boiled up. It was magic. Vera, who was one of the most generous people in the world, would give me a packet of American chocolate to put into the boiling water, and I would drink the heavenly cocoa.

The Chikovs were very rich, but no one was sure just why. They had a peephole in their apartment door so they could see who was knocking, and when I came to visit, I had to wait while they snapped open a dozen locks. Vera didn’t walk to ballet rehearsals and performances but was taken and picked up in a car driven by a bodyguard. The car wasn’t a cheap little Lada, or even a Volga, but a Mercedes from Germany. There were even rumors that the Chikovs’ car was bulletproof.

Vera’s father was once high up in the army, but his money did not come from that, for most of the soldiers in Russia hardly earned enough to feed their families. Mr. Chikov was no longer in uniform. He wore a navy-blue jacket with gold buttons and gray flannel trousers and carried a real leather briefcase. The rumor among the dancers was that Mr. Chikov was part of the newly rich who made their money in the black market buying and selling scarce goods. The newspaper was full of scandals. Millions of rubles’ worth of caviar had been secretly shipped out of Russia labeled as herring! I wondered if it was caviar that Vera’s father sold or something more dangerous.

For myself, I wouldn’t go to Paris for fancy underwear. I told Vera, “After I sent money home, I’d buy toe shoes that don’t have to be darned every five minutes.” After our conversations about remaining in Paris, I began to see myself in Paris; at first it was only a harmless daydream, but bit by bit the daydream became more real. Vera had planted a seed, and what started as an impossible idea took root.

On this February day Leningrad was covered with snow, and I thought how wonderful it would be to live in a country where you could practice in a heated rehearsal room. In our rehearsal room ice had formed on the insides of the windowpanes. Our breath when we spoke came out in little white puffs. When I stretched my arms out in an
, it was nearly impossible to arrange my cold, stiff fingers into a graceful pose.

Our rehearsals were held in the Kirov Theater. It used to be the Mariinsky Theater, named after the wife of Tsar Alexander II, but after the Communist revolution tsars and their wives fell out of favor. The name was changed to honor Comrade Sergey Kirov, who was the head of the Communist party in Leningrad and who was assassinated in 1934. I knew all about that because my great-grandmother and great-grandfather, although they had nothing to do with killing Kirov, were exiled and sent off to Siberia in the arrests that followed Kirov’s assassination. My great-grandfather died after becoming ill in one of Stalin’s prison camps.

Though there was not enough money to heat the rehearsal rooms properly, the Kirov Theater itself, all blue and gold, was elegant with its magnificent bronze chandelier and painted ceiling. When I first performed at the Kirov, I wanted to get down on my knees and kiss the stage! I could hardly dance for the thought that this was the stage on which Pavlova and Nijinsky had danced. From the stage you looked out at a tiered half circle of a hundred boxes all decorated in gilt and velvet, where people with money or power sat. In the center of the theater was the box reserved for members of the government like Mikhail Gorbachev, who was both head of the Communist party and the president of the Soviet Union. Long, long ago the tsar and the empress of Russia had sat in that box. After the revolution Lenin had said ballet was useless. He wanted the theater closed down, but even Lenin could not keep Russians from their beloved ballet.

Our shabby rehearsal rooms were far away from all the grandeur of the theater. Madame Pleshakova, our ballet mistress, who oversaw our practice, marched into the room and called sharply to us. “Tanya, Vera, why aren’t you at the barre practicing your
Don’t think for a minute you will be allowed to take the tour with us if you are lazy. Remember, not everyone will go. You must earn your way. With no discipline, all the talent in the world does not matter.”

I loved Madame when she was fierce. She had once been a famous ballerina and had danced with the great Rudolf Nureyev before he had defected to America. Madame still had great elegance and grace. Her graying hair was pulled back into a tight chignon, and she always wore a long black skirt and a black sweater as if she were in constant mourning. There were wrinkles at the corners of her dark eyes, eyes that were hooded and could look sleepy until they opened wide and fixed on you so that you withered under their stab. Even the men in the ballet corps could be reduced to tears by her attacks. Still we loved her, for we understood she wanted us to be the best we could be, which was what we wanted too.

Our daily lesson had been called for eight in the morning, but by quarter to eight the corps was in place, some of us at the barre, some practicing in the center of the room. Vitaly, as usual, was leaping about, showing off his
. The heat from so many bodies began to warm the practice room. The skin of ice on the windows melted, and Aidan, our practice pianist, took off her gloves with the fingers cut out. I did my
, careful to keep my eyes focused on one spot in front of me, so that as I spun around I wouldn’t get dizzy and my head would always snap back, giving the impression I was facing forward. Around and around I turned until I began to feel I had lost control of my body and it was spinning of its own accord. It was at that moment that I was always happiest, when my body took over from my mind.

All around me the other members of the corps were working as hard as I was. There had always been competition among us, but now, knowing that some of us would not make the tour, there was out-and-out rivalry and even jealousy. Usually you work in the corps de ballet at least three years before you graduate to small roles and finally to principal parts. I was sixteen, and as one of the youngest members of the corps, I had been teased and petted, but after I was given a principal part, I became a threat. Several times during the morning I had seen Marina watch me. If icy stares could kill, I would surely be dead. Marina and I were taking turns dancing the role of Juliet in
Romeo and Juliet
. She was incensed at having to share the part. I understood why she was so angry. She had been with the corps six years longer than I had, but I had overheard Madame say about me, “Tanya has such expressive arms, and for the part of Juliet one must have a
” At twenty-four, Marina was no longer a young girl.

Marina was also
, a fancy French word for bowlegged; most ballet terms come from the French language.
is not as bad as it sounds. All ballet dancers are either bowlegged or knock-kneed. If you are bowlegged, you are strong but more rigid in your dancing. If you are
, or knock-kneed, you are more graceful, with high, lovely insteps that unfortunately are sometimes weak. I was
, which was better for Juliet. Fortunately my instep is as strong as leather.

Everyone in the troupe was a little in awe of Marina because her father was high up in the government. I always felt she was watching my every move and would report me to her father if I said something critical about the government or Russia’s President Gorbachev.

By the time we broke for lunch, one of the blisters on my foot had opened, my ankle was wobbly, my leotard was damp with sweat, and I was starved. Watching my weight as usual, all I had allowed myself for breakfast was a glass of kefir. It was Vitaly’s turn to buy the
, little dumplings filled with ground beef and cabbage or sometimes with cheese. Vitaly got them at the nearby
. The snack bar knew the little dumplings were for the corps de ballet and stuffed them generously. The proprietor believed we were all too thin and needed fattening, but we knew if we gained too much weight we would be thrown out of the troupe. Our stomachs had to be flat, and our chests, too, though for some of us that meant a lot of squeezing into tight bras.

Vitaly was like a great yellow cat with his blond hair, his green eyes, and his ability to stretch his limbs into graceful lines. He was a show-off, but so good-natured and so ready to laugh at himself, no one minded. He had struggled harder than any of us to be a dancer. His father had been one of the Soviet soldiers stationed in Hungary to keep that country under Soviet control. When Hungary, demanding its freedom from the Soviet Union, sent the soldiers packing, the soldiers discovered there were no jobs and no housing for them back in Russia. Vitaly’s father, whom Vitaly always referred to as the “Old Soldier,” longed for the days when Stalin sent his armies everywhere. Vitaly confided in me that his father was angry about everything, but he was especially angry because Vitaly wanted to be a dancer. When Vitaly was accepted in ballet school, his father threw him out of the house, calling him a sissy. Only Vitaly’s mother’s pleading allowed him to return home. Now that Vitaly was doing well and could be seen performing on the stage, his father was almost reconciled to his son being a dancer. The Old Soldier was even boasting to all his friends that his son was sure to be traveling to Paris.

BOOK: The Turning
12.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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