Rudolf Nureyev — life, loves, and the KGB

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviets were way ahead in the propaganda race for space. Yuri Gagarin was a household name, but the Russians were keen to show that they also had ‘cultural supremacy’ in the arts.

Their secret weapon was a young Tartar who’d caused a sensation dancing for the Kirov Ballet in Moscow. He was born on a train in Eastern Siberia on 17 March 1938 and went on to become a stupendous dancer — with a volatile and difficult to control temperament.

Rudolf Nureyev 
—life, loves, and the KGB

The Russians knew he would be a loose cannon on the Kirov’s planned visit to Paris and London, but they decided to take a chance and let him dance. And Rudolf Nureyev’s performances went on to electrify audiences and critics alike.

Nureyev and the KBG

But he soon embarked on his wicked ways. Often slipping out of his KGB minders’ control, he said things the Russians thought were injurious to the Kirov’s reputation. And then he started hopping in and out of bed with various male and female lovers as he led the Russian secret agents on a frenetic dance around the bars, sleazy joints, and strip clubs of Paris.

Alarmed, anxious, and eventually desperate, the KGB ordered him back to the Soviet Union.

In June 1961, at Le Bourget Airport, Nureyev was booked onto a flight to Moscow for a special ballet performance in the Kremlin — so they said. He was also told that his mother was severely ill and desperate to see him. All fibs. And Nureyev knew it. So he refused, knowing that if he went back to the USSR, his next address would be care of the gulag in Siberia.

Rudolf Nureyev defect to the west 1961

Slipping away from his Russian minders he threw himself into the arms of the airport gendarmes and asked for asylum.

I want to stay and to be free.

Rudolf Nureyev at Le Bourget Airport, Paris, 1961

The headlines put it like this: “the wild and beautiful animal danced to freedom in France.” It was just like a scene from a John le Carre spy thriller.

In the West, he became an instant celebrity. He had everything: an outstanding dancing technique, mesmerising good looks, an attractive and athletic build, and astonishing charisma. As a male ballet dancer whose name was soon known worldwide, he immediately took on rock star status. He was mobbed by fans wherever he went.

Nureyev and his loves

Nureyev’s first love was, apparently, the attractive ballerina Natalia Dudinskaya — wife of his Russian ballet teacher, and twenty years older than him. His complex love life included long-standing liaisons with Erik Bruhn and Robert Tracy, but his best-known relationship was with celebrated ballerina Margot Fonteyn — again, twenty years his senior.

When first asked if she would dance with Nureyev, she replied, “My goodness, that would be like mutton dancing with lamb, don’t you think?” But there were 23 curtain calls at the end of their debut appearance together. A staggering number but one that was eventually eclipsed by the 89 standing ovations they received at the end of a performance of ‘Swan Lake’ in Vienna.

At the end of Swan Lake, when she left the stage
in her great white tutu
I would have followed her to the end of the world.

Rudolf Nureyev
Rudolf Nureyev

But in the early nineteen eighties, a new and frightening pandemic arrived. At first, wrongly thought to apply only to homosexuals, it was soon realised that it was potentially deadly to anyone engaged in sexual activity. Within a year of becoming director of the Paris Opera Ballet Company, Nureyev was diagnosed as HIV positive.

Rudolf Nureyev Paris Opera

At his final public appearance in Paris, the French Minister of Culture and Education Jack Lang presented him with France’s top cultural award: Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Nureyev went on living with AIDS until he died in 1993 aged 54.

A memorial service was held at the Paris Opera and he was buried in the Russian cemetery at Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois. Music from ‘Giselle’ was played at the funeral. Bouquets of white lilies and his dancing pumps were thrown onto his coffin as it was lowered into the ground.

Rudolf Nureyev grave Paris

A magnificent mosaic headstone of glass and gold marks the grave. Based on Nureyev’s favourite Persian Kilim rug, it’s a final shining reminder reflecting the life of the world’s most famous ballet dancer whose favourite saying was:

You live as long as you dance.


Did you ever see Rudolf Nureyev dance? Share your thoughts and experiences with us below.

Image credits:
1. Nureyev’s childhood in Russia via
2. Nureyev defect to the West in 1961 via
3. Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn: Perfect Partnership via
4. Rudolf Nureyev: Director Paris Ballet via
5. Nureyev’s grave in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois via
By Published On: Mar 17, 20221 Comment

About the Contributor

Ray Johnstone

Ray is an artist & writer. His favourite subjects are nudes and portraits. Art holidays for groups & families are catered for in their 800-year-old house La Petite Galerie in Gascony. They also take up to 6 walkers on the 'best bits' of the Pilgrims Route to Compostela. Check out Ray's 100+ articles - he has his own column called 'Perspectives'

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One Comment

  1. Barbara Johnson Chase Mar 19, 2022 at 1:58 AM - Reply

    Oh….wow. What a fascinating article and fascinating person! I found the picture and description of his ornate headstone mind-blowing!!

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