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MOSCOW (Reuters) - An unknown attacker threw acid in the face of the artistic director of Russia's prestigious Bolshoi Ballet, endangering his eyesight, in what police and colleagues said on Friday was the culmination of a two-week campaign of intimidation.
Sergei Filin, a former leading dancer at the Bolshoi who has been in the high-pressure job at the heart of Russian culture for nearly two years, was attacked outside his Moscow apartment building as he returned from the theatre late on Thursday.
Such is the power and prestige of the post in Russian life that Anatoly Iksanov, director of the Bolshoi, said he believed the attack was a product of envy or rivalry.
Filin, 42, had already reported having his car tyres slashed and his emails hacked, as well as receiving repeated nuisance calls from someone who stayed silent when he answered.
The culprit "should be sought among those for whom it was beneficial to compromise the theatre leadership", Iksanov told reporters.
"This two-week campaign has ended tragically and despicably," he said.
Iksanov said Filin had told him he believed he had been followed home, and that the attacker had called him by name before throwing acid on his face.
"There are very serious burns on his face, in his ears, his forehead, his mouth, and of course there are serious concerns about his eyesight," he said.
Ekho Moskvy radio said Filin had suffered third-degree burns and that doctors believed it would take him at least six months to recover. Channel One television said doctors were "trying to save his eyesight".
Bolshoi spokeswoman Yekaterina Novikova said Filin would be flown to a specialist burns centre in Brussels later on Friday after an urgent operation on his eyes.
The Bolshoi, which has both ballet and opera troupes, reopened last February after a six-year renovation to its landmark colonnaded building, close to Red Square in the very centre of Moscow.
As a symbol of Russian culture for more than 200 years, it is a big draw for both locals and foreign tourists, and has seen power struggles among both dancers and directors throughout its history.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of those conflicts, whether driven by egos or artistic convictions, have been played out in public.
After the tightly controlled three-decade tenure of Yuri Grigorovich ended in 1995, the Bolshoi Ballet went through five artistic directors before Filin's appointment.
In 2003 Iksanov dismissed ballerina Anastasia Volochkova after reportedly saying she was too heavy for male dancers to lift, and in 2011 a senior ballet manager resigned after a scandal over sexually explicit photographs.
Filin, a Moscow native, joined the Bolshoi's ballet troupe in 1988 and was named its artistic director in March 2011.
Filin's mother, Natalya, said he had been threatened but that she did not know who could have been behind the attack, state-run RIA news agency reported.
"What's important to me now is the health of my son, that he does not lose his eyesight," she said. (Editing by Kevin Liffey)