“Kschessinska was not the first ballet dancer to be a mistress of powerful men,” said the Slavic historian, “but she was the first, despite the comforts of this status, to tirelessly perfect her art, to acquire technical skills hardly anyone in Europe could achieve.
The dancer’s extraordinary performance in “Swan Lake” in the 1890s is arguably the reason why this ballet is still popular today, Khitrova added.
Tim Scholl, professor at Oberlin College and professor of ballet, also noted Kschessinska’s immense wealth and political cachet.
“If there had been a Forbes list of the 25 most powerful women in 1900, Kschessinska would have been on it,” he said.
But the Soviet regime in the mid-20th century wanted the ballerina to be forgotten, due to her romantic relationships with several members of the Romanov royal family and her flight to France after the Russian Revolution. A French version of Kschessinska’s memoir was published in 1961, but only a few Russian academics knew about it, and by the 1980s the Russian public knew only the rumors and gossip about Kschessinska told over the years. No one – not academics, and certainly not the public – knew that there was a more detailed, unfiltered version of the ballerina’s memoir written in her native Russian, or that it had been in a Moscow library for years. .
âKschessinska was legendary for some and notorious for others, but no one expected to hear it with their own voice,â Khitrova said. Russian memoirs “were a revelation.”
âIt changed not only the understanding of Kschessinska academics as a ballerina and a person, but the entire period around the turn of the century,â Klyagin added.
For Klyagin herself, the discovery was revealing. The historical figure became three-dimensional for her as she worked with memories and thus “marked a change in my attitude towards archives,” she said.
“I consider the archives, now, to be the richest source in real life,” Klyagin said. “You never know what detail, what a strange twist, will come together and open a new image for you.”
As exciting as the discovery was from an academic perspective, it was upsetting from a political perspective, as it exemplified the fierce battle waged by Russian academics against decades of censorship and suppression of knowledge.
After Theater Life began publishing excerpts from memoirs, Klyagin was contacted by a relative of Kschessinska who helped her piece together how the manuscript ended up in the Lenin Library.
According to this relative, Kschessinska had planned to donate the original Russian memoirs to the Tchaikovsky House-Museum in Moscow, but the museum never received them. The alleged museum representative who met Kschessinska was actually a member of the KGB, who confiscated the manuscript. It was placed in special collections, where it remained for almost 30 years with thousands of other voices that the Soviet Union did not want to hear.
The secret archives did not only include documents published in the West, Klyagin explained, but papers and books confiscated from Russian citizens arrested in the 1930s and 1940s. Some of the former owners of the books have been jailed. Others were executed. Klyagin and other scholars with access to the special collections became familiar with the sight of some books stamped with special ink – a grim distinction in the origins of the materials.
âIt was really disheartening to hear that some of the documents I was looking at were from prisoners,â Klyagin said.
She still sometimes wonders about these objects and the people whose stories they told.
âYou can’t really learn anything about the present or the future without knowing the past,â she said. âWhen the past is erased – or in the case of the Soviet Union, reinvented – it is a terrible distortion. “
Working with archives in the United States for the past three decades has only reinforced this view. Her first job here, in 1991, was in the dance division of the New York Public Library, where she worked with Russian manuscript collections and had access to all the information she wanted.
Scholl, Oberlin’s ballet scholar and friend of Klyagin’s, said the period in which Klyagin found the ballerina’s manuscript was during a brief period when things were less tight. Some time after the break-up of the Soviet Union, the doors closed again. In fact, during a trip to Russia in 2014, Scholl was warned not to go to the archives.
âThey were bringing together graduate American students who did not have the appropriate degrees,â he said. âIt was really scary for me. That was the end of me trying to research the archives there.
As restrictions tighten again in Russia, Klyagin said she was sure some stories remained stuck in special collections at the Russian Central Library.
But Kschessinska’s story, at least, is now known. His Russian memoir is “still on the shelves” in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Scholl said, and he still uses them as a source for his own research. Houghton owns a copy of the Russian Memoirs as well as each edition of Theater Life, the magazine in which the excerpts were originally published.
It’s thanks to Klyagin, Scholl said.
âNow I see that time when Irina and I were working in archives in Russia as that glorious time when things were possible there,â he said. “Especially for someone with the courage, determination and skill of Irina.”
In his work at Houghton Now, Klyagin deals with and analyzes rare materials for the Harvard Theater Collection, including the translation of Russian literature and materials related to dance and theater. The library’s goal with most of these articles is to make them accessible to as many researchers as possible – something that, given its history, really speaks to Klyagin.
âYou cannot overstate the importance of providing access, preserving and making open whatever we can,â she said. âThe chance to read a document and try to place it in a cultural context, to analyze it on your ownâ¦ for me, that’s all.
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