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A rehearsal of Vladimir Issaev’s rendition of “The Nutcracker” ballet, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. A rehearsal of Vladimir Issaev’s rendition of “The Nutcracker” ballet, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Dec. 13, 2019 (AP photo by Brynn Anderson).

The Nutcracker’s Hidden Political Agenda

Monday, Dec. 27, 2021

Editor’s note: Guest columnist Richard Gowan is filling in for Stewart Patrick.

The holiday season should be a good time to forget about work and take comfort in classic Christmas stories. Foreign policy analysts, with half an eye on events in Ukraine and Afghanistan, may struggle to relax this year. It’s hard to avoid noting echoes of world events.

A few years ago, I rewrote the tale of the Three Wise Men and the baby Jesus as a parable about international negotiations for World Politics Review; a lot of the story revolves around the wise men haggling with Herod about where to find the Messiah. This year, I’ve been thinking about “The Nutcracker,” which packs ballet houses worldwide at this time of year.

Even if you are not a ballet fan, you probably know the outlines of its rather limited plot, which Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky set to music in 1892. The original story, by the German author E.T.A. Hoffmann is quite dark, as so many famous folk tales are—but we’ll leave that aside. 

A little girl called Clara gets a nutcracker from her mysterious godfather Drosselmeyer at a party. After she falls asleep that night, she dreams that the Nutcracker is leading an army of her brother’s toy soldiers against a Mouse King and his mousey army. Cue a big battle that, as a small boy, I thought was the only good bit of the show. The mice lose. Clara and the Nutcracker enter a wonderful Land of Sweets ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy. There are lots of dances generally designed to make small boys get fidgety. Clara eventually wakes up.

For most audiences, this is a children’s story and nothing more. Obviously, there is a Freudian reading, which is that this is all about Clara growing up and learning about love. That happens to be right, as in Hoffmann’s story, it turns out that the Nutcracker is Drosselmeyer’s nephew, and he and Clara go off to live in the Land of Sweets forever. Like I said, dark and best left alone.

It’s hard to see that this has much to do with international relations. And yet the ballet is all about conflict and the origins of international cooperation, at least according to musicologist and historian Damien Mahiet. To see why, it’s important to heed the ballet’s historical context.

Tchaikovsky composed the score for “The Nutcracker” during the reign of Tsar Alexander III, who was an authoritarian at home but was keen on diplomacy abroad. After taking the throne in 1881, he avoided war, earning the nickname “the Peacemaker.” He also wanted to improve Russia’s relations with France—and this is where the battle between the mice and toy soldiers comes in. 

While “The Nutcracker” may look like a piece of festive escapism, it is also possible to see it as an illustration of the emergence of a stable international system from the turmoil of war.

As Mahiet notes, this episode has musical parallels with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which commemorated Russia’s victory against Napoleon during the War of 1812. It would be easy, then, to suppose that “The Nutcracker” was intended as a more coded celebration of Russia’s decisive win. Although the combatants are rodents and toys, the battle offers a “dark scenario of annihilation,” Mahiet says, as the Mouse King and his followers are totally defeated. 

But Tchaikovsky’s intentions may have been more complicated. We know that in the very first production of the ballet, which Alexander apparently enjoyed, the Nutcracker and his troops were dressed in versions of French uniforms from the Revolutionary era. Mahiet thinks Tchaikovsky was actually attempting to show the French in a more sympathetic light, reflecting Alexander’s desire to forge better ties with Paris after a century of frequent war.

The second half of the ballet also plays into Alexander’s political agenda. As part of their tour of the Land of Sweets, the Nutcracker and Clara see a series of dances by characters representing Spain, Arabia, France and Russia. These are generally considered to be musically unimportant. But Mahiet argues that this sequence was meant to conjure up the idea of a “concert of nations”: A more-or-less harmonious international order of the type Alexander hoped to achieve through diplomacy. 

The ballet originally ended with another political metaphor. The libretto indicates that the spectacle should culminate with a scene involving a “large beehive of bees closely guarding their riches.” Modern productions typically drop this, presumably because artistes who have already had to pretend to be belligerent mice and toy soldiers draw the line at doing a bee dance. But it may have been intended to symbolize Russians working together in an orderly and beneficial fashion under Alexander’s strict rule.

So while “The Nutcracker” may look like a piece of festive escapism, it is also possible to see it as an illustration of the emergence of a stable international system from the turmoil of war. With Russia’s long-standing complaints about NATO’s intrusion into its neighborhood, including Ukraine, at their height in the headlines, Mahiet’s reading of the ballet—which involves a range of cultural, musical and political references to which I can’t do proper justice here—is a reminder that Moscow’s relations with the West have ebbed and flowed.

A more forward-looking foreign policy analysis could also suggest novel alternative interpretations. Perhaps the toy soldiers who come to life to fight the mice foreshadow the new era of Lethal Autonomous Weapons—or “killer robots”—that military ethicists fear will massively disrupt the rules of war. Perhaps the mice themselves stand for a new era of bioweapons. In Hoffmann’s tale, the Mouse King is, after all, a mutant with seven heads.

It wouldn’t be too hard to rework Tchaikovsky’s supposed metaphors for Russia’s relations with France into an allegory for the changing nature of warfare. But it could just be the story of a girl, her Nutcracker and some naughty mice. Simple explanations have their own charm too.

Richard Gowan is the U.N. director of the International Crisis Group. From 2013 to 2019, he wrote a weekly column for WPR. Follow him on Twitter at @RichardGowan1.

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