Love Story: Olga Spessivtseva, Akim Volynsky and Boris Kaplun

Love Story: Olga Spessivtseva, Akim Volynsky and Boris Kaplun

Personal life of the legendary ballerina Olga Spessivtseva was in many ways as dramatic as that of her heroine in the ballet Giselle.

Olga Spessivtseva was born on July 18, 1895, into a theatrical family. After the death of the breadwinner, her mother had to send the girl along with her brother and sister to the orphanage at the retired actors' home, from where all three entered the St. Petersburg Theater School (now the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet).  Even at school, the choreographer Mikhail Fokine spoke highly of Olga's talent, and the St. Petersburg Newspaper called her "the most capable of the young daughters of Terpsichore". In 1913, the dancer was included in the ballet troupe of the Imperial Theater, where she quickly began to receive solo parts. Two years later, Fokine invited Spessivtseva to go on a tour of America as part of Diaghilev's company. But the girl refused as she was in love...

Akim Volynsky

At that time, Olga Spessivtseva was in a romantic relationship with Akim Volynsky, a fine art and ballet expert, philosopher, critic, who was 34 years older than the ballerina. He was a fan and connoisseur of classical ballet and didn’t accept any innovations in this art form. Spessivtseva, who unconditionally trusted his opinion, refused Fokine. 

A vulnerable and incredibly sensitive girl, living together with her mother in dire need, in the person of Volynsky she found support and a kindred spirit, who perceived reality in the same subtle way as she did. Ballet was a religion for her, and Volynsky was an icon. He taught Spessivtseva to treat dance as a sacred act, to experience every step sensually, to hear the music of different types of arts when visiting museums. She took notes of the phrases he said, listened to his every word: 

“My whole soul was illuminated by your teaching on the classical clarity of dance. Your words reach me like echoes of a faraway heaven. And the art of ballet stands before me transformed, in a white bridesmaid's dress...”

Volynsky published articles analyzing the performances of his young lover on a regular basis and even started doing barre exercises at the age of 60. 

Even at the dawn of her career, Spessivtseva had crowds of admirers waiting for her near the theater, sending her flowers and notes. A year after her refusal to Fokine, the ballerina nevertheless agreed to tour with the Diaghilev’s troupe in the United States, and she conquered the West dancing in a pair with the great Vaslav Nijinsky. The number of Spessivtseva's suitors grew even more. Volynsky failed the test of jealousy and parted with the ballerina after the 1917 revolution. 

Boris Kaplun

Under the new government, Spessivtseva's career continued to go uphill. She became the first student of Agrippina Vaganova. Together they prepared the lead parts in Swan Lake, Esmeralda, Giselle. Her work on the character of Giselle was on the verge of self-destruction - the ballerina visited a psychiatric hospital, where she watched human madness to be able to transfer it to the stage. The depth of her transformations amazed the audience and invariably caused long standing ovations. However, life in post-revolutionary Petrograd was difficult - the theater was not heated, Spessivtseva suffered from tuberculosis and spent a lot of time in bed between performances. At that time, the ballerina found love and protection of a person who was absolutely different from most of her exalted fans. It was Boris Kaplun, a domineering, courageous and handsome functionary of the Petrograd Soviet. Thanks to him, heating appeared in the Mariinsky Theater again, performers' salaries were raised, and Olga, who wholeheartedly fell in love with Kaplun and became his wife, stopped suffering hardships and felt protected in his “iron embrace”. 

However, this union of a mentally vulnerable ballerina and a cold-blooded cynical public security officer could not be happy. Acquaintances hinted to Spessivtseva that her husband was participating in the executions. The dancer didn’t want to believe it and overreacted to such messages every time; at home, she was making Kaplun emotional scenes. But he knew how to avoid direct answers to his wife's questions. One day, Spessivtseva visited her husband at work and was horrified by the number of weapons in his office. The thing that ruined her fragile psyche was a visit to the crematorium, where Kaplun went as if to a theater for a bit of entertainment. The ballerina began to suffer from nightmares, and her husband was finding this alliance with a sensitive creature tiresome. In 1924, he organized Spessivtseva's departure abroad. The ballerina understood perfectly well that this was not a temporary measure, that she was rejected and betrayed by a loved one again. She left the country with her mother, knowing that she would never come back... 

Based on Olga Spessivtseva’s biography, Boris Eifman staged a ballet, Red Giselle. In the performance, as in life, the ballerina repeats the fate of her heroine, losing her mind from unhappy love. The red color in the name symbolizes the Soviet regime, the "romance" with which cast a shadow on the whole subsequent life of the ballerina in exile.