The law of unforeseen consequences unfolds at the Bolshoi Ballet

Many years ago a newspaper editor introduced me to the “law of unforeseen consequences”.

It’s a distant cousin of Murphy’s Law – “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” – but there’s a big difference.

Murphy comes into our lives unbidden but unforeseen consequences are often triggered when we try to resolve a problem or settle a score – to “make the damn thing go away” – but the result, of course, can never be guaranteed and is often far from the expected and hoped for outcome.

A leading soloist of the Bolshoi Ballet, Pavel Dmitrichenko, may well have come face to face with the law of unforeseen consequences when he initiated the attack on his boss, the Bolshoi’s artistic director, Sergei Filin, that took place on 17 January.

Last week Dmitrichenko was arrested and charged with causing grievous bodily harm, and everyone in his orbit has suffered the consequences not least his de facto wife, the Bolshoi soloist, Anzhelina Vorontsova and the reputation of the historic Bolshoi Ballet itself.

The details of the drama are compelling but if we stand back a little from the daily revelations, I think the bigger picture is just as interesting for three reasons:

Firstly, no matter what we may think of Dmitrichenko there’s the principle of the “presumption of innocence”.

Article 49 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation states:

“Everyone charged with a crime shall be considered not guilty until his or her guilt has been proven in conformity with the procedures stipulated by the federal law and established by the verdict of a court of law”. (See also the workings of the presumption of innocence in Russia at the bottom of this post).

How can Dmitrichenko, Yuri Zarutsky, who has confessed to throwing the acid on Filin’s face, and Andrei Lipatov, the driver of the getaway car, expect a fair trial when, after their interrogations they were brought before a camera to confess and the police video was telecast on Russian state television and on many media websites.

All three men have also signed a written confession.

The arrests and court appearances of last week took place before the police investigation is complete and before a trial date is set.

In Russia, the implementation of the presumption of innocence is an integral part of the jury trial process but only a small proportion of the accused face a jury.

Dmitrichenko and his co-accused may only face a judge alone who would hear all the evidence and also decide whether the confessions were completely voluntary and whether the suspects were given their rights under law before interrogation.

Secondly, the drama of the attack and its aftermath has amounted to perfect media fodder not only because it’s a big story in itself but because Dmitrichenko specialises in dancing the role of villains such as Ivan the Terrible, Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, Abdurahman in Raymonda and the Evil Genius in Swan Lake.

With his long, pale face and deep set eyes, (even more deep set after his arrest and lack of sleep) Dmitrichenko has been tagged by the media as the “villainous” one.

This has resulted in headlines such as The Mail Online’s: “Bolshoi top dancer famed for playing Ivan the Terrible CONFESSES…” (The capital letters are part of the headline).

Thirdly, the attack on Filin and the arrests bring into focus once again the desperate scramble for roles in ballet companies, the deep disappointment when they don’t come, the barely masked jealousy, the endless question: “Why her/him and not me?”

The Bolshoi Ballet is not alone in this scenario.

Finally, a side issue of the Bolshoi drama is the way in which it has brought into the open once more the debate and discussion about ballet dancers’ body shapes and the shame they must feel when the views of others are (sometimes) made public by a critic or worse, a company staff member.

This time, Anzhelina Vorontsova has suffered as it has been alleged that Filin denied her the chance of dancing the role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake due to her shape.

This in turn, meant Dmitrichenko, and Nikolai Tsiskaridze, the teacher of Vorontsova, had a specific reason to be angry at Filin. (See recap below).

The senior ballet mistress of the Bolshoi, Marina Kondratieva told Izvestia this week that Vorontsova “is a capable young girl. But she’s put on weight and she’s just not the right shape for the roles she aimed for…[she was] basically too fat”.

The videos below show (the blonde) Vorontsova in recent performances of Corsaire (as the first Odalisque) and in the Diamonds section of Jewels.

Here’s a brief recap of last week’s events:

At a bail application in a Moscow court, Dmitrichenko admitted to the attack but told the court that he did not instruct anyone to throw acid on Filin’s face.

The attack followed a conversation he had with an acquaintance not connected with the Bolshoi.

“I told Yuri Zarutsky about the policies of the Bolshoi Theatre, about the bad things going on, the corruption. When he said: ‘OK, let me beat him up….’ I agreed, but that is all that I admit to doing”, he told the court.

Zarutsky is accused of throwing the jar of acid on Filin’s face.

Police said that Zarutsky bought the acid at an auto shop and that they believe he heated it to make it more concentrated.

Russian media have reported that Dmitrichenko was partly motivated by Filin’s decision not to cast Vorontsova as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake.

(Dmitrichenko has also claimed that he suspects Filin of taking illicit payments from artists.)

Vorontsova is coached by Nikolai Tsiskaridze who has publicly and consistently complained about Filin and the management of the theatre.

The Bolshoi’s general director, Anatoly Iksanov, has accused Tsiskaridze of inspiring the attack. Tsiskaridze denied the allegation.

Filin’s lawyer, Tatyana Stukalova, said the circle of people involved in the attack was wider than the three men detained.

“We believe that investigators still have a lot of work to do to establish all of the facts”, she said in an interview on Rossiya state television.

(If you want to follow the day-by-day developments in the Bolshoi saga I highly recommend Ismene Brown’s blog,

When the attack took place, the veteran critic Clement Crisp told the BBC: “Years ago, [Yuri] Grigorvich, the director at the end of the Soviet period said there are 250 dancers and 250 temperaments [at the Bolshoi].

“You have to be a czar”.

Preferably not one with the temperament of Ivan the Terrible.

Presumption of innocence in the Russian Federation.

In a paper written some years ago for Harvard University, Professor Mark Kramer wrote that:

“Article 14 of Russia’s new criminal procedure code is supposed to shift the burden of proof from the defence to the prosecution. In principle, defendants are now assumed to beinnocent until proven guilty.

“In practice, however, the presumption of innocence has often been set aside. Non governmental organisations in Russia and reports in the Russian press have suggested that most investigators, prosecutors, and judges still place a heavy burden on the accused.

“Even when lower courts have ruled in favour of acquittal, those verdicts have frequently been overturned by judges in higher courts, many of whom continue to embrace the Soviet style of criminal justice.

“According to Sergei Pashin of the Independent Council of Legal Experts, roughly 40 per cent of acquittals in 2002 were reversed by higher courts, whereas only 0.05 per cent of convictions were overturned.

“This pattern will likely discourage judges from even considering acquittals in the first place. When a judge’s performance is evaluated by a judiciary board for possible promotion, one of the most important criteria is the percentage of rulings overturned by higher courts.

To ensure a favourable performance rating, judges in lower courts realise that they must conform to the preferences of higher courts. In criminal cases, this means erring on the side of guilty verdicts.

“Thus, although guilty until proven innocent may no longer be the de jure assumption, it is still the de facto norm in most Russian criminal proceedings, especially those at higher levels. There are of course some notable exceptions, but overall the change mandated by the new code has not yet taken firm root”.

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