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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Whirlwind's Wife Looks Back

Although 16 years have passed, former Bolshoi ballerina Ludmila Vlasova still has fond memories of her Sasha -- Bolshoi star Alexander Godunov, who defected from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1979 and died last month in California.


"He was a dancer of the world. On the stage he was like a whirlwind," said Vlasova. "I pray for his soul."


Vlasova, 53, who retired from the Bolshoi in 1982 and now choreographs for the Moscow Ice Ballet, has never forgotten the fear she felt after her husband defected. The ballerina spent three days in an Aeroflot jet at New York's Kennedy Airport. U.S. officials would not allow the jet to depart until they were satisfied that Vlasova had made her own decision about whether to stay in the U.S. or go home.


"I will never forget that nightmare," Vlasova said in an interview in the flat near Tverskaya Ulitsa that she used to share with Godunov. She could have easily left the aircraft with an FBI escort and joined her husband, who was being kept in a police van parked near the plane. But Vlasova said she did not go because she knew herself to be "too Russian" to live in the West.


"It maybe sounds strange today, but I loved my motherland and I loved my mom, and I knew she could never have survived that blow. Even if I had had 100 chances to stay there, I would have come home."


But Vlasova said she understood why Godunov left. "His motherland was brutal to him. He was always an independent and proud person, with his beautiful long hair. They [officials] wanted him to cut it. That's why he didn't like bureaucrats."


After returning to Moscow, Vlasova began dancing again. Among her roles were Beatrice in "Love for Love," Zarema in "The Fountain of Bakhchisarai," and the street dancer in "Don Quixote."


But the authorities wanted to cast her in a propaganda role.


The story of the loyal Soviet ballerina who refused to defect became widely known to ordinary Russians in the film "Flight 222" by the prominent director Sergei Mikaelyan.


The movie won a prize at the Alma-Ata festival "for best coverage of a patriotic theme." Vlasova disliked it. "He said he wanted to make a real love story," Vlasova said, "but he made a propagandistic cartoon."


While Godunov was exploring his new-found freedom in the West, dancing with the American Ballet Theatre, the KGB was scheming to lure the prodigal son back home. "They wanted him to come to Europe and to meet with me in East Berlin, but I canceled our meeting," Vlasova recalled. "I understood what they would do with him if he came."


The couple never met again after Godunov's defection. Their divorce became final in 1982, and Vlasova married the Bolshoi soloist Yury Stadnik. But she did speak with Godunov by phone. "He was calling me every day, promising to meet me somehow. He had a girlfriend [the Hollywood actress Jaqueline Bisset] who loved him. But personally, he was alone," Vlasova said, then mused: "You should change yourself inside to live in the West, but he couldn't do it. Somewhere deep inside, he understood that it was not his life."


Known for his long flaxen hair, brooding manner, and dramatic force, Godunov, whose best roles at the Bolshoi included Tybalt in "Romeo and Juliet" and Ivan in "Ivan the Terrible," never realized his potential in the West. Three years after defecting, he was fired from his job at American Ballet Theatre by his former friend, Mikhail Baryshnikov, the company's director. Godunov turned to a film career, but met with limited success.


Godunov was found dead May 18 at his home in West Hollywood. He was 45. His doctor declined to comment on the dancer's death, but a Godunov spokeswoman later said he had died of acute alcoholism.


"He lived like an actor in a tragedy," Vlasova said. "He loved like he was playing a tragic role. It was the mad love of a person who has never been forgotten inside my heart."