It was a scene that could have been found in any dance studio around the world: tiny ballerinas, ears sticking out beneath perfectly tight buns of hair, concentrated on doing their drills at the barre to the strains of Rachmaninov. Dressed in freshly-starched tutus, the little girls diligently performed battement tendus, demi-plies and passés as their teacher corrected their errors: "Chins up, suck in your bellies!" Only the peeling paint and the crumbling walls hinted that, for these students, a different reality lay outside.
Welcome to the only ballet school in the troubled republic of Abkhazia, or Apsny, as it's known to the locals (which translates to "land of the soul"). A disputed breakaway territory wedged between Russia and Georgia on the shores of the Black Sea, Abkhazia was the site of a bitter civil war that flared up in 1992, when the population declared itself independent of post-Soviet Georgia. The conflict crushed the tiny province and sent hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians into exile, with gross human-rights violations reported on both sides. Though Abkhazia considers itself a sovereign state, it is only recognized internationally by a handful of countries—chiefly, Russia and Venezuela. Poverty is rampant and crippling: the average monthly salary is just $85.
Just across Abkhazia's border with Russia, another future glimmers—the city of Sochi, decorated in bright lights and freshly painted facades, which is preparing festively for the Olympic Games in February to the tune of some $50 billion in state and private investments. Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that trains from Abkhazia will be cancelled during the Olympics and vehicles will mostly be barred from crossing the border into Russia. Russian troops also plan to patrol the area, hyper-alert to any threats to the Games.
Amid the ruins of war and widespread unemployment, in a land where the civil conflict is still the most common subject of conversation, Abkhazia's youth can only envy their bigger neighbor, or hope to move to Russia for a better future. "Music and ballet brings students away from sadness, to an island of beauty and dreams about performing on big Russian theatre stages one day," Asya Tsveiba, the only professional ballerina in Abkhazia, told The Daily Beast.
Tsveiba runs the dance school with another choreographer and a pianist. The studio is a part of the Sukhum School of Arts, located in Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia. Near its grounds, private gardens hang thick with bright orange tangerines and plump persimmons, the fruits of fall in Abkhazia. Tsveiba once had big ambitions for her own ballet career—when she was a little girl, she watched every ballet on television, trying to copy the ballerina' movements; and as an adult, she even performed a part in The Three Little Swans on stage at a Russian theater in Krasnodar. But life eventually brought her back home to Abkhazia, where she decided to found the school in 2010, in order to create an opportunity for the republic's talented girls. (Unlike in Russia, boys are not allowed to train at the ballet school, as it is "traditionally considered inappropriate for boys to perform in tights," Tsveiba says.)
The wee ballerinas at the Arts School, who range in age from five to 12 years old, have no memories of the brutal war. They are the new generation, who only know a peaceful Abkhazia. They represent hope: "We dream that our artists and sportsmen will one day perform under the Apsny national flag," the minister of sports, Shazina Avidzba, said in an interview earlier this month.
And just like young girls all across the former Soviet Union, Abkhazia's ballerinas dream of appearing on stage one day in pointed shoes and mounds of tulle, to dance the classics in front of ecstatic crowds. Even in the most remote provinces across Russia and its satellites, where post-industrial towns drown in discontent, parents still try to enroll their children in arts schools to learn painting, music or ballet. Earlier this fall, in the Siberian town of Baikalsk, the city's only major employer—the Pulp and Paper Mill—shut down, leaving thousands of people fearful about the town's future. A heavy cloud of depression hung over the town. Men, out of work, stockpiled liquor. But one place in the city vibrated with joy—the Baikalsk School of Arts, where teenage boys and girls rehearsed elements from Swan Lake. Just as in Abkhazia, the Siberian dance teachers believed that ballet would help their students forget about the troubles they witnessed at home.
For Tsveiba, she is doing everything in her power to make her own dreams come true for her students: a real ballet education at the prestigious Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg and a career at the legendary Mariinsky theater. But there are limits to her hopes. When asked if she would want to see her girls dance at the Bolshoi, Tsveiba is dismissive. "Ballet symbolizes purity and grace, but all we hear about the Bolshoi lately is dirt and intrigues," she says, referring to the acid-attack scandal which left the artistic director nearly blind and one of the leading dancers sentenced to six years in prison. "We have had enough war in our lives," she says.