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04 May 2009 @ 10:06 pm
In depth Berezhnaya article. - part 1  
Original - http://mamalena.ru/admin/scanpages/scan40.jpg through http://mamalena.ru/admin/scanpages/scan49.jpg

I suddenly saw Shliakhov’s blade really close. I wanted to yell – “What are you doing!” but there wasn’t time. A hit in the temple, and I fall. A scarlet puddle grows on the ice.

The practice was drawing to a close when Shliakhov and I started having troubles with the triple toe loop. I fell several times. Oleg’s mouth twisted, and he squinted his eyes. I tried as hard as I could, but it wasn’t working.

“Get up, why are you playing zamboni?! A real cow you are! Lift those hands!” growled Oleg.

Finally, our coach Tamara Moskvina gave up and told us to wrap it up. Skating past me, Shliakhov painfully hit my shoulder and didn’t even glance back.

“Lena, stop by when you get a chance”, called Tamara Nikolayevna. I nodded.
In Nevinnomysk with mom.

I was used to the coach’s invitations. Moskvina well deserves her reputation of a good psychologist. It’s not for naught that she took us on – a promising pair with a “difficult partner”. Coaches all left us. They’d fire Oleg, and I’d lose the chance to practice along with him.

Moskvina was the one to invite us to Petersburg. She took it seriously, bringing in several professional psychologists who could work with Shliakhov regularly. Oleg was keeping a lid on it, but I could feel him just waiting for a spark to let out his aggression.

“Lena, come on in”, smiled Moskvina when I showed up at the coach’s doorstep.

Over the month we worked together, she asked many questions about my family, my parents, and my relationship with Oleg. At first, I was surprised at Tamara Nikolayevna’s questions. Why were we living together? I answered that he’s my partners, we’ve been practicing together for a long time, and that Oleg said we’d save money this way. We each have a room. There can never be any love between us, so when Oleg says I’m his girlfriend – it’s all a lie. Let him blab whatever he wants. Yeah, Shliakhov forbids me to talk to other skaters. That’s just a kind of person he is. I’m not much interested in looking at or talking to anyone either. I’m happy either way, why make him angry. No, at home he’s quiet, he doesn’t fight or yell. Just one thing – he often locks me in and leaves, and I just sit there on the sofa watching the TV. Of course he has all the money, I don’t need it anyway. What would I spend it on anyhow?

Tamara Nikolayevna never drew any conclusions, but just listened and nodded.

Those conversations usually started from practice analysis. That day, I thought we’d talk about the practice and why the jump wasn’t working. Yet Tamara Nikolayevna poured me some tea, pushed forward a bowl of cookies (“It’d do you good to gain a bit of weight!”), and kept silent. She then got up and walked up to the window behind my back.

“Here is what I wanted to talk to you about”. Moskvina paused. “Do you understand that you’re living in slavery, and there is just no other word for it?”

I was shocked. I just sat there silent. She went on, “Yes, it’s scary to end up without a partner. Perhaps, though, it’s better than to be with such a partner? Lena, you can’t change him. Don’t you see? You’re just nineteen, you’re strong, talented, and you can achieve a lot by yourself. Think about it.”

Her words were like thunder out of a clear sky. How can I be alone? Who needs me?

Still dazed, I walked out into the hallway. Shliakhov set there on a windowsill, “I thought you decided to spend the night there!”

     *    *    *
Step dad noticed my bruises as I was changing. “What’s that?!” he demanded. “Nina Ivanovna was showing me how to jump right…”

At home, it took me a long time to get to sleep. Moskvina’s words didn’t let me rest. Mom – that’s whom I urgently needed now.  But she wasn’t nearby, and for many years now I’ve been walking through life on my own, hardly understanding where I was headed or why.

     *    *    *
I was born very small, and only weighed seven kilos [1] by age one. Doctors diagnosed dystrophy. I cried a lot, both during the day and at night. I’d only fall asleep after being rocked so hard it was almost like shaking, together with the song “Enemy Windstorms”.

Mom wanted to find something for me to do. She tried to get me into ballet or dancing, but nobody wanted me. At four, I was at last let into a figure skating club. I was very flexible, almost like a contortionist. I loved whizzing by on the rink – a little fly in a pink dress.

I then acquired a real coach, Nina Ivanovna Ruchkina. She moved to Nevinnomyssk from a Moscow suburb together with her husband and two sons. She often needed to change jobs because of her temper. We, though, were ecstatic – “Nevinka is getting a real Moscow coach!” I was eight when I started working with her.

“How many times do I have to tell you to jump higher?!” I see the furrowed eyebrows, the lips pressed into a thin line, and the white knuckles drawn into a tight fist.

I jump again. Again, it’s no good. Nina Ivanovna roughly grabs me by the shoulder and twists me, trying to explain how I should jump. It’s so painful that I cry.

Lena (right) with coach Nina Ivanovna Ruchkina, famous for her "carrot and stick" method.

“Stop that wining and get to work!” yells Ruchkina.

I wipe away the tears and take the ice again. I jump as high as I can. It works!

“Good job!” Nina Ivanovna pets my head. “You can do it when you try.”

I never told mom about what was happening at practices. I really liked skating, and so I put up with it. In general, that’s how children are – they cry and then they forget. Also, I heard how Nina Ivanovna answered other parents when they’d go discuss their kids’ complaints with her, “How else can you talk to those bums? How can you make them work if they don’t understand the gentle touch?”

The moms and the dads would nod agreement – all wanted their kids to become champions and become somebodies.

It would likely continue this way, but one day my step dad noticed my bruises as I was changing.

“What’s that?!” he demanded.

“Nina Ivanovna was showing me hot to jump right…”

Uncle Misha shot out of the room. I don’t know what he said to her, but Ruchkina never laid a finger on me again.

Back then, cruelty in sport was considered the norm. Many coaches exerted both physical and psychological pressure on the athletes. At the summer training camps, Stanislav Zhuk often raised his voice, and one time a coach kicked a guy in the butt so hard he flew several yards. We just laughed as the poor kid was crying.
Cruelty in sport was the norm. Once, a coach kicked a guy so hard he flew several yards. We just laughed as the poor kid was crying.

At least I was living at home, which was a true blessing. My real dad liked to drink, as do many men in little towns like Nevinka. He’d be plastered by the time he got home. Mom kicked him out once, twice… They finally divorced when I was five. My stepfather brought up me and my brother. Uncle Misha was a good person, and did it without moralizing and tedium. We soon learned to love him. He cared for us as if we were his own. After that incident with Ruchkina, uncle Misha didn’t want me to go on skating.

“Why does she need it anyway?” he asked mom.

She just replied, “The child skates, and is good at it, so just let it go.”

      *    *    *

I was indeed the best in the group. One time, Ruchkina came up to me and said, “You wanted to try out pairs, so why not skate with my Sasha, and then you can go train at CSKA in Moscow.”

Nina Ivanovna dreamed of making her son a champion. Sasha was too weak for a pairs partner, and his mother looked for a light girl for him. I was perfect. I wasn’t too keen on it, though. Sasha was the only boy in our girls’ group, and we always mocked him for being so tall and awkward.

“No”, I said. “I changed my mind. I want to skate alone.”

The coach pressed on, but I just shook my head.

She realized it was pointless, and started talking to my mom instead. She talked of the golden mountains awaiting us in Moscow, and mom finally gave in.

I doubt she fully realized what I’d have to deal with at thirteen – a boarding school at a strange city, with practices from dawn till dusk. Today, in order to help their kids’ sports careers, moms quit their jobs, rent something in Moscow, and attend all practices just to be nearby; back then, that wasn’t an option.

As we were leaving, I was hoping we’d fail. “I have poor eyesight, that’s a no-no in pair skating.”

But we passed. Though coach Vladimir Viktorovich Zakharov asked me after seeing us skate, “Do you really want to skate with his boy?”

This was my last chance to get rid of Sasha. “No, I don’t!” said I.

Nina Ivanovna, though, was right there – “Of course she does! She can’t be without him!”
Zakharov shook his head, but didn’t argue.

The “army”[2] routine began. We lived at the CSKA dorm. Normally, it was reserved for the touring athletes. Those included many boxers, almost all of them machos from the Caucuses.[3] They all looked like bodybuilders. I cried every day, and was very homesick.

We went to the inter-city phone booth near the Sokol subway station every three days. “It’s all good, mom!” I’d say, scratching the dial with my nail. “Yes, Sasha and I are skating well, we’re getting praise, and it’s all fine.”

In reality, we didn’t skate well. I didn’t accomplish anything in the season. Sasha wasn’t cut out for pair skating. He could hardly lift me, and I was just 28 kilos [4]. Then Sasha would talk to his mom. He’d say the same thing – we’re skating well, it’s all good. Afterward, we’d gloomily stumble back to the dorm. Then there would be a new practice in the morning.

With the army influences, the CSKA figure skating school was especially cruel. Hazing was awful.  The girls had it especially tough. “How are you standing, you scarecrow! Go away before you learn it right!” “My partner is so fat, I should really beat her dome”.

And so they did. We, the little ones, saw it all and learned from our elders. The tradition of “beating the dome” passed on generation to generation. At thirteen and even later, I saw nothing wrong with this.

Then we got transferred to the boarding school, I got into the lessons, acquired some friends and it became easier.

When the season started, Zakharov beckoned Sasha and said, “Go and don’t come back.”

To me, he said, “I’ll figure out what to do with you.”

Nina Ivanovna came right away. She didn’t want to give up hope of making us into champions. She asked, pleaded, and insisted. Zakharov, though, was firm – the kid won’t become a skater, so why torture him.

When she finally realized she had no chance with the coach, she started with me. “Go back with us, what will you do alone here?”
"Do you understand that you’re living in slavery, and there is just no other word for it?" asked coach Tamara Nikolayevna Moskvina.

I saw those furrowed eyebrows and the pressed lips, and knew that if I’d give in, I’d always be under her control. I said no.

“Then please return the uniform, the skates, and the sneakers, I have to answer for them, you know!”

I took everything off and handed her the bag. “How will you skate without the skates?! Come back with us!”

I stared at the floor and was too scared to utter a sound. “You’ll regret this!” she muttered through her teeth, grabbed the bag, and left. I saw Nina Ivanovna one more time before they left. She just couldn’t come to terms with the loss. Seeing me, she almost cried compassionately, “How will you live here alone? Let’s go home, sweetie, you’ll be happier near your mom.”
“True,” I thought. “But I still won’t go anywhere with you.”

So I stayed. Vladimir Viktorovich Zakharov paired me with a boy my age. He had no clue about pair skating. We struggled through for a couple of months until Oleg Shliakhov freed up – he was dumped by his seventh partner.

      *    *    *
…I made an awkward move and knocked over the alarm clock. It rolled off with loud clink. In horror, I searched for it on the carpet, but it was too late. The light went on in the hallway, and Oleg walked into the room.

“Are you nuts? It’s five a.m.!”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

“You know what happens to those who don’t mean to?” he grumbled. “Anyway, why aren’t you asleep? You feeling all right? You want some tea?”

“No, thanks”, I said, “I’ll just go back to sleep.”

Due to Shliakhov's agression, seven partners dumped him before Berezhnaya came along.

Oleg left, and I thought, “Tamara Nikolayevna is wrong after all. Oleg isn’t bad. Sure, he has a temper. But we’ve been skating for four years, what will I do without him? And he used to be so much worse…”

      *    *    *

“Berezhnaya!” I turned to face the coach. “Come here!”

Oleg Shliakhov was standing next to Zakharov. He came from Riga to work with our coaches.

“You want to skate with him?”

I nodded.

Shliakhov was the hope of the national figure skating, and I could only dream of such a partner. “Good. You start training tomorrow.”

Oleg was a strong and experienced athlete four years my senior, and things clicked immediately. My breath would catch during practices – wow! That’s what pair skating is all about! Cool! Oleg was also happy – I was small, light, and picked up everything fast.
We skated well and even won some prizes. Eventually, though, I noticed that he’d get ever more aggressive as the level of competition increased. Shliakhov started yelling at me, “Where’s your head?! Look here! Get a grip!”

One time at a practice, after struggling with a jump, I turned my back to Oleg to catch my breath, and suddenly – wham! – felt a fist between my shoulder blades.

“Where are you going? Do it again!”

“Not good”, I thought, but didn’t say anything because I saw so many times how the girls get “beaten on the dome” like it was normal. Then Oleg came up to me guiltily after the practice.

“I am sorry; I don’t know how it happened. I just lost it. Are you mad?”
“Already forgotten”, I said. This was a mistake.

That was just the start. At first, he’d only hit me when there was nobody around, and would apologize afterward. Then, Oleg seemed to have gone crazy after we started winning the major competitions. If I made the tiniest mistake, he’d get riled up immediately, and start beating me with his fists. He no longer cared if there were people around. People would yank him off, try to reason with him, but he’d just say, “It’s her own fault!”

His mood switches were astounding. At the rink, he’d fight and scream. Once we’d leave, he’d immediately calm down. He’d ask compassionately, “Are you hurt? Let’s stop by the pharmacy for some ointment. It’s nothing, it’ll go away soon. Sorry about it, I didn’t mean it to be so hard.” Then he’d take me for a walk, may be even buy me some chocolates. That got me confused. Every time, it seemed it would never happen again. Yet every day the same thing would repeat, and every day Oleg just got worse.
He'd start with his fists with any mistake I'd make. They'd drag Shliakhov away, try to reason with him, but he'd just say, "It's her own fault!"

     *    *    *

… In the morning, Oleg popped his head into my door, “Hey, why aren’t you up yet? You alive there?”

I shuddered at those words. He said in the same exact voice he used at a practice the first time he dropped me onto the ice from his outstretched hands…

Shocked skaters gathered around me, while Oleg, barely glancing in my direction, just barked, “She’s alive”.

“You!” screamed Zakharov. “You touch her one more time, you’ll be training at home! Nobody will work with you here, you get it?”

“What? It’s her fault… She’s not doing… I didn’t want…”

Afterwards, there were many times I’d drop from the lifts. I’d come home, make compresses, rub some ointment in, and it all became routine.

Strangle as it sounds, I didn’t hate Oleg. I was still a child, and sport was everything to me – I had to compete and try to win medals, and that was that. I didn’t think of myself. I had no one to come to for advice, and no one to look to for protection. At some point, coaches seemed to stop noticing Shliakhov’s antics. Nobody could do anything with him while we did show good results.

I didn’t tell mom what was going on. I worried about her health. I thought it was better for her to not know anything, and that I could handle it all myself.

One time Oleg and his mom were waiting to me in the hallway after the practice.

“Lenochka, here’s the deal”, said Svetlana, clutching her purse nervously. “Oleg and I think it would be better for you to represent Latvia. The country has seceded from Russia, Moscow ice is expensive, and Riga has better conditions. Besides, you’ll have less competition.”
I gasped, “Riga?”

“You’re a team, you need to be together. You can’t let each other down. We have an apartment in Riga. There are three rooms there, plenty of space for everyone. We’ll look for a coach, and you can start competing once we find one.”

 I didn’t want to leave but didn’t know what else to do. International competitions were just around the corner. What would I do without Shliakhov? CSKA coaches didn’t make any proposals, and I had nowhere to go.

I called my mom. She just said, “Honey, you have to decide for yourself…”

      *    *    *
So we left. We lived with the Shliakhovs. I had one room, Oleg had another, and his mom lived in the living room.

She knew everything about her son. She thought the evil eye made him that way. She brought in the fortune tellers and the psychics to try to remove it. What evil eye?! Oleg’s father was a sailor who spent six months of the year at sea. Mom raised her darling son alone. She really wanted to see him a champion and spared no expense. She spent a lot of money, but she also pressured him a lot. He still didn’t get outstanding results, though. She’d often blow up, “I put so much into you, I sent you to Moscow, and what do I get in return?!” It got him mad, but Oleg didn’t dare talk back to his mother and got in on his partners instead. He saw us as the reason for his failures. He was too weak to face up to his own shortcomings.

In her own way, Svetlana did love me. She fed me and gave me her stuff to wear – there was no money to buy anything anyway. She’d say, “All right, we need to dress Lena up. You’re going to a competition, after all.” And she’d open up her wardrobe.

If I came home from the practices all beat up, she’d put on a compress, “Hang in there, there is nothing you can do with him. That’s just how he is.” She didn’t understand she was the one who made him that way.
The mother knew everything about her son. She thought the evil eye made him that way. She went to fortune tellers and psychics to remove it.

In Riga, everything continued the same way it did in Moscow. Oleg would jump at me, they’d yank him away and reason with him, and then we’d go home, first on one bus, then another. My face would be marked by scratches and bruises.

No one got involved. The alternative was to break up one of the best Latvian teams, and who would dare do such a thing? It was easier not to notice it.

Oleg stayed calm outside the rink. On the weekends he smiled and joked. We’d go to Yurmala[5] together. In the evenings, we’d rent some videos and watch them together. Then, though, there would be weekdays again, we’d be on the ice again, and I’d be tied with fear once more.
His persistent complaints led to a constant guilt in me – Oleg keeps punishing me, that means I am bad, I deserve this, I can’t do anything right!

Seeing my state, Oleg’s mom would say, “You’ve been under the evil eye too! You need to go to the psychic.”

I had a real depression. I wanted to get into some dark corner and turn invisible. I said may times, “If I am so inept, let me leave! You can find another partner.”

The response was always the same – “We put some much money into you, and now you want to leave?!”

Money was the sore point in that family. If there was a fight, you could bet that was the cause. When we didn’t compete well, Svetlana would yell at Oleg, “I paid so much, when are you going to pay me back?!”

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any earphones then…

      *    *    *

“Lenka, come out!” Oleg rapped at the door. “You want to be late for the practice?”

“All set!”

I recalled Moskvina’s words, “Young, strong, talented, you can do anything yourself!”

Was that really the truth? Would I really dare?

      *    *    *

In Riga, Shliakhov and I trained on our own for the first year as no coach wanted us. Finally, we found Drei, who miraculously knew nothing of Oleg’s personality, and only knew of our good results. Mikhail Mikhailovich offered to take us to Britain where Tamara Moskvina had a school. We had free ice as long as Drei trained a British pair.

At first, we lived with a British family. I shared a room with a mother and daughter, and Oleg shared one with the owners’ son. It was cramped, uncomfortable, and the day’s schedule didn’t work for us. Finally, Shliakhov demanded that the federation provide us with a room. “Give us just one room. It’ll be cheaper, and we can figure it out”. I wasn’t against it, as Oleg behaved himself at home. We started living together in a small room with two narrow beds.

We bought some bikes, and biked to the rink.

Drei was horrified when he figured out what he got himself into, but it was too late. We were already scheduled for international competitions. Mikhail Mikhailovich tried everything – he talked to Oleg, he disciplined him, but it was all of no use. He’d say, “Don’t touch Lena, you made a mistake, not she.” But what was the use?

At the time, it never occurred to me that I could do anything. I thought that was my fate. I had no money – federation paid the living expenses, and while we got some good money for participating in and even winning competitions, those tended to settle in Oleg’s pockets. I couldn’t run away, and neither did I try – who would need me? Ultimately, Drei fired us. I think he just got to frustrated with not being able to change anything.

People talked to Moskvina about us. “Tamara Nikolayevna, may be you’ll take them on? They’re a good team! You have authority, may be you can get a grip on that boy.” At the 1994 Goodwill Games, she came up to us and said, “Move to Petersburg. We’ll be working together.”
[1] ~15 pounds

[2] CSKA is the “army” sports club

[3] Caucus mountain republics (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) have a culture very much seeped in machismo.

[4] ~62 pounds

[5] Latvian resort town