(Lyndsey Winship’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/5/22; via Pam Green; Photo:  After Putin invaded Ukraine, the Russian dancer denounced the war, left the Kremlin-allied company – and flew out of Moscow that night. As she prepares for her debut at the Dutch National Ballet, Smirnova speaks for the first time.)

“My life totally changed in one day,” says Olga Smirnova. “In the morning, I did not know I was going to leave Russia. And in the night, I was sitting on the plane.” The 30-year-old dancer was one of the Bolshoi Ballet’s star ballerinas, a universally lauded performer at the peak of her powers, at a company that has long had close ties to the Kremlin. Earlier this month, she made a shock announcement: she had joined Dutch National Ballet (DNB), leaving Moscow behind. The move came shortly after Smirnova wrote a heartfelt post on the online messaging service Telegram about Russia’s attack on Ukraine. “With all the fibres of my soul I am against the war,” she wrote. “I never thought that I would be ashamed of Russia … But now the line is drawn on the before and after.”

Speaking via video call from Amsterdam, she explains her reason for leaving: “It did not feel safe.” Although there had been no direct threat from the authorities, she adds: “I just felt the atmosphere was tense in the country. International flights were being cancelled and there were rumours the borders would be closed, so we decided to leave. We didn’t want to risk it and wait longer.”

She knew making such a statement would put her in the spotlight. Why did she do it? “I don’t know,” she says. “I just felt I needed to speak out. I couldn’t keep it inside. There were many artists who spoke out. I admire Russian literature. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are my favourite writers and you learn from their example that you must speak honestly and openly.”

Smirnova barely heard from her Bolshoi colleagues, save for a couple of “supportive and touching” messages. “People are afraid to speak out. If they don’t have any choice but to stay, they prefer not to speak out. Everyone should be able to decide what type of society they want to live in and how much freedom one needs for living.”

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