Swan Lake TV broadcast signals turmoil in Russia as independent media outlets forced to close

Staff at a leading independent Russian TV station have resigned before airing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, in a Soviet-era signal of political turmoil in the country.

Russian officials have demanded that the media cover the invasion of Ukraine in strict accordance with the official line.

They have quickly pounced on outlets that have described Russia’s attack as an “invasion” or “war”, or carried statements from the Ukrainian side.

Dozhd (TV Rain), an independent television station in Russia, announced on Thursday it was suspending operations after receiving a threat of closure from the authorities.

The station’s entire staff resigned live on air, signing off with the final statement “no to war” before the renowned Russian ballet played out on the screen, as it did in August, 1991 during an attempted coup which signaled the beginning of the end of the USSR.

Leonid Petrov, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s School of Culture, History and Language, said Swan Lake had also been used historically in Soviet-era radio and television broadcasts during the 1980s to signify events such as the death of leaders, before there was any official news.

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“It turned into a proverbial ‘Tchaikovsky announcement’,” Dr Petrov said.

In previous times the ballet, along with other works, was played on repeat for days.

“It was a sign of potential instability, of potential change of leadership.”

Three decades later, the black and white Dance of the Cygnets was used by Dozhd to signify Russia was again in turmoil.

“Swan Lake has turned into a symbol of mourning for the broken dreams, sadness for lost opportunities, regrets, for unfulfilled plans,” Dr Petrov said.

“I think that it was a very sensible and apt decision by …. Rain TV station.”

Dr Petrov said it was no longer safe for the broadcaster to operate in Russia, with staff receiving death threats.

“They had the very tough choice: either to tell lies which Putin wants them to tell … or to die,” he said.

“With TV Rain it was a voluntary decision to temporarily suspend operations and broadcasts and they wanted to make it as symbolic as possible and to attract as much attention as possible.”

Respected radio station closed

Radio station Ekho Moskvy (the Echo of Moscow), one of Russia’s most influential and respected media outlets, also stopped broadcasting this week.

With many other independent news outlets shut amid a relentless government crackdown on opposition years and independent media in recent station was the most critical media outlet still standing in Russia.

It was taken off the air on Wednesday.

Dr Petrov said the independent radio station had played a critical role in informing the public at the time of the attempted coup in 1991, when ballets played on all other stations.

“Ekho Moskvy managed to cover the news and dramatic events of the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union,” Dr Petrov said.

“I remember, I was in Moscow that day and when I realised there were tanks of the streets I returned to Saint Petersburg.

On Thursday, the station’s board of directors — which is controlled by its majority owner, a media arm of Russia’s state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom — declared Ekho Moskvy closed.

Its said they would keep working on social networks and YouTube.

The tough action against the few remaining independent media outlets in Russia comes amid a growing anti-war sentiment in the country, despite a fierce crackdown on protests.

Anti-war protests have taken place across Russia, despite the risk of being arrested by police.(Supplied: Anastasia Rodina)

Protests against the invasion of Ukraine have cropped up across Russia for days, while more than 1.1 million people signed an online petition demanding an end to the war.

Police have quickly moved to break up anti-war protests, detaining over 8,000 participants since the invasion began, according to OVD-Info, a rights group political arrests.

In an effort to stifle critical voices, Russian authorities have also restricted access to Facebook and Twitter, which have played an important role in amplifying dissent.

Dr Petrov said there was room to interpret messages of hope from the airing of Swan Lake.

“At the end of the ballet, the dark forces are defeated…so there is still hope and there is still a beam of light which comes out of the dark cloud,” he said.

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