Until two years ago Valery Panov was one of the Soviet Union’s most breathtaking male ballet dancers. His wife Galina was also considered a gifted principal performer, with a brilliant future. Now neither of them dances, and ballet is something they see from afar, on the state-run television station.
Valery Panov is a Jew; his wife is not. Two years ago the couple applied for permission to emigrate to Israel. For this act of indiscretion Panov was dismissed 15 days later from the Leningrad famed Kirov Ballet and branded a traitor. Galina, then 23, on her way to stardom as a soloist, was reduced to lowly membership in the “line,” the corps de ballet. She resigned instead.
Since then the Panovs have suffered harassment and humiliation from Soviet authorities, as have other Jews who have attempted to emigrate or speak out in dissent. Shortly after his application was denied, Valery was jailed for ten days on trumped-up charges of “hooliganism.” Later, to draw public attention to their cause, he went on a 21-day hunger strike. The couple has been shunned by most of their colleagues in the Soviet dance world. They have lived in poverty and isolation, mostly on the charity of a few friends.
Finally last December came a new government tactic. Twenty months after his application was denied authorities informed Panov an exit visa had now been approved.
“And my wife?” he asked. “She stays,” was the answer. The reason, the authorities claimed, was that Galina’s mother had not given her consent. Galina responded in an anguished appeal to Aleksei Kosygin, charging legal fraud. And, Galina argued, parental control in the Soviet Union ends at age 18. She never received a reply. Galina is convinced her mother was “coerced” into protesting her departure, and cites her mother’s history of mental illness and anti-Semitism.
These days the Panovs rarely leave their two-room flat. At first, to fight their enforced inactivity, Valery built a makeshift ballet barre. But practice in the tiny living room was a daily frustration—there was no space to practice the leaps and jumps for which he was so famous. Forced to stop performing at the height of his career, Panov, now 35, is unlikely ever to dance as well again. Recently he has stopped practicing altogether.
In the U.S. a committee of celebrities and artists has been formed to raise money and sympathy for the Panovs’ plight, which threatens to become something of an international cause célèbre. A planned American tour of the Panovs’ old company, the Kirov, has already been cancelled because of pressure from sympathetic American supporters of Panov. A scheduled visit of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet may meet a similar fate.
Due to their unemployment the Panovs have been branded as “parasites”—often a prelude to imprisonment in the Soviet Union. Late last month their case took another poignant turn: the couple announced that Galina is pregnant with their first child.