Vadim Kiselev was a young ballet fan who first spotted Nureyev throwing snowballs. “Even then I could see the beautiful catlike plasticity of his movements.”
Five years older than Nureyev, with wavy blond hair and Cupid’s-bow lips, Kiselev was “an exotic” by Leningrad standards, one of a coterie of homosexual friends who, he says, were already aware of Nureyev’s true sexual orientation. “We understood that his volatility came about partly as a result of this.”
One night Kiselev invited Nureyev to his apartment. With seduction in mind, he had bought a bottle of Armenian cognac and 200 grams of caviar, which he served on bone china. But the evening did not go according to plan.
His delicate sensibilities already affronted by the young Tatar’s gross table manners, Kiselev then found his advances rudely repelled. They parted “almost enemies”, and had no further contact until Nureyev turned up one day, saying: “I think I offended you.” He apologised, and while continuing to flirt with Kiselev (addressing him as “Adonis”), resumed an acquaintance free of sexual ties.
*A teenage Rudik displaying his innate, unconfined elevation in an Ufa, capital of Bashkiria (Russia), ballet studio
He was not yet willing to consider male love as an option for himself. (Years later he told a lover in London that when he had found himself attracted to a boy on a Leningrad bus he had felt so ashamed that he got off at the next stop.)
When Nureyev met Teja Kremke, however, his attitude changed. Not only that, their relationship would lead to his defection from the Soviet Union.
Teja was a 17-year-old East German boy with an erotic presence as visible as a heat haze. A student at the Vaganova ballet school, he had shiny chestnut hair, pale skin, full lips and intense grey-blue eyes.
He was invited to the apartment of his teacher Alexander Pushkin, where Nureyev – already a star with the Kirov Ballet – still lived. Pushkin’s wife Xenia, who had already seduced Nureyev, was instinctively drawn to this beautiful youth. She adopted him as a new protégé, shaping his thoughts and tastes. Pushkin, whom Teja worshipped, soon became a father figure for him, too. A deep bond developed among all four. “It was a liaison à quatre. They were kind of bound together,” said a friend of the Pushkins.
Like Nureyev, Teja had no interest in contemporary politics but hated the constraints of communism. One evening they were talking in the Vaganova student kitchen while Ute Mitreuter, another East German, was brewing coffee.
She remembered: “Teja was telling Rudolf that he should go to the West. ‘There you’ll be the greatest dancer in the world,’ he said. ‘But if you stay here you’ll be known only to the Russians’.” “‘Yes of course I know that,’ answered Rudolf. ‘It’s how Nijinsky became a legend. And I’m going to be the next one’.”
Teja confided to his sister that he and Nureyev had become blood brothers, cutting themselves to mingle their blood. But their growing intimacy was too risky to reveal to anyone at the school, even to Mitreuter, to whom Teja had always confided his sexual history in the past.
“Teja talked to me about all the things he did with girls. There were many of them who were mad about him. I heard he was a very good lover and that’s why I didn’t think there was anything more than a friendship between him and Rudolf. It was only later that I knew it was a love affair.”
Teja had been only 12 when he was seduced by a 35-year-old woman, an encounter that left him with a far from conventional sexual outlook. At school he had been caught in the shower with a boy. (In the mid-Sixties he would persuade his adoring Indonesian child-wife to live in a ménage à trois with a beautiful Aryan youth with whom he was having an affair.)
“Teja was always open to new experience,” said someone who knew him at the time. “There was a perverse strain in his character. Something other people didn’t find normal was very exciting to him.”
When Konstantin Russu, another student from East Germany, went to the ballet school shower room one day, he found that Nureyev and Teja had locked themselves in and were refusing to open the door. It confirmed what he had suspected for some time: often, when he came back in the evening to the room he shared with Teja, he had seen Nureyev climbing out of the window. (Nureyev would one day tell a mutual friend that it was Teja who first taught him “the art of male love”.)
At the same time, Teja was constantly goading Nureyev to leave Russia.
“He’d say, ‘Go! Get out! At the first opportunity you have. Don’t stay here or no one will hear of you!’” said their friend.
Earlier in the winter of 1960 Janine Ringuet, a 20-year-old assistant impresario who worked for a Parisian organisation specialising in artistic exchanges between France and the Soviet Union, came to Leningrad for several weeks to observe the Kirov Ballet. She reported back that Nureyev, almost unknown in the West, was “the best male dancer in the world”. He was engaged for a Kirov visit to Paris.
Only days before he was due to leave, Nureyev and a colleague were taken before the special committee responsible for vetting dancers for the tour. Why, the KGB officer chairing it demanded, had neither of them joined the Komsomol, the young communist organisation?
“Because I’ve far more important things to do with my time than waste it on that kind of rubbish!” exclaimed Nureyev impulsively.
He got away with it but it was clear he had to leave. “In Russia,” he later told a friend, “I did not belong to myself. I had a feeling that I had a big talent which people would recognise anywhere.”
It was hard for Nureyev to accept that his dream of seeing Europe was about to be realised. His defection was “prepared inside”, but he felt that he needed to gauge the reaction of his friends. During a long walk with one of them a few days before his departure, he asked: “What would you think if I stayed in the West?”
The friend reminded him of the lifestyle he loved and would be leaving behind – Leningrad’s “kitchen culture’, where a gathering of friends around a table had come to mean more to him than his family.
But Nureyev felt increasingly trapped at the Pushkins’ apartment. Now that Xenia could see how much of a hold Teja had on him, she had reverted to being jealous and contentious, going out of her way to cause trouble between them. But at the same time she found herself involuntarily attracted to Teja.
If Rudolf sensed the growing sexual chemistry between them he would have felt the kind of distaste and disenchantment experienced by Chinko Rafique, a student taken up by the Pushkins a decade later: “Xenia was predatory. She was sexually predatory.”
Liuba Romankova, Nureyev’s close friend, has always believed that his involvement with Xenia was a key reason why he “escaped to the West”. Ninel Kurgapkina, a Kirov dancer and confidante, agrees that it was a situation from which he badly wanted to extricate himself. “He was not very proud when he talked of Xenia. He didn’t feel good thinking about her.”
But even more of an incentive to leave Russia was the realisation that he would never be free to follow his true sexual instincts while he was there. As he said himself: “I did not have the possibility of choosing my friends according to my taste. It was as if someone battered me morally. I was very unhappy.”
*Rudik sits on his suitcase for a moment. It is an old Russian superstition.
Teja stayed in Russia. Even a decade later, Pushkin remained afraid that he would have the same malign influence on the budding new star Mikhail Baryshnikov as he had had on Nureyev. If Teja happened to drop in, Pushkin would usher the young Baryshnikov into another room, keeping him hidden until the East German had left. Baryshnikov nonetheless defected.
*The Sunday Times