A masked attacker approached Sergei Filin, 42, as he returned home in central Moscow at about 11pm on Thursday. “I saw his hand and got scared and thought … he was going to shoot me,” Filin told Ren TV from his hospital bed, his face wrapped in bandages.
Instead, the attacker threw acid in Filin’s face and fled. The former dancer suffered third-degree burns to his face and neck and faces the possibility of partial or total blindness. He spent most of Friday in surgery.
The attack is the latest and most gruesome scandal to strike Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre – once Russia‘s great cultural pride and now a symbol of the violence and corruption engulfing the country.
“This is linked to my work – someone doesn’t like that I’m successfully leading the Bolshoi Theatre,” Filin said.
Moscow’s elite were horrified by the attack. “I am in shock. I can’t even imagine that this can happen in the cultural world,” said Anastasia Volochkova, a ballerina who was fired from the Bolshoi amid a noisy scandal in 2003a former dancer at the Bolshoi. “That conflicts are decided this way at the Bolshoi – all this lawlessness, corruption, and anti-humanity – it’s a sign of the end.”
Filin was appointed artistic director of the Bolshoi ballet in March 2011, amid a dirty power play that saw the company’s deputy director, Gennady Yanin, forced to step down after a suspected rival leaked pictures of him in bed with other men online. The theatre held a grand reopening months later, after a wildly over-budget and delayed reconstruction.
Some of Filin’s dancers decried the attack. “This is an animalistic crime and I very much hope the criminals will be punished,” said prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova. “The troupe had been revived, we had very good plans and interesting work.”
Others were more dismissive, including lead dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who was engaged in a public feud with Filin, having accused the artistic director of treating him unfairly.
Tsiskaridze, who was once floated as a possible director for the Bolshoi ballet, told the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets: “This all means nothing to me. I have nothing to do with it.” He speculated that the attack may have resulted from a business deal or love affair gone wrong.
Yekaterina Novikova, a spokeswoman for the Bolshoi, dismissed those theories. “He’s happily married, everything is fine at home,” she said. “The only thing I could imagine is that it is linked to his creative work at the Bolshoi Theatre.” She declined to elaborate.
Filin’s relatives and colleagues said he had been receiving threats for more than a month, including telephone calls from unknown numbers. His car tyres had been repeatedly slashed. Earlier this month, his email and Facebook page were hacked, with compromising emails leaked online.
“My son was threatened on the phone, particularly in the past month. He was followed. And today it all reached its peak,” his mother, Natalia Filina, told Life News, a tabloid newspaper. She said she knew who had ordered the attack: “I know who this person is and will definitely tell law enforcement agencies.”
Anatoly Iskanov, the Bolshoi’s general director, had met Filin hours before the attack to discuss the threats. “He told me he felt like he was on the frontlines,” Iskanov told Channel One, a state-run television channel.
He said he hoped police would search for the attacker among “those who wanted to compromise the theatre”. Filin had reportedly rejected an offer of a bodyguard.
Former Bolshoi dancers and directors said the attack was a symbol of the theatre’s fall from grace. “The incident with Sergei Filin is not a coincidence,” Alexey Ratmansky, Filin’s predecessor as artistic director, wrote on Facebook. “Many of the Bolshoi’s illnesses are one snowball – a disgusting group of fawners that is friendly with artists, speculators and scalpers, half-crazy fans ready to slit the throats of their idols’ competitors, cynical hackers, lies in the press and scandalous interviews of employees. The cause is the lack of theater ethics, which has been gradually destroyed by specific people.»
Volochkova, denounced the theatre’s leadership. “It’s a horror,” she said. “It’s one thing when it happens in our country, and another when it’s at the Bolshoi Theatre, the centre of Russia’s culture. Today it’s all built for money and corruption.”