A new winter sports season is beginning, and of all the winter sports, figure skating worries me more than any other. Considerable changes have recently taken place in the Figure Skating Federation of Russia which negate the entire process of revival of this fine sport.
Contrary to legal and moral norms and common sense, Valentin Piseyev has again assumed the post of President of the Federation. Piseyev is a functionary who has utterly ruined the once legendary Soviet school of figure skating. He has remained on top only as the result of his ability to render services to the higher-ups, who have always regarded athletes as simply an inevitable factor in securing their own trips abroad.
It is primarily the other functionaries and the coaches from the remote Russian provinces that voted for him. They well remember who was the source of job promotions, trips abroad, and the entire set of privileges, which could make the life of a sports coach a bit easier in the difficult days of the past. In addition, Piseyev showed concern for his "sons and daughters": for some he authorized extraordinary trips abroad, he assisted others in the "fight against alcohol", he stepped in to help as necessary, and he acted as a friend during the long lonely nights of training camp sessions and Spartakiads. And some voted for, and not against Piseyev, only because they didn't have the time or desire to cross the country to attend a new conference. Another plus for Piseyev was the fact that his rival in the voting, the present President of the Russian Federation of Figure Skating, Sergei Kunik, proved to be lacking in such things as public speaking gifts, experience in winning votes, and authority among the coaches. The fate of the election was practically decided from the moment that Piseyev's supporters spread a false rumor that Kunik is practically on the payroll, and in any case, under the thumb of the trainer Natalya Dubova. She was never won general favor and never tried to win it. The "anti-Dubova" sentiments of the public could not be overcome even by such authoritative opponents of the return of the dictatorial old Communist Party official as Alexander Gorshkov, Mikhail Drei, Andrey Minenkov, Victor Kudryavtsev, Vladimir Zakharov, and Igor Xenofontov. But, as I have already said, people could not expect special favors from Kunik, while the supporters of Piseyev had, at times, received things from him. Besides, they had become accustomed to the old guard.
However, despite his gift of intrigue and his talent in securing personal benefits, there is little chance that Piseyev would have been the subject of this story if Ludmila Belousova, Oleg Protopopov and later, Irina Rodnina, had not had to leave Russia because of such a mediocre character; or if there were not included among the current numbers of those who have had to move abroad because of Piseyev dozens of those who used to be proudly cited in the Soviet sports world. The following is only part of this list, which was forwarded to me by one of those people who is now spreading the achievements of the Soviet figure skating abroad.
As the result of poor relations with the USSR State Sports Committee, and of the incorrect policy of the Committee (i.e. of Piseyev and his patrons), the USSR national team coaches Tatyana Tarasova, Elena Chaikovskaya, Gennady Akkerman and Tatyana Mishina left their jobs; Igor Moskvin retired, though not quite on his own free will; Tamara Moskvina and Alexey Mishin work abroad for the greater part of the year; and Olympic Champion Alexander Gorshkov had to leave his position as head national coach, thereby losing the opportunity to help figure skating.
The list of those people who have gone abroad because of the lack of any realistic prospects for the future include Irina Rodnina (USA), Yuri Ovchinnikov (USA), Natalya Dubova (USA), Sergey Chetverukhin (Canada), Marina Zueva (choreographer, Canada), Eduard Pliner and Alexander Vedenin (Austria), Vladimir Kovalev and Nina Zhuk (Greece), Stanislav Leonovich and Irina Lulyakova (choreographer, France), Vladimir Kaprov (USA), Alexandr Rozhin (Croatia), and about a dozen other coaches who are less known to the public at large, but well known to people who follow figure skating.
Left hanging are the most experienced and knowledgeable coaches, including Victor and Marina Kudryavtsev and Vladimir Zakharov in Moscow, and Ludmila and Nikolay Velikov in St.Petersburg. In Ekaterinburg, the famous Igor Xenofontov continues to sharpen figure skater's blades, nurturing a grudge against the new old-guard leadership (instead of grooming good singles women's skaters), and going to the Great Wall of China from time to time. Galina Vasilkevich, former coach of Elena Vodorezova, sits at CSKA with nothing to do (going to Finland from time to time to train figure skaters there). International class judges Mikhail Drei and Irina Absalyamova, who have been practically thrown out of the ranks of Russian judges by Piseyev, have little confidence in the future.
Not having complete trust in Piseyev, and just to be on the safe side, Natalya Linichuk is strengthening contacts with France, Switzerland and the United States. She had counted on Piseyev to at long last get rid of her main rival, Natalya Dubova, and to provide a new job for her husband Gennady Karponosov. At the present time, Linichuk is grooming ice dancing pairs in Moscow for the former Soviet Republics (Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Uzbekistan) and women single skaters for the foreign countries.
As You can see, the list is impressive, even incredible, but as zoologists know, all it takes is one mouse to scare a herd of elephants. And who is this Valentin Piseyev character, a "Merited Coach of the USSR", who has not groomed even a single district champion, and a high-ranking official who has dispersed the best of Russia's figure skating world?
Piseyev was born in 1941. In the 1950's he lived in Moscow, not far from the Young Pioneer's Stadium, at which he embarked on his figure skating career. It did not take him long to realize that he would never be more than a mediocre skater, and thus he embodied George B. Shaw's maxim that "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach". While still in his youth, Piseyev became a coach at the same Young Pioneer's Stadium where he began his career. Next, he enrolled at the State Central Institute of Physical Culture (GCOLIFK) to master the skills needed to become a sports official. Piseyev found this course of study difficult, and he passed the competency exam only after several attempts, and with the help of Irina Absaliamova, whom he has repaid with base ingratitude.
But Piseyev has always known how to please the higher-ups. For this reason, when Victor Ryzhkin, senior coach of the Young Pioneer's Stadium, decided to take up the then-popular ice dancing, his post was passed to Valentin Piseyev, "a promising student of the GCOLIFK's figure skating department". In this position, the "dabbler" demonstrated a "high level of work" and within a comparatively short time he turned the Young Pioneer's Stadium into a sports facility for the elite, having won over such novices as Vyacheslav Zhigalin (son of the Minister of Heavy Machinebuilding) and Galina Zharkova (daughter of a high ranking official in the CPSU). The children and grandchildren of Mazurov, Solomentsev, Grishin and many other Polibureau bureaucrats also gave figure skating a try at the Young Pioneer's Stadium. At the same time, a group of seniors was created at the Stadium under the patronage of Kosygin's deputy Tikhonov. From the time of his youth, Piseyev valued the strong support of the higher-ups in the manners that other value their honor. It is true that he also gave the most talented children in the working class the opportunity to train, including the future World Champion Vladimir Kovalev, the son of a driver and now a coach in Greece. It is thanks to Kovalev, whom Piseyev presented as his trainee, that Piseyev was able to attain the title of Merited Coach of the USSR. Piseyev twice rewarding Kovalev with the title of Merited Master of sport of the USSR.
The 1958 championships of Moscow in Luzhniki can be regarded as Piseyev's debut as a "little boss" in the national arena. The 17-years old "referee in charge of the participants", or, to state bluntly, an overseer of athletes, tried for the first time ever to impart a "metallic" sound to his squeaky voice. In those days, the majority of coaches regarded this "guy in the thick black woolen overcoat" (as the future boss of Soviet figure skating was dubbed at that time) as nothing but a buffoon. In later years, he did not forget or pardon a single one of these sneers. Piseyev got a job at the State Sports Committee in 1967, and having enlisted the support of Boris Anokhin, became the Executive Secretary of the USSR Figure Skating Federation, and began to exert his authority in Soviet figure skating. To this end, he had to strike an alliance with Stanislav Zhuk, as recommended by Anokhin, and the two worked together like a pair of boots, which trampled upon the young growth of Soviet figure skating. This twosome ousted Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov from amateur sports. Next, in order to protect Zhuk's Rodnina-Zaitsev pair, Piseyev hampered the training of Smirnova-Ulanov. When Rodnina and Zaitsev began to quarrel with Zhuk, then left him and began to train under Tatyana Tarasova, Piseyev attempted to compare the new darlings of Stanislav Zhuk, the Marina Cherkasova-Sergei Shakhray pair, to Rodnina and Zaitsev, triggering an intrigue which was already at the International Skating Union (ISU) level. He was appointed to the ISU technical committee in 1975 as the result of successes of Soviet figure skating, which has come about in spite of his efforts to hamper the work of those coaches whom he disliked. Piseyev searched the USSR, and lured to Moscow the capable figure skaters who were prepared for international competitions. By bringing the Pestova-Leonovich and Pershina-Akbarov pairs to CSKA, Piseyev nearly destroyed pairs figure skating in Sverdlovsk as well as singles schools in Kazan and many other cities.
At that time, several attempts were made to stop this pair of "icebreakers". The first people to speak against the Zhuk-Piseyev duo were senior national coach Vyacheslav Zaitsev and coach of the USSR State Sports Committee Marina Grishina, who had come to the Sports Committee together with Piseyev. "Komsomolskaya Pravda" ran a crushing article by Mikhail Blatin, signed by many coaches and judges. But by mobilizing all his connections in Lubyanka (KGB) and Staraya Square (CPSU Central Committee), Piseyev managed not only to retain his office but even to rise to the level of the supreme commander of Soviet figure skating. In addition, the article in Komsomolskaya pravda was a death sentence to many of those who had signed it, as Piseyev succeeded in consolidating not only his own power, but also that of his henchmen, as the result of the destruction of the provincial schools. This was easy to do: he simply but the name of his Moscow vassel in the "coach" column instead of the names of those who had really worked with the medalists. To prevent loud protests from the places where the athletes had been groomed, Piseyev sent the necessary people everywhere, rewarding them with trips abroad or other treats. During his travels around the country, Piseyev never failed to pay a visit to the local Communists Party chiefs, in hopes of strengthening his own influence as a "man from the Center" in the provinces. He remains proud of his acquaintance with Yegor Ligachev, whom he views as "a strong master, much stronger than Yeltsin", though he will sell his body and soul to any government official in return for his position.
The "unsinkable Valentin" was dismissed from his post in figure skating several times, but his cronies brought him back every time. Boris Anokhin, Piseyev's superior at that time, helped him remove Vyacheslav Zaitsev and Marina Grishina from the Sports Committee. For this reason, Piseyev devoted the subsequent years to ousting Anokhin, the witness of his disgrace. In 1980 with some pressure from Irina Rodnina - the queen of pairs figure skating at the time, Chairman of the USSR State Sports Committee, Sergei Pavlov, removed Piseyev from figure skating management. He was appointed head of luge, which he knew nothing about. Because of his lack of expertise and his heavy drinking, Piseyev narrowly escaped imprisonment in 1982 when two athletes died in accidents on the luge course during the USSR Games in Krasnoyarsk. Piseyev was fired from the luge and bobsledding department, and kept a very low profile, biding his time in the State Committee until 1984.
Piseyev's next opportunity came in 1984, when Marat Gramov came to the post of the Chairman of the USSR State Sports Committee. Irina Rodnina put Alexander Zaitsev, her partner in sports and life, in Piseyev's place, an executive level for which he was not yet prepared. He clearly failed in his duties, thought he did not obstruct the growth of the powerful group of coaches and skaters who arose during the four years of Piseyev's absence. Those were the years when the world applauded the athletes coached by Tatyana Tarasova, Elena Chaikovskaya, Tamara and Igor Moskvin, Natalya Dubova, Vladimir Kovalev, Victor Kudryavtsev and Eduard Pliner; also at that time, brilliant careers were predicted for the skaters coached by Ludmila Pakhomova, Alexey Mishin and Igor Xenofontov. Specialized groups of coaches were set up and worked succesfully. They gave this country such coaches as Galina Zmiyevskaya, Lydia Maslyukova, Tatyana Mishina, Vladimir Kovalev and Vladimir Kaprov (single skating), Ludmila and Nikolay Velikov, Stanislav Leonovich, Alexander Artyshchenko and Vladimir Zakharov (pair skating), and Gennady Akkerman, Boris Rublev and Svetlana Alexeyeva (ice dancing). By that time, all of Stanislav Zhuk's skaters has yielded to other figure skating stars.
Seeing his chance, Valentin Piseyev approached the new head of Soviet sport, and, having apparently promised "mountains of medals", was again appointed the "supreme commander of figure skating in the USSR". From that moment, the wheel of history of figure skating began to turn in the opposite direction. During the next few years, Piseyev did the following:
- secretly arranged the transfer of Anna Kondrashova from Eduard Pliner, whom he hates, to Stanislav Zhuk. In doing so he deprived her of the chance to become the first Soviet European and the world champion in women's single skating;
- embroiled Tatyana Tarasova in a feud with Natalya Dubova (before 1984 they had actively helped each other);
- put an end to the work of the above-mentioned specialized groups of coaches which had been set up in his absense;
- nearly ousted Alexey Mishin for a long period of time from the ranks of national coaches;
- created an atmosphere of squabbling, envy, malice and humiliation among the athletes, coaches, and judges on the national team.
It is a credit to Marat Gramov that it did not take him long to discern Piseyev's rotten nature, and after the Sarajevo Olympics, he wanted to remote Piseyev from figure skating and from the Sports Committee. But others stood up for him. Alexandr Gorshkov, moved to compassion by Piseyev's whining and his first wife's tears, more than once persuaded Gramov to give Piseyev one more chance.
Nor did Piseyev spare the feelings of his accomplices and of the "ring-buoys", being intolerant to any attempts to resist or simply display disagreement with his methods of work. In 1987, he got rid of Boris Anokhin, twice brought in and then got rid of Sergei Kononykhin, then a judge and now the head of the sports department of Ostankino TV, stossed out Alexandr Vedenin and Mikhail Drei from the leadership of the Figure Skating Federation, and finally did the same with his own henchman, Sergei Kunik, who had become an obstacle.
It could be that the sizable stash of foreign currency, which Piseyev received in his official capacity of President of the USSR Figure Skating Federation from the ISU for the participation and success in the European and world championships, plays a certain role in his invincibility. In violation of the Decree of the President of Russia, Piseyev has not transferred these sums to Moscow and continues to keep them for his own use in Switzerland. (At the present time, there must be approximately 400,000 Swiss francs in the Federations Swiss account). In my opinion the money is one of the main factors which compels him to fight so studdornly for the post of President of the Federation. But the main motive, known only to those who have it, is the insatiable thirst for power. Furthermore, Piseyev has no specialty, except for that of a sports official, and after the collapse of the USSR, he feared that he would be unemployed. But everything has remained constant. Piseyev, who had ruined Soviet figure skating, has now been handed Russian figure skating as a reward.
Such are the major steps in the career of the President of the Figure Skating Federation of Russia. Who will he send to the forthcoming world and European championships? Who, for the first time in the last three-quarters of a century, will turn out to be a worthy successor of Russian Figure Skating, which was started by Nikolai Panin-Kolomenkin, and which will, at a long last, be competing again under the victorious tricolor Russian flag. And, will it triumphantly fly over the victor's podium on the Olympic ice of Norwegian Lillehammer in just over a year? An if it does, will it be even slightly thanks to Valentin Piseyev?
Of the two main schools of pair skating - CSKA in Moscow and the Leningrad school, only portion of the latter exist now, because the CSKA figure skating school collapsed after the retirements of its chief, Lt. Colonel Victor Ryzhkin. There is little chance that in St.Petersburg, in the absence of the Moskvins as catalysts and motivators, the Velikovs alone will survive the present chaos, even with their very capable pair Evgenia Shishkova-Vadim Naumov. And the young talented figure skaters from the Russian province were largely assembled in the Moscow schools back in the time when the USSR still existed. That is only Evgenia Shishkova and Vadim Naumov, and, if luck is on their side, Igor Moskvin's pair Marina Eltsova-Andrei Bushkov can count on the usual medals in pair skating at the 1993 Europeans and world championships in Helsinki and Prague.
The situation in singles skating is no better, as Victor Kudryavtsev, his wife Marina, and Vladimir Zakharov, who spoke out against Piseyev at the conference, are well aware that they no longer have any hope for a future in Moscow. The fate of the members of the selected Russian team now fully depended on the mercy of "Pisya" (Willy), as Piseyev has been nicknamed by the coaches. As for the fine Odessa single skating school of Galina Zmiyevskaya and Valentin Nikolaev, fortunately it is now in a different country and competes under the yellow-and-blue flag of Ukraine.
And, lastly, ice dancing - the most spectacular skating event. Regrettably, the interests of three coaches - Natalya Dubova, Natalya Linichuk and Svetlana Alexeyeva - have clashed in this respect. And while Alexeyeva's successes are still confined to their own family level and "to the looking after the another's flowers in their absence", there is a little chance that the battle between the two Natalyas will remain superficial. Linichuk, whose student Oxana Grishchuk was won over by Dubova three years ago, recently celebrated the return of the "prodigal daughter", who, moreover, brought her partner Evgeny Platov with her. And if these to Odessian skaters do not "emigrate" to Ukraine, they would again compete against their main rivals, Maia Usova and Alexander Zhulin. But, since Maya and Sasha were plagued by the unfairly low marks given for so long by the judges, I fear that they have lost heart. I do not have great faith in their future as champions, especially because it is the anti-Dubova grouping which has gained the upper hand in the Federation and the Russian judges for the European and world championships will be selected by the Piseyev's flunkies.
Veteran coach Igor Moskvin was right to express his sad confidence at the conference that Piseyev will not change his style, and will once more bring a totalitarian presence to the Federation. The new President has already engineered a campaign against his opponents. It took him a mere few weeks to restore the concept of "not allowed go to abroad", which had by the time disappeared. Ignoring the opinions of his Vice-Presidents Galina Orlova and Valery Korniyenko, he did not let Victor Kudriavtsev and his student Yulia Vorobyova go to an international competition in Gelsenkirchen, and sent Tatyana Rachkova only because her coach Elena Shcheglova is on his side. Ignoring the individual invitation of Mikhail Drei to the Skate America competition, he sent his active yes-man, Alexander Lakernik to Atlanta. He refused to pay for Alexei Mishin's ticket to Germany, without which he could not get to Gelsenkirchen by the start of the competition, in which his skater Alexei Urmanov was participating. Instead of this, he sent his young wife Alla Shekhovtsova to Gelsenkirchen as a judge, and he himself left for Seoul and Tokyo with a retinue of loyal subordinates.
As you see, Russia's present-day figure skating has become dispersed among different countries and continents, but is now in decay in its homeland. The few remaining figure skaters who can be sure of winning medals, have been trained exclusively by those coaches who view the Figure Skating Federation of Russia and Valentin Piseyev as absolutely incompatible; for this reason, there is little chance that they will acknowledge his authority. And to work effectively with coaches, to help them instead of doing harm to them and hampering their work by continuous squabbles, to be a genuine chairman of the Figure Skating Federation - Piseyev has failed to master all these skills. That is why, if this situation continues, the Federation will be represented at future international competitions by only the President himself and a couple of pawns, whom he will take with him as a defense against the fears of becoming independent and having freedom. As the Slovak-German satirist Gabriel Laub said, "a slave does not strive for freedom; his dream is to become a slave driver".
The Russian version of this article was published in "Sovyetsky sport" daily (Moscow) at November 18, 1992.