Should we freeze out the skater behind the ‘Holocaust on ice’?
Several weeks ago a storm of controversy broke over the head of Tatiana Navka, a Russian former Olympic ice skater and the wife of Vladimir Putin’s chief spokesman. The reason? A Holocaust-themed skating routine. She and her skating partner, actor Andrei Burkovsky, performed the routine as part of the Russian reality TV show Ice Age, with Navka claiming that it was inspired by her favourite film, Life is Beautiful (1997) – a comedy-drama about the Holocaust. Writing on her Instagram page, Navka declared: “Show this movie to your children. Our children need to know and remember that terrible time, which I hope, God willing, they will never know (again)”. However, the choice of the film in itself was always going to raise a few eyebrows: the film polarised critics and scholars upon its release, mainly due to its use of humour and unrealistic portrayal of life in a concentration camp.
For those of you who don’t know, Life is Beautiful is an award-winning Italian film in which a Jewish man and his young son are imprisoned in a concentration camp, whereupon the man turns their experiences into one big game to ensure his son’s continued survival. The routine skated by Navka and Burkovsky (which, incidentally, was choreographed by Ilya Averbukh – a Jewish former Olympic ice skater) drew widespread condemnation from around the world, with headline coverage from The Guardian, The New York Times, The Independent, Time, CNN, the BBC and The Jerusalem Post – to name a few. But what exactly was wrong?
I suggest that, given the context – a reality TV contest akin to the British television programme Dancing On Ice – the most immediate issue was the choice of subject. In this show, celebrities are paired with professional ice skaters and progress through the competition according to the scores of judges and viewers’ votes. Navka’s impassioned Instagram statement seems to implore that people talk about the Holocaust and teach their children about it. However, her routine placed the Holocaust in the context of reality entertainment – and I fear that any impact the dance may have had was lost amidst the ensuing routines of other competing couples (although without watching the entire show this is difficult to gauge).
The beginning of the routine has the couple smiling and pretending to shoot each other, ostensibly play-acting for an imaginary child. To anyone who has seen Life is Beautiful, it is easily possible to see what they were trying to do – reflecting/representing aspects of the film. To anyone who hasn’t, it is easy to see such a performance as tactless and offensive. Moreover, even those who have seen the film will have certain sensibilities regarding performative treatments of the Holocaust, centring around what Terrence Des Pres insightfully termed “Holocaust etiquette”:
- The Holocaust shall be represented […] as a unique event […].
- Representations of the Holocaust shall be as accurate and faithful as possible to the facts and conditions of the event, without change or manipulation for any reason – artistic reasons included.
- The Holocaust shall be approached as a solemn or […] sacred event, with a seriousness admitting no response that might obscure its enormity or dishonor [sic] its dead.
These rules are entrenched both socially and politically, especially within Western society. As such, the use of concentration camp uniforms and ‘gaunt’ makeup by Navka and Burkovsky offends such sensibilities, especially when considering the infamous and prevalent images of liberated prisoners; moreover, Navka’s thick plait of blonde hair, descending from beneath the scarf covering her head, is an additionally jarring note when remembering how prisoners were shaved upon arrival at the camps. I posit that the routine would have been better received if Navka and Burkovsky had not been wearing the uniforms, but rather period clothing with Stars of David, as this would have further contextualised the Nazi persecution of the Jews as not just being confined to concentration camps. It is surprising that this was apparently not considered, given the actions of the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads who entered the Soviet Union after the invading German army from June 1941 and massacred Jews and other civilians – including Communist leaders – in their ‘home’ environments.
In my research I have looked at the concept of ‘balagan’, which has been defined by Israeli scholar Gad Kaynar as identifying ‘Holocaust symbols’, such as the striped uniform, the tattooed arm, and so on, and using them to breach the “holiest taboos” of the Holocaust – that is, the breaching of Holocaust etiquette. Examples that I have examined include turning the hanging of a concentration camp prisoner into a dance routine and the stripping of a female prisoner into a striptease. Following on from Kaynar’s work, I have proposed that by violating Holocaust etiquette, such performances raise questions in the minds of the spectators as to what it is that makes those symbols ‘holy’ in the first place, leading back directly to the Nazi genocide and its associated atrocities. As Kaynar observes, it is a way of “reactivating its memory by defaming it”, and as the voices of the survivors are gradually lost, it is a way of re-introducing the horror of which, one day, no eyewitnesses will be left to tell.
Does Navka and Burkovsky’s routine constitute balagan? The subsequent storm on social media and the international headlines indicate so. It certainly outraged Holocaust sensibilities/etiquette, with incensed Twitter users calling attention to Nazi atrocities ranging from the genocide of the Jews to the murders of Soviet prisoners of war.
However, the most effective balagan occurs when the performer (or creator) fully intends to outrage the spectator in order to cause them to engage more deeply with the events of the Holocaust. Beyond Navka’s statement on Instagram, there is nothing at all to indicate that this is the case. As yet, Navka has not followed up the routine or her comments with (for example) any commitment towards promoting Holocaust education in Russia. Bearing in mind the Soviet Union’s role in postwar whitewashing within its territories of the Jewish aspect of the genocide, it does seem in poor taste for a Russian diplomat’s wife to literally dance about it and then proclaim that ‘children should be taught about it’.
Her urging of people to show Life is Beautiful to their children is questionable. The film is vividly anti-realistic and will present a distorted view of the Holocaust, especially for educational purposes (as exemplified by the book – and subsequent film – The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas). I happen to like Life is Beautiful, but I am a Holocaust scholar with a good knowledge of the camps and an ability to willingly set aside my disbelief. What about those who have little or no knowledge about the camps, especially children? It would be interesting to know the extent of Navka’s own knowledge of the Holocaust. For example, has she met any survivors, or visited any of the camps?
If Tatiana Navka takes no affirmative action to support her words, then these are just words and ultimately meaningless – a cheap publicity stunt to boost television ratings (it is interesting to note that the show’s judges awarded the routine top marks). The controversy surrounding Navka and Burkovsky’s performance is already fading. Yet given the current global political climate and the rise in neo-Nazism, fascism and right-wing movements, is now really the time to put the Holocaust on ice?