The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russians make figure skating better, but Putin has turned the sport into a battleground

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a concert marking the eighth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. (Sergei Guneyev/AFP/Getty Images)

Just briefly, it was tempting to feel sorry that Russians are banned from the world figure skating championships. Anyone who follows the sport appreciates the Russian combination of sonorous drama and technical supremacy. Wouldn’t they be missed, and might not it be an injustice to penalize individuals for the state? But then Russian skaters stood on that cold stage next to Vladimir Putin at his pro-war rally, wearing Zs on their jackets along with their Olympic medals. Sympathy froze.

The world championships could never have been a peaceable event under these circumstances. Among those who brandished their nationalism along with their medals at Putin’s chiller of a rally at Luzhniki Stadium were Olympic pairs skaters Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and ice dancers Nikita Katsalapov and Victoria Sinitsina. Putin’s authoritarian regime has always used sports to “export a currency” of power and prestige, as NBC commentator Johnny Weir says. And there’s no extricating individual Russian skaters from that, no matter how blameless some of them may be or how subject to coercion or censorship.

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There really is no such thing as a “sports truce,” and figure skating, more than any other sport on the globe at the moment, represents a front or small proxy skirmish, both on and off the ice, given its complicated Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian ties. Legendary Russian men’s champion Evgeni Plushenko, who has become an influential coach in Moscow, made a campaign video for Putin’s rewrite of the constitution and was at the pro-war rally, singing. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov is married to former ice dancer Tatiana Navka, an influential figure who heads up state-sponsored Channel One ice shows that skaters count on for post-Olympic work.

If you still believe in the truce myth, consider Viktor Petrenko’s situation. Petrenko, the 1992 men’s Olympic champion, was born in Odessa, reared in the Soviet system and became the first Olympic flag-bearer for an independent Ukraine at the Lillehammer Games. This past winter, he accepted an invitation to skate in one of Navka’s ice productions. After it concluded in January, Petrenko decided to go back to Ukraine for a visit — where he became trapped in Kyiv as the invasion began. Weir, who was once coached by Petrenko, believes he has since reached safety based on a text exchange. But, Weir says, “I didn’t ask where he was in case things are tracked or people are being watched in any way.” Petrenko’s wife, Nina, who according to Weir is working for Ukrainian relief in New York, did not respond to emails.

These are the tensions in figure skating at the moment, and there is no reason to think they will be relieved any time soon. “There is spillover,” Weir observes. In fact, things may grow worse. Back in 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea just after the Sochi Games, feelings ran so high on a post-Olympic ice tour that a fight broke out when a Russian skater mocked some Ukrainian skaters. “It was a brawl,” Weir recalls. “It was Russians and Ukrainians, and very not nice.”

Skating is such a small and enclosed world, so heavily populated at the top with Russians and Ukrainians, with so many relationships, rivalries and affections, that the Kremlin’s slaughterous invasion has detonated on an intensely personal level. Some of the entanglements date from the 1990s, when a number of Russian coaches and athletes moved to the United States to train after the collapse of their economy. Among them was one of Weir’s coaches, Galina Zmievskaya, who works at the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J. — as does her daughter Nina, who married Petrenko. For a time Navka, wife of Peskov, also lived and trained out of skating hubs in Connecticut and New Jersey.

“For the most part, we try to see each other as people,” Weir says. “ … Russians have performed in Ukraine, and Ukrainians have performed in Russia, and everyone knows everybody. So when you do hear callous remarks or things that are unacceptable, it’s shocking. And you don’t know how everybody is going to react.”

Not all Russian athletes are pro-Putin, of course, and it’s possible to admire Russian skating without admiring its underlying politics. There is, despite everything, so much to admire about the rigorous Russian tradition. Ballet is in its bones, which gives an inimitable quality to their great champions. “Dance is a part of their life and part of their upbringing; it’s not like here, where it’s a separate add-on,” says former gold medalist turned commentator Brian Boitano, who has raised $150,000 for Ukrainian relief. Boitano cites the feathery yet percussive greatness of Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, four-time world pairs champions, as “a master class of everything skating should be.”

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There is no question the Russian influence has beautified and elevated the sport. Weir famously became fluent in Russian and sought out Zmievskaya in his bid to compete on a par with Plushenko, whom he once idolized. On the eve of the world championships, American ice dancer Evan Bates was clearly conflicted that their quality would be absent in Montpellier, France, given the blanket ban.

“It’s really difficult when we condemn people based on where they come from and some factors that are out of their control,” Bates said, according to the Associated Press. “With the predicament the world is in, you know, the sort of mashing up of politics and sports, it’s very difficult to kind of detangle everything that’s gone on.”

But there is also near-universal resentment of the grief caused to Ukrainian peers. “I can’t generalize and say everyone in skating is a cultured person who knows better, but I can say the skating world stands with Ukraine and I certainly do,” says Weir, who has set his latest ice show routines to Ukrainian music and is conducting a subversive campaign on social media, trying to break through censorship with news items about the war.

Maybe no one is more representative of the complex war-driven emotions in skating at the moment than the Ukrainian ice dancers Alexandra Nazarova and Max Nikitin. The pair have spent time training out of Moscow, and during the Beijing Games, they sympathized with their Russian peers, who competed without a flag or anthem and were embroiled in controversy over state-sponsored doping — only to go home to Kharkiv, experience devastatingly heavy shelling and see Russian skaters on Putin’s stage wearing the Z. On Instagram, Nazarova expressed outrage, writing “Not so long ago we supported them in this difficult Olympic season, now they support the war against us and our country.”

Nazarova and Nikitin, who are scheduled to compete Friday and Saturday, are said to be changing their music and programs. They want their skating to reflect “what they are living through,” according to an International Figure Skating publication.

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