By Hiro Yoshida with Seán Gillis
This interview will be translated into Japanese and published in the upcoming issue of Figure Skate Life magazine. With the permission of the magazine publisher, we have been authorised to release an English version online prior to the magazine’s release. Therefore, we prohibit any unauthorised copying or translation of this article. Thank you for your cooperation and understanding.
On 24 February, life changed completely for Oleksandra Nazarova and Makysm Nikitin when Russia invaded their home country. After escaping the heavily bombarded city of Kharkiv, the Ukrainian ice dancers delivered a powerful message through their performance at the World Championships in Montpellier, France.
The day before the invasion was totally ordinary. Nazarova and Nikitin had recently arrived back in Ukraine from the Beijing Olympic Games to spend some time with their families before returning to preparations for the upcoming World Championships.
“We were busy with normal things,” Nikitin said.
“We could go outside, have a coffee, take a walk,” Nazarova added.
Overnight their lives were turned upside down as the Russian army began shelling their hometown.
“The next day from 4am, everyone in the city started to wake up after the first explosion,” Nikitin recalled. “Actually, I missed the first explosion and my parents called me right away. The first thing they said was, ‘The Russians are attacking Ukraine.’ And then there were explosions after explosions after explosions, and we started to pack our stuff.”
“Just important documents in a small case and money and some clothes,” Nazarova said.
“We understood we should leave right away after one minute,” Nikitin said. “We searched for a safe place, and we started to check the news to one hundred per cent understand what had happened.
“Everything started to get worse after that. They started shooting civilian houses. They started killing so many civilians. Not just the people from the army. Just ordinary people and even kids, even children.”
“We couldn’t imagine it’s going to continue because after the first couple of days we were thinking, ‘Okay, they’re going to stop. They’re going to do a couple days of this crazy thing, and then everything will stop,” Nazarova said. “But day by day, we understood it’s not going to stop. It’s just the beginning.”
Nazarova and Nikitin hid in bomb shelters for weeks on end before Nazarova and then Nikitin finally escaped to Poland. During their ordeal, competing at the World Championships was the farthest thing from their minds.
“We didn’t know we could come to compete at all,” Nazarova said. “We were just thinking about how we can survive in this situation, how we and all our family can be safe. Just about this.”
When they reached safety in Torun, Poland, there were only three days for the Ukrainians to prepare for the World Championships. They made the decision to change the music for their “Hit the Road Jack” rhythm dance and, with the assistance of figure skating music designer Hugo Chouinard and his partner composer Karl Hugo, they put together a programme they believed was more appropriate given the situation in Ukraine.
“We decided we cannot perform our rhythm dance in its original version because it’s not the time to be nice and funny,” Nikitin said. “We cannot wear our shiny costumes.”
“Usually, we mostly skate for the audience, not for the judges,” Nazarova said. “This time, we couldn’t give any positive emotions to the people because we don’t feel it.”
The two pieces of music they chose to use for their new rhythm dance were “1944” by Jamala, which refers to the forced deportation of Crimean Tatars from Ukraine by the Soviet Union, and the Ukrainian folk song “Oi u luzi chervona kalyna” (in English “Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow”) sung by Andriy Khlyvnyuk, lead singer of Ukrainian band Boombox, in a video he posted dressed in military fatigues and holding a gun in Kyiv and remixed by South African musician The Kiffness. Through the performance of the routine in Montpellier, Nazarova and Nikitin wanted to give a warning to the world and show the defiance and resilience of the Ukrainian people.
“We did not decide to compete,” Nikitin said. “We decided to show the world what is happening in Ukraine. We decided to speak with every person who is outside Ukraine and explain what is really happening and try to say to them, ‘Be careful’. Because on 23 February our life was normal. Everything was fine. We are saying everything can change just like that.”
“We’ve been there,” Nazarova said. “We saw everything. We heard everything.”
“We saw the tanks,” Nikitin said. “We saw their army and airplanes. We saw these explosions. We saw people with guns. We saw Russians.
“The song by Jamala – the words she’s singing are so right.”
“She’s explaining exactly what we feel right now,” Nazarova said. “Exactly what is happening in Ukraine. Everything. That’s why we chose this piece of the music.”
“The first part (of the programme) is a message for the whole world and the second part, is a message for Ukrainian people,” Nikitin said.
“The guy who sings the second part is saying ‘We are not giving up’,” Nazarova said. “We’re going to fight until the end and we’re going to win.”
“What was so important for us was to support our country,” Nikitin said. “We try to send a message to Ukrainians – don’t give up. We will win and everything will be fine.”
On the afternoon of Friday, 25 March, Nazarova and Nikitin took to the ice in their team uniforms at the Sud de France Arena in Warm-Up Group 5 of the rhythm dance at the World Championships to extended applause both before and after they performed their programme. However, their minds were elsewhere during the event.
“We are not counting the time before competition or after competition,” Nikitin said. “Right now, we are counting the time before war and after war and then until the time the war finishes.
“We are so sad. We are so pissed. We are so angry with the Russians because of what they did and what they do. What Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine is fascism and it’s horrible. A lot of people already died. A lot of kids, just kids. It’s not an army. It’s not our politicians. It’s not some bad guys. It’s just children. I don’t know what kind of people are the people we see attacking hospitals where there are so many sick kids. Can you imagine this?”
Nazarova and Nikitin finished in sixteenth place in the rhythm dance and withdrew from the free dance as they felt it was inappropriate to skate their upbeat “Moulin Rouge!” routine while their fellow countrymen were dying. They had made their point and the result of the competition was irrelevant, especially considering what is happening in their homeland.
“Some journalists asked us after our performance, how it was, what we think, was it difficult for us or not,” Nikitin said. “We told them it’s so difficult for us not because of the competition, not because we are not ready. It’s difficult because we know in that moment for these three minutes when we skate, we don’t know and we don’t want this, but probably somebody in Ukraine dies and probably it’s a child.
“When we stepped on the ice, we think about this. We think about our parents who are there.”
“We didn’t know if they could watch us when we skated,” Nazarova said.
“It’s just one moment when a bomb is coming and that’s it,” Nikitin said. “It is really one second that can take down a huge building and kids and everyone who is there.”
“We couldn’t think about skating at the moment when we skated,” Nazarova said. “Our minds were in Ukraine with the Ukrainian people.”
Nazarova and Nikitin trained in Moscow, Russia under Alexander Zhulin (former Olympic medallist and coach to 2006 Olympic champions Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov) between 2013 and 2016. They resumed working with Zhulin in late 2019. Despite documenting what was happening in Ukraine on their social media from the beginning of the invasion, the Ukrainians did not receive any message from Zhulin enquiring about their well-being and were also not contacted by any other Russian coaching staff or training partners, including 2022 ice dance Olympic silver medallists Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov.
“Until the Olympic Games, we had a good relationship, and we were friends with all the Zhulin team, with each coach, with each sportsman who is working there,” Nikitin said. “But from when the Russians attacked Ukraine, they didn’t write to us any message. They didn’t contact us at all. They just posted something like ‘Instagram probably will not work in Russia so try to find us in different places.”
“They just disappeared,” Nazarova added.
The ultimate betrayal for the Ukrainians was when Sinitsina and Katsalapov appeared at a mass gathering at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow for a pro-war rally attended by Putin wearing the Russian nationalist “Z” symbol pinned to their Russian Olympic Committee uniforms. Russian skaters were barred from competing at this year’s World Championships and Nazarova and Nikitin believe the participation by Russian athletes in political rallies shows why the ban is justified.
“The Russians right now are complaining about why they cannot compete at the World Championships,” Nikitin said. “But they were at the huge meeting with Vladimir Putin at the moment when people in Ukraine were dying. They were in their Olympic wear with the Olympic medal around their necks and on their chests was the Russian fascist swastika, and it means they are outside of politics, that they are not supporting this war?
“Everyone who is talking at these meetings, they are always saying Russia is trying to help Ukraine. They say they are trying to help Ukrainian people who speak Russian, because they cannot live in Ukraine.
“Originally, we speak Russian and our city, this city is so close to Russia, and most of the people who are living there, they speak Russian and right now, we are fighting for them.
“They say, ‘We are trying to help.’ No, they just want to kill us because we speak Russian and we are proud of Ukraine. We like to live in Ukraine. Our life there was, is free. Everything is fine. If we have some problem, it’s our problem. It is a problem in our country, and we want to manage this problem by ourselves. It’s just concerning Ukrainians.
“We were such big friends with Vika and Nikita. It was so difficult to see how they are supporting their President who is killing our Ukrainian people.
“I understand it’s impossible to say anything to Vika and Nikita. For sure they saw what Russia is doing in Ukraine. For sure they saw what they need to, because we posted a lot of videos from our city, photos which we took.”
“I posted the pictures from my window, from my house,” Nazarova said.
“Still, they don’t care,” Nikitin said.
“It’s their choice that they already made,” Nazarova said.
“We cannot do anything about this and we don’t want to because we don’t care about them,” Nikitin said. “We don’t care about Russia; we don’t care about Vladimir Putin. We just care about our country, and about our freedom.”
While the lack of empathy from their former coach and training partners was distressing, the support from fellow skaters all over the world after the war started has been uplifting. Nazarova recalled how Olympic champion Gabriella Papadakis reached out to her and encouraged her to make the journey to France for the World Championships.
“Gabriella was texting me almost every day,” Nazarova said. “She asked me about my family, about Maksym, about everybody who I love in Ukraine. Before we didn’t really speak to each other. We were not close friends. But from this time, I understood who is my real friend.
“She said, ‘If you need any kind of support or help, you can ask always. We will manage this.’ One day she was asking me to please come to Montpellier. ‘You need to come. It doesn’t matter how you skate, if you cannot prepare. You can come to Canada. You can skate with us.’ She wanted to help, and she did. She said if our federation could not send us to Montpellier, the French Federation will help. She said, ‘Just please agree and accept the invitation.’
“The day we arrived in Montpellier, we went on the ice with the Montreal teams – three American and one Lithuanian couple. From the first minute we stepped on the ice, they started clapping. All the audience, all the athletes, coaches, everybody. And without them, without this support, we couldn’t skate that short. That’s the power we took from them, from every person and that’s why we could skate for our people.”
“All this support was not just from the Montreal teams or just from Gabriella,” Nikitin said. “A lot of people sent messages for me, for Sasha when we were still in Ukraine every day. Most of these people were not close friends and everyone tried to help us. I think you saw a lot of people at the World Championships, a lot of sportsmen made some Ukrainian flags like hearts or Ukrainian symbols which was so supportive.
“After our performance, we got so many messages from Ukrainian people. Some of them said, ‘Thank you so much because we could not imagine how much the world is supporting us.’
“A lot of people were supporting us, and it was incredible. It’s so important right now for Ukrainians because a lot of them cannot find a safe place. They really are just trying to survive. They said, ‘Thank you for this because at least for the three minutes we don’t think about war.”
“We will never forget this support from these people,” Nazarova said.
“We are from different countries, but everyone was against the war,” Nikitin said. “It gave us so much strength and it’s helping Ukraine.
“A lot of people in Ukraine speak in a different language. Some in Russian, some in Ukrainian, some in a language which is close to Polish. We have a lot of languages in Ukraine, but right now nobody cares about them. Everyone is one part, like one piece of rock and this rock will kill all the Russian army and I hope the Russian President and Russian terrorist Vladimir Putin.”
Following the World Championships, Nazarova and Nikitin returned to Poland. With the war in their country still raging on and no end in sight, their future remains unclear.
“The situation right now is really so difficult, and we don’t have any plans for the future,” Nikitin said. “Right now, our Polish friends give us some place where we can stay.”
“They support us a lot, but our luggage is always packed,” Nazarova said. “We don’t know if we are going to go somewhere today or tomorrow. We are just looking for a job or something and then if we can stay somewhere for work. We don’t know. We will try to help our families.”
The Ukrainians also aim to continue inspiring their countrymen through their performances and use their voices and all their might to bring an end to the war.
“We couldn’t imagine how important it was for Ukrainians,” Nikitin said. “A lot of people tell us. It’s the messages. It’s not hundreds. It’s more than a thousand messages which we got. Each one says it was so important. Maybe we’ll try to find some place where we can speak more about this, where we can show our programme, where we can support and where we can do things for our victory, victory for Ukraine.”
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Thank you for the story of this incredible couple & their experiences. I had the privilege of seeing them & their colleagues skate in Montpellier, unforgettable! 💙💛🇺🇦