Back in the USSR

Sparty Ballet Pic

We are turning 90, which seems like a good time to take a break and go to the ballet.

The Doctors are talking about Spartacus in tights this episode.  The ballet version of Spartacus’ life is especially interesting as the production emerged from the other side of the Cold War. Everybody Loves Spartacus – especially the Soviets! The history of the slave revolt was reconsidered a number of times during the turbulent early 20th century context in the USSR. Of particular interest are the revolutionary days of Lenin and his successor, Stalin. Given the proliferation of recent articles comparing the state of America and various episodes in Roman History, it is understandable that there was an interest at this time in considering contemporary events through the lens of the past. The exploits of the Gracchi and rebellious slaves seemed to be some of the most relevant (Rubinsohn, 1987). As always, historians engaged in debates about how to present the past in the 1920s and beyond, and these debates were intimately tied to the ideologies of the times. History-makers always have motives that influence their work, and it is compelling to consider the various aims during a time of revolution, civil war and the establishment of a new order.  Whilst some historians in the USSR shared the beliefs espoused by the Party, the involvement of a powerful authoritarian government added a whole other layer of complexity to the lives of others. Historians found themselves becoming victims of Stalin’s purges, perhaps in part due to their interpretation of Spartacus.  L. V. Baženov is one such example. Baženov opined that the Third Servile War had not been a class-conflict and that the slaves were not pursuing some sort of ideology, but were instead driven by nostalgia (Rubinsohn, 1987). Such ideas were not favoured by the government and would contribute to his downfall. Others were more willing to toe the line, or learned from the example of predecessors.

Aram Khachaturian, who created the ballet of Spartacus in 1954, grew up against this backdrop. His work had met with official disapproval in 1948, and part of his rehabilitation was producing Spartacus. It is fascinating to consider that he was working in atmosphere where people lived in fear of being denounced at roughly the same time Howard Fast (author of the 1951 novel, Spartacus) and Dalton Trumbo (screenwriter of the 1960 Kubrick film based on Fast) were blacklisted for their political beliefs in the USA. Dr Rad is starting to have serious doubts about writing about Spartacus – it seems that he always lands you in hot water with the powers that be!  The ballet has been staged a number of times since 1954 – sometimes with mixed reviews! We hope that you enjoy listening to our discussion about it in light of the 2018 interpretation.

If you are interested in reading more, we used the promotional material from the Australian Ballet for this episode, including the official program from the 2018 production, along with these other resources:

Bokina, J., Images of Spartacus (New Haven, Yale University Press: forthcoming 2019) *** Dr Rad highly recommends! Put it on your wish list 

Rubinsohn, W. Z., Spartacus’ Uprising and Soviet Historical Writing, trans. J. G. Gilbert (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1987).

Russell, S.A., ‘Blood on the dance floor as Spartacus gives ballet a political update’, Sydney Morning Herald (13 September 2018), retrieved from

Urbainczyk, T., Spartacus (Bristol Classical Press, London: 2004).

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Drs R and G laugh and spar their way through the ancient Roman world!

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