By Hiro Yoshida
The announcement by Ukrainian ice dancers Oleksandra Nazarova and Makysm Nikitin earlier this month brought me right back to February and March this year as the horror of what was unfolding in twenty-first century Europe became clear. As we approach the six-month anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I have been reflecting on how, from the perspective of someone who writes about figure skating, these events have left a deep impression on me.
In light of what was happening in Ukraine, I proposed to the editor of one of the Japanese magazines I work for to do an interview with Nazarova and Nikitin in Montpellier, France at the World Championships. I had followed their careers since they won a bronze medal at the 2015 Junior World Championships in Tallinn, Estonia. I was dismayed seeing their social media posts from their hometown of Kharkiv as they and other civilians were being bombed by Russian forces. Although I did not know them that well, I sent them some messages of concern and support as any normal person who sees others in distress would do. I was shocked to find out that their former coach and training partners back in Russia had not even done that bare minimum.
Despite the challenges they faced in their preparations for Worlds, somehow Nazarova and Nikitin managed to give the performance of their careers in Montpellier. I do not know how anyone who saw their rhythm dance could not have been moved. I felt different emotions at the same time while watching them at Worlds – sadness, admiration, anger.
I will never forget the interview I did with them as long as I live. Hearing their accounts of what had happened to them, their families and their country since 24 February was upsetting. It is the only time I have ever cried during an interview. I cried again when I listened back to the recording as I transcribed Nazarova and Nikitin’s words. I cried again as I translated their words into Japanese for the magazine article. Even now as I write this and think about what they told me in the interview months ago, I feel emotional.
Like many of us outside of Ukraine, I felt helpless at what was going on and wanted to do something to bring the interview I did with Nazarova and Nikitin to even a slightly wider audience. I asked my editor if it would be possible to write an English version of the article for this website ahead of the magazine going on sale in Japan in mid-May. I was very grateful that she agreed, particularly given the fact that normally the articles I write are exclusively for the magazine and not available elsewhere prior to publication. You can read the English version of the interview here. The Japanese version can be read in Volume 27 of Figure Skate Life magazine.
This might be an obvious thing to say, but I am strongly anti-war and imperialism. Growing up in Japan, I learned about the horrors that my own country perpetrated on its neighbouring countries and other nations in Asia. I have also visited Hiroshima a number of times and learned about the cruel destruction caused by the atomic bomb dropped on that city in 1945. I could never have imagined there would be a country that would threaten to use even more devastating weapons in 2022.
Following the invasion of Ukraine, the ISU and other sporting bodies barred Russian athletes from competing internationally. This ban remains in place as I write this article. I know there are those who find this unfair and say sport and politics should be kept separate. In normal circumstances, I would agree. However, these are not normal circumstances. A country invading another sovereign country with the express purpose of overthrowing a democratically elected government is not politics. It is a violation of international law.
A small number of Russians have publicly criticised their government’s actions. On the other hand, some Russians, including a number of individuals within the Russian figure skating community, have openly supported what the Russian army is doing in Ukraine. It is unconscionable for anyone involved in sport to advocate for values that run contrary to its fundamental principles of peace and friendship. While the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, I believe there is no place in our sport for representatives of organisations or governments that do not publicly oppose war and destruction.
It is sad that Russian figure skaters cannot currently compete on the international stage. It is sad that they will lose out on championship titles, prize money and performing in shows overseas. There will be those who argue that Russian figure skaters are not responsible for what their government is doing in Ukraine. However, if you follow that train of thought, the same could be said for many ordinary Russian citizens who are now feeling the pinch of economic sanctions. It is actually quite a disturbing thing to say that Russians have no control over what Vladimir Putin or his government does when you think about it. In democracies, we have the ability to use our voices to change our government if they do things of which we do not approve. No country can wage a large-scale war like we are seeing in Ukraine without the cooperation of a large amount of its population. If Russians, whoever they may be, are not responsible for what their government is doing in Ukraine, then who is?
Ultimately, we all have a duty of care to the Ukrainians in our figure skating community who have seen their country and rink facilities destroyed and friends and families killed in an unprovoked assault by Russia. They have dealt with enough trauma over the past six months. The very least we can do is provide a safe environment where the symbols of those responsible for their trauma are not displayed. Let us not forget that they are in a fight for the very survival of their country.
I want to conclude by wishing Nazarova and Nikitin great success and good health in whatever path they choose to follow and thank them for all they have taught us. After the horrible months they and all of Ukraine have endured with such courage, I know there will be a bright future ahead for them. Their determination in the face of such unspeakable tragedy has moved so many of us and has been such an inspiration.
I sincerely hope this awful war that has been waged on Ukraine will end soon. Until then my thoughts inside and outside of figure skating will be solely with the Ukrainian people. I stand with them in solidarity.