Friday was a red letter day for six hard-working ladies in London. For it was then that the Free the Panovs Committee first heard that the man for whom they had campaigned for nearly two years was going to receive permission to leave the Soviet Union with his pregnant 23 year-old wife Galina.
But it was never an entirely Jewish campaign. The world of the arts threw itself wholeheartedly into a fight for an oppressed fellow artist.
It was in 1972 that a number of women involved mainly in the theatrical profession heard about the plight of Valery Panov, 35, star of Leningrad’s Kirov Ballet Company. Three ladies, Pamela Manson, Rosemary Winkely and Joan Dale, put their heads together to see how they could help Panov to leave the Soviet Union.
Rosemary, who became a close friend of Panov and who spoke to him regularly by telephone, was one of the first to learn that the ballet star had been arrested during President Nixon’s visit to Moscow in the summer of 1972. Panov was sentenced then to ten days imprisonment on a charge of hooliganism, ostensibly for spitting at a policeman. From then on the campaign to save the Panovs began to gather strength.
The expulsion of the Panovs from the Kirov incensed many well-known personalities of the British stage and screen. In November 1972, the first petition to the Kremlin appealing for the release of the Panovs appeared. Signatories included Lord Olivier, Richard Attenborough, Harry Secombe and the American comedian Woody Allen. The left-wing actress Vanessa Redgrave was also one of the two thousand signatories representing the acting profession in Europe and the United States.
This attracted the attention of British columnist Bernard Levin, who had begun to take an interest in the whole question of Soviet Jewry. He wrote in an article in The Times in December 1972: – “I ask again: why? Why in this case are talented people forbidden to follow their art in one country, forbidden also to leave a place in which they are not wanted, and in which they do not want to be?”
By now Panov had become a world figure, one of the “hottest” Jews whom the Soviets were barring from emigration to Israel.
In March 1973, the casts of more than 20 West End shows signed an appeal for the Panovs. Paul Scofield, Joan Sutherland and Paul Newman added their names to the ever-growing list of protesters.
In the same month the first protest banner outside the Soviet Embassy in Bayswater Road was raised by a dancer dressed as Petrouchka. The Panov Committee wrote in their press release: – “A dancer’s life is at best but a short one. And when he is prevented from practising his art his body suffers and he is slowly destroyed.”
The delegation, however, was turned back by the officials at the Soviet Embassy who refused to accept their petition.
The following month saw a campaign directed against the Kirov Company’s visit to Manchester, Leningrad’s twin city in Britain. The Mayor of Manchester, Alderman Edward Grant, had rejected a suggestion that the visit should be cancelled because of the plight of the Panovs. But the protests in Manchester’s Albert Square were a bigger victory than if the Kirov had stayed at home.
In the weeks that followed, the case of Panov was brought home painfully to the attention of the Leningrad Soviet.
The Kremlin’s concern was heightened by demonstrations in London and the provincial cities when the Georgian Dancers arrived for a season at the London Coliseum theatre. Ladies of the 35s Committee stood up in the circle with umbrellas bearing the slogan “USSR stop Anti-Semitism”.
The demonstrations were now having an effect. Within a few weeks, Panov was being told that if he behaved himself and there were no further demonstrations by his friends abroad, he would probably receive permission-to leave the Soviet Union.
But after three protest-free months, it was clear by the autumn that the Soviet authorities were in
No hurry to honour their word.
Actress Janet Suzman then asked Equity, the actors’ union, to boycott actors and musicians connected with the Russian ballet. This induced the first “concession” from the Soviet authorities. They told Panov that he could go. But his wife, Galina, had to stay because of objections from her mother.
Panov refused to leave without her, and she in turn rejected suggestions that she should divorce him.
It was against this background that Panov’s friends in the west appealed to the European Conference for Peace and Security in Geneva to raise the question of the Panovs. Meanwhile, he took things into his own hands and began a hunger strike. In a moment of despair, he said: “Our talents are draining away, our professional deaths will be followed by our physical deaths. I see no end to this hunger strike.”
Leading actors gathered outside the Soviet Embassy in London on November 6. But even Lord Olivier was snubbed by officials and had to wait more than two hours before someone would receive him.
Panov’s fast lasted for 21 days. And he threatened to resume it if there was no progress in his application.
The emigration authorities replied by saying he had to be out of the country by January 10 but affirmed that he could not, under any circumstances, take his wife with him.
In London Equity issued a statement saying that it was under great pressure to launch a boycott of Soviet artists.
By the beginning of the year it was clear that the struggle was moving to a climax. Either the Panovs would get out or Valery would face many years in a Soviet labour camp. Galina appealed to Premier Kosygin, contradicting her mother’s bigoted abuse of her husband.
In March Panov’s birthday was toasted by the cream of the theatrical world. In the United States, a tour by the Kim was abruptly called off. The last stage of the struggle revolved around the London visit of the famous Bolshoi Ballet Company. Members of the Sadler’s Wells Trust, the Bolshoi’s sponsors in Britain, faced the prospect of organised and militant demonstrations.
There seemed every likelihood that the Panov affair could embarrass not only the Soviets but the Americans too on the eve of President Nixon’s trip to Moscow.
Last week British Prime Minister Harold Wilson wrote to Premier Kosygin asking that the Panovs should be allowed to emigrate. On Thursday, Lords Olivier, Drogheda and Goodman called on the Soviet ambassador. Twenty-four hours later Downing Street expressed its pleasure at the news that the Panovs were going to get their visa.
The Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry (the 35s) said that it would carry on with its planned anti-Bolshoi demonstrations. The first one was on Sunday as the dancers arrived in London. “Our campaign is not against the Bolshoi Ballet,” spokeswoman Doreen Gainsford said, “but against the Soviet Government and the fact that there are more than 100,000 applications for exit visas which have been refused, delayed or remain unanswered.”
Jewish Observer 14 June 1974