Ice Scathing: Why Russia’s Holocaust on Ice Isn’t As Bad As People Think

Two Russian figure skaters are getting iced for a performance featuring striped prison uniforms, stars of David, and big grins on their faces. Aired on Russian prime-time television, the performance was meant to allude to Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film about the Holocaust, but many saw it as a mockery or a prank targeting a tragic moment in history.

Out of context, grinning ice skaters in prison outfits does not sound good. But before you judge, see how it looks:

At the forefront of any discussion of the Holocaust must be recognition of the magnitude of the tragedy and respect for its victims. Yes, perhaps these ice skaters could have made the critical or commemorative aspect of their performance more prominent. But before jumping to judge them as making a mockery of tragedy, it’s worth exploring the context and connotations of their history on ice.

First, the background. Their ice performance isn’t just a take on the Holocaust: it’s a take on Roberto Benigni’s take on the Holocaust. In Life is Beautiful, a father is sent to a concentration camp with his young son, and tries to shelter his child from trauma by pretending that their imprisonment is a game. For the purposes of “Ice Age,” the hit ice skating TV show, skaters Tatianna Navka and Andrey Burkovsky adapted the plot of Life is Beautiful for the rink.

Ilya Averbukh, the show’s producer and the couple’s skating coach, said of the decision, “The show [this week] was devoted to great Western films….[We] chose to base our performance on Life Is Beautiful, a great film, in order to remind people about this terrible tragedy that happened to humanity.”

The next critique: how can all that smiling represent a “terrible tragedy”? In the words of Averbukh, “they’re smiles on the verge of tragedy.”

If that’s tough to swallow, look at the performance itself. At the very start, the couple’s faces show the weight of what they’re facing; the voiceover is the father’s promise of a prize if his son plays well. There’s a precise moment (0:34) when they break into smiles — notably, while looking down at their (pantomimed) child. The rest of the performance is precisely that: a performance — an attempt to hide what’s going on from their son. Some of the goofier moments (miming being shot, the Heil Hitler salute) are uncomfortable, but if you watch the whole way through, the subtext of fear and mourning persists: at one point, the wife gives in to sadness, but her husband reminds her to keep up the act (2:07); at the end, the father says farewell to his family, and the mother cradles their child while the gunshots that kill her husband ring in the background (3:17 until the end). The emotion on her face does not look like a mockery.

Navka — who has gotten extra flak for her role in light of her recent marriage to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov — said of the performance, “It had a lot of soul in it….We showed that people during those horrible times lived and loved until the very end.”

As a final note, as the act ends, the commentator explains the tragedy the skaters are depicting and the plot of the movie their performance is based on. Russians watching the show had that context.

Navka and Burkovsky’s performance can be defended as a mournful and nuanced depiction of the Holocaust (or at least, a movie depicting the Holocaust). There are problematic moments, but they shouldn’t eclipse the underlying motive.

Beyond the performance itself, the critiques leveled at Navka and Burkovsky are troubling in themselves for three reasons.

Art is meant to use different styles and moods to approach a topic. It can be beautiful or purely tragic; play or push buttons. It’s often problematic. And that’s how it should be: not just something pretty to look at, but a means for bringing up questions, even painful ones. Art shouldn’t just offer an aesthetic perspective; it should open up new perspectives, too. Navka emphasized the importance of memory, and said of the negative international reaction, “It means we are forcing people to think.”

Some commentators’ responses come from prevalent biases about Russia, rather than engagement with the performance itself. Russia is often in the limelight in Western media, and the focus is often on a country (both government and people, supposedly) that’s dismissive of human rights and intolerant to the West and Western values. There’s truth to that. But there’s also intolerance in presuming that that’s what’s going on in this ice show. Even for folks who see the playful parts of the act as overpowering, the act has poignant moments and an intention of highlighting tragedy, rather than mocking it. The tendency to gloss over intentions and assume the worst is part of why US-Russia relations are in their present state.

Most importantly, this should be divorced from politics and international relations, tense or otherwise. There are many memorials to victims of the Holocaust, and not all of them resonate. In the words of Alla Gerber, founder of Moscow’s Holocaust Center Foundation, “The Holocaust wasn’t just destruction; it entailed tremendous resistance: resistance of the spirit, of human qualities, of human dignity. If this dance dedicated to the Holocaust contained all that, I see nothing wrong in it.”

What matters is not to let the memory die and not to let it happen again. By condemning artists aiming to commemorate lives lost — regardless of whether or to what extent they succeed — we build up more divisions rather than healing those of the past.