Bolshoi dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko was sentenced to six years in prison on Tuesday for his role in an acid attack on the ballet's artistic director, after a trial that at times made it seem as if the victim was the one in the dock.
Over the course of the month-long trial, dancers lined up either to defend Sergei Filin, who lost much of his sight as a result of the attack, or condemn him as the source of vicious backstage bickering.
Judge Yelena Maximova also sentenced ex-convict Yuri Zarutsky to 10 years for splashing the acid in Filin's face, and his driver Andrei Lipatov to four years. The three were also ordered to pay 3.5 million rubles (about $106,000) in damages to Filin.
Dmitrichenko's mother held her hand over her mouth as the sentence was pronounced. The dancer's father said he had hoped for a lighter sentence. But the sentence was still shorter than the nine years demanded by the prosecution.
The trial often focused less on the crime than on Filin's controversial role in the Bolshoi Theater. Infighting has raged for years at the famous state theater, where the annual budget has swelled to $120 million, but the two sides dropped all decorum after the Jan. 17 attack on Filin.
During the trial, they turned the courtroom into a stage where they aired their long-held grievances over the battle for roles, money and influence.
Filin told the court that he was making his way home from the theater late at night when someone said his name. He whipped around to see who was there and felt liquid tossed in his face. The attack left him struggling blindly through the snow toward home and would eventually deprive him of almost all of his vision in one eye.
Dmitrichenko testified that he had first started discussing the Bolshoi's backstage politics and his complaints about Filin with Zarutsky, a casual acquaintance, when he had asked for advice about sending his daughter to ballet school. Zarutsky then offered to beat up the ballet chief for him.
Dmitrichenko agreed, but said he never wanted the attacker to use acid or for Filin to be seriously hurt. It was only after the attack, when reports of what had happened started hitting the morning news, that the dancer said he realized how far Zarutsky had gone.
Dmitrichenko said he rushed to meet Zarutsky, who threatened to do the same to his ballerina girlfriend if he dared to go to the police. The dancer said he had no idea that Zarutsky had spent seven years in jail for beating up someone who died as a result of his injuries.
Zarutsky said he used battery fluid, thinking it was less likely to cause serious injury. "Because if I had hit Sergei Yuriyevich (Filin), then I would have had to hit him a second time and a third and really hammer him, knocking out his teeth and breaking his bones," he testified.
The judge backed Dmitrichenko's version of events, but said that he had provided Zarutsky with money, a SIM card for a cell phone, and information about Filin's whereabouts, and insisted that the attack could never have been carried out were it not for the dancer's key role.
But much of the trial centered less on Dmitrichenko's role in the attack than on whether or not Filin's management of the ballet company could have driven him to the crime. As part of his defense, the dancer cited several incidents in which troupe members were driven to tears by the artistic director.
Those statements were backed up by the testimonies of other dancers, including Nikolai Tsiskaridze, a veteran principal dancer who had long been critical of Bolshoi management and had been seen as maneuvering to take over the theater himself. He was fired in the aftermath of the attack.
Taking the stand, Tsiskaridze described Filin as a despotic leader prone to hysterical outbursts. Dmitrichenko, as described by Tsiskaridze and others, was often the one to stand up for his fellow dancers and demand fair treatment and payment.
When dancers arrived in court, they had warm smiles and greetings for Dmitrichenko, who was held inside a cage with the other two defendants. During the testimony, Dmitrichenko often jumped up from his seat to ask follow-up questions.
Dmitrichenko said he accepted "moral responsibility" for the attack.
Filin, who wore sunglasses in court and never once turned to look at the accused, claimed that Dmitrichenko had threatened him indirectly in the build-up to the attack, using any opportunity to speak out against him. He dismissed the heated conflicts as part of the artistic process.
Other members of the Bolshoi lined up to defend Filin, asserting that he had brought an inclusive and positive atmosphere to the theater.
"I want to support and defend Sergei, who has been attacked by this flurry of suspicion as if he had poured acid on himself," Bolshoi ballerina Tatiana Beletskaya told the court.
In an interview with Dozhd television last week, Vladimir Urin, who was brought in to lead the theater in July after the ouster of its former general director, criticized Filin extensively, but said that the verdict would have to be a guilty one if Russian ballet were to recover from the reputational damage done by the attack.
"My feelings are rather contradictory," Urin said, but insisted: "This has to become punishable, so that we can end this once and for all."
The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this year: "The assault on Filin was an awful crime, which reminded me a bit of the mafia wars of the 1990s, and the way our Russian thugs like to settle scores," says Alexander Bril, a jazz musician and instructor at the Gnesin Academy of Music in Moscow.
"We have been living in this atmosphere for the past two decades. Why would anybody think the art world would be exempt, or that it wouldn't affect major cultural centers like the Bolshoi?" he adds.
Associated Press writer Lynn Berry contributed to this report.
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