Valentina Kozlova was born on August 26, 1957, in Moscow. She joined a children’s ballet company at the age of seven. Two years later, she applied for a spot at the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy. This is one of the oldest and most challenging ballet schools in the world. Out of 30,000 applicants, Valentina placed first.
When Valentina turned 16, she was selected to dance in the Bolshoi Ballet company. The Bolshoi, which was founded in 1776, is one of the most famous ballet companies in the world.
Moscow is now the capital of Russia. Valentina grew up during the Cold War, when Russia was a republic of the communist-led Soviet Union. The Cold War was an era of hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union, which started after World War II. While the United States promoted capitalism and democracy, the Soviet Union believed communism was the answer and had authoritarian politics. Life under the strict communist regime meant that there was no freedom of speech or freedom of the press. The government spied on regular citizens and punished them harshly if they spoke out against the country’s leaders.
Valentina first traveled outside of the Soviet Union when the Bolshoi performed in Western Europe in 1973. It was a shock for her to see people happy. All her life, Valentina was told that the Soviet Union was the best country in the world and that citizens in capitalist countries lived miserable lives under government oppression. On this trip, she realized that was not true.
Later that same year, she visited the United States to perform with the Bolshoi. While in New York City during this trip, she got to know fellow Bolshoi dancer Leonid Kozlov. They fell in love and married two months later.
The cultural rivalry of the Cold War had inspired the Soviet Union to send Valentina and the Bolshoi Ballet to dance in the United States. Even ballet styles between the two countries were different. The Soviets focused more on technique, while the American ballet style favored expressive performances. By having the Bolshoi perform in the United States, the Soviet Union wanted to show off what they believed to be superior ballet dancers.
After dancing at the Bolshoi for two years, Valentina was promoted to principal dancer. She danced the lead roles in classic ballets like Swan Lake, Pinocchio, and Sleeping Beauty. However, Valentina felt like something was missing. At the Bolshoi, she could only dance classical ballets. During her trips outside the Soviet Union, she had seen Western ballet companies dance contemporary works, and she longed to do the same.
In 1979, the Bolshoi Ballet once again traveled internationally to perform in the United States. Valentina and Leonid appeared in Romeo and Juliet in Los Angeles on September 16, 1979. After the performance, they went missing backstage. The ballet company’s officials searched for them everywhere, but the Kozlovs were nowhere to be found.
The next evening, American government officials announced that Valentina and Leonid had defected from the Soviet Union. They had been granted political asylum in the United States.
Valentina and Leonid were not the first Bolshoi dancers to defect during this trip. On August 21, while the company was in New York, fellow dancer Alexander Godunov requested asylum in the United States.
“Walking on the streets of New York a few months after, a wonderful sense of freedom swept over me—a freedom you can breathe, a freedom you can taste in the air! Only those who have lived in Russia, or under a dictatorship, can understand that feeling of freedom.”
Leaving the Soviet Union had major implications for defectors. It would be too dangerous for them to return home, as they were likely to be imprisoned and could even be executed. This meant that they would never be able to see their friends and family again. There were no other ways to communicate with people in the Soviet Union either, as phone lines and mail were restricted and monitored. If defectors tried to contact their families back home, it could put their relatives in serious danger as the Soviet government surveilled its citizens.
On October 8, Valentina and Leonid first spoke publicly about their defection. After the performance, Valentina and Leonid had changed quickly into street clothes and snuck out an unguarded back door. They told the press that they had