This Day In History: January 17

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In a crime that scandalized Russia and made headlines around the world, Sergei Filin, the artistic director at the famed Bolshoi Ballet, is attacked with acid outside his home in Moscow on January 17, 2013. A dancer at the ballet, Pavel Dmitrichenko, was later convicted for ordering the attack, which revealed deep divisions within the ballet company.

On the evening of January 17, Sergei Filin was returning home when a masked man threw sulphuric acid in his face. At the time, Filin was the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, Moscow's most renowned and historic ballet company. Catherine the Great founded the first incarnation of the theater in 1776, and over the centuries the Bolshoi Ballet has set the standard of excellence in Russia's national art form. Ballet was closely associated with the Romanov court in Tsarist Russia; after the Bolshevik revolution and the execution of Tsar Nicholas and his family, the Bolshoi remained an important institution for the ballet-loving public.

Steps away from the Kremlin, the Bolshoi became a distinctly Soviet theater, with new ballets emphasizing the triumph of the Russian worker. In the post-Soviet era, the ballet has preserved its close ties to the ruling elite. Per journalist David Remnick, the Bolshoi Theater has served as a "microcosm of imperial Russia, Soviet Russia, and now, Vladimir Putin's Russia."

The acid attack on Filin exposed fierce conflicts within the company. Pavel Dimitrichenko, the dancer at the Bolshoi, was convicted of orchestrating the attack. Dmitrichenko was upset that his girlfriend, also a dancer, was overlooked for a leading role in Swan Lake. The Bolshoi's dancers must compete with each other for their roles—competition is brutal, especially because dancers are paid per performance. Accusations of favoritism, bribery and partisanship are common.

Over the years, the artistic direction of the theater has also stoked controversy. Should the ballet maintain its traditional Soviet-era aesthetic, or experiment with new artistic styles? Because of the Bolshoi's close ties to the Kremlin, these disputes are about more than art. Russia's ruling elite hope for the ballet to be a symbol of modern Russia's achievements, and a strong brand to export to the rest of the world. However, the Bolshoi's scandals—as embodied by the shocking attack on Filin, who served as artistic director at the company for another three years, until 2016—represent struggles for money, power and prestige in Vladimir Putin's Russia.