Rudolf Nureyev Defects at Paris-Le-Bourget


June 17, 1961:  On tour with the Kirov Ballet, the principal dancer Rudolf Nureyev embraced Paris, where he befriended a young woman named Clara Saint. The Central Committee in Moscow ordered Nureyev’s recall after the KGB’s embassy rezidents informed Moscow that his behavior was putting the Kirov’s security at risk. At the airport, Soviet officials informed him he would not be going to London with the rest of the troupe. The dancer Pierre Lacotte was at Le Bourget to see Nureyev off. Lacotte phoned Clara Saint, who approached the airport police.

“Clara knew that the French police were virulently anti-Communist and was betting on the chance that they might be eager to help. ‘Look, we can’t go to him, he has to go to us,’ they explained. ‘If he comes to us, then we’ll take care of everything.’

‘But how?’ Clara asked. ‘There are two men guarding him.’

The policeman promised to accompany Clara downstairs to the bar. She was to go first and order a coffee. They would follow ten minutes later and stand near her. When they had taken up their positions, she was to approach Rudolf again and explain to him that he had to go to them on his own.

Clara’s legs were ‘like rubber’ as she went to bid farewell to ‘poor Rudi’ one more time. ‘It’s so sad that he’s leaving,’ she lamented to Strizhevski, hoping to convince him that she was just an overwrought French girl. For added effect, she made a show of great affection to give the impression she was whispering something tender in Rudolf’s ear. ‘It’s so sad that you’re leaving us,’ she said for all to hear, and then, sotto voce, added, ‘See those two men at the bar? They’re waiting for you. You must go to them.’ As they exchanged one last kiss, Rudolf simply said, ‘Yes,’ as he kissed her cheek.

Five minutes later Rudolf bolted from his chair to the bar, a distance of just a few yards. ‘I want to stay in France,’ he cried in English just as Strizhevski and the other agent lunged and grabbed him. A tug-of-war ensued for a full minute.’That’s enough!’ the French police shouted at the Russians. ‘You are in France!’ At this, the Russians had no choice but to let go of Rudolf. As the French police ushered him upstairs, the embassy agents rushed to the phones to relay the bad news.”


Nureyev: His Life, Diane Solway, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1998.

Rudolf Nureyev’s debut on American television: