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Swellboy on… nostalgia for the Cold War

A tale of oppression, tyranny – and luxury watches

Swellboy on… nostalgia for the Cold War

Image: Brijesh Patel

August 03 2010
Nick Foulkes

I am looking forward to a good chunk of summer reading, including Peter Hennessy’s updated edition of The Secret State: Preparing for the Worst. It, at least the Cold War parts, will be a nostalgic wallow, and as such has much in common with my visit to the ballet the other night. Ballet is an art form that I surprise myself by enjoying rather a lot. I do not know enough to comment authoritatively, so I just sit there and enjoy the sight of athletic people walking on tiptoe, leaping into the air, spinning around and generally throwing themselves about.

The work being performed was Spartacus and the company performing it was the Bolshoi, making it a perfect piece of escapism in that it transported me back, not to the Roman Republic and the era of Marcus Licinius Crassus and the Third Servile War (an early example of the “servant problem” if ever there was), but rather to my own youth growing up in the Cold War. I sometimes find myself feeling nostalgic for the days of the great capitalist-communist stand-off and I have long been fascinated by the centrally-planned economies of the communist bloc, and amazed at how such a huge society, far bigger than anything the Cleggeron administration could concoct, managed to run for so long and along such predictable lines.

Spartacus was of course something of pin-up for the commies, a butch rebellious member of the proletariat whose rippling gladiatorial muscle would have lent itself to socialist-realist depiction. And when Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg wanted to bring Marxism to Germany after the first world war, they named their organisation the Spartakusbund; the attempted revolution of early 1919 was known as the Spartakusaufstand. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were subsequently killed and at the time it was suspected that the young Wilhelm Canaris had been behind the killings. Canaris, later Hitler’s intelligence chief, was of course himself executed for planning his own revolution, against the Führer.

But anyway, back to Spartacus’s roots in Soviet Russia. By the 1930s, Spartacus had been fully assimilated into the communist pantheon of approved heroes, and with Khachaturian’s heroic score (including the theme tune for the 1970s period drama The Onedin Line) this story of struggle against oppression and tyranny was ready to be turned into… yes… a ballet. It says much for the power of the Soviet Union that, as well as creating collective farms and imprisoning millions of its own citizens in the gulags, it managed to turn the violent, brutal and bloody story of a rebel Thracian gladiator into a ballet.

But it took a number of attempts to get it right and only by the third staging in 1968 by Grigorovich was it deemed a success and by then, as in so many things, the Soviets had been beaten to the punch by the capitalist running dogs who had made a blockbuster epic in the Hollywood manner starring Catherine Zeta-Jones’s father-in-law.

Happily, even though the Soviet Union is dead, the Spartacus story still has its uses in the post-communist world. I understand that the famous “I’m Spartacus” scene was used in a mid-1990s advertisement for Pepsi-Cola, and I was invited to the ballet by Swiss watch company Audemars Piguet, which sponsors the Bolshoi. My only disappointment was that whoever staged this particular iteration of Spartacus cut the all-important scene where Spartacus visits the Audemars Piguet factory in Le Brassus and selects the chronograph with which he intends to time his uprising.

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