Rowing is a sickness (Financial Times)

In the weekend edition of the Financial Times, Simon Kuper interviews a great Soviet rower of the 1950s, Yuri Tyukalov, who tells Kuper that “rowing is not a sport: it is a sort of sickness”. This is a good article about the life of rowing in a Communist regime, and its poor condition today:

Yuri Tyukalov, the greatest rower of the 1950s, had just won another race for the USSR in Paris, but what he really wanted to do was visit the Louvre. For Tyukalov was a sculptor as well as a rower.

So he dipped deep into his measly daily allowance for foreign trips: a ticket to the Louvre cost 400 old francs, and the cheapest booklet was another 300.

“After I had seen the paintings,” he recalls, “I spent what was left of my allowance on a baguette and half a litre of milk, and sat down to eat them beside that arch by the Tuileries. But I was tired after my race, and I fell asleep. When I woke up I thought, ‘Where am I?’ Then I saw the pigeons eating my baguette, and I realised I was in Paris.”

Now Tyukalov is 72 years old, with white hair, potato nose and red cheeks that make him a dead ringer for Boris Yelstin. On the wall above us, he appears as a young man with firm chin and wavy hair, in a socialist-realist bust that he sculpted himself.

We are sitting in his old rowing club Znamya (“Flag”) on the banks of the Nevka River. Next door lives a multi-millionaire petrol baron, who rents half the club’s land and who will make an appearance later. The story of the baron, the club and Tyukalov makes all too neat a parable for what has happened across Russia.

The story begins with football, because Tyukalov never planned to be a rower. His family were St Petersburg merchants, who before the revolution had owned three shops on the city’s great Nevsky Prospect and a vast dacha. Naturally, they played football — a bourgeois sport in Tsarist Russia.

“My father and my two uncles were chosen in the Memorial XI of Russian football for the 20th century,” boasts Tyukalov. “They played in the team of the Asiatic Bank. But the bank was nationalised after the revolution, and all employees were repressed.”

Under the Bolsheviks, other sports were preferred. The USSR of the 1930s was terrified of foreign invasion. People wore badges to denote their level of preparation for defending the fatherland and muscular activities were encouraged. Leningrad, a city built on rivers, became the capital of Soviet rowing.

Tyukalov himself forsook football for the river after scoring an own goal. He adds that both fullbacks of his football team would later win Olympic medals at speed skating.

But first came the foreign invasion, and the 900-day siege of Leningrad, in which more than half a million people starved to death. Even by 1952, when Tyukalov travelled to his first Olympics, in Helsinki, he weighed only 69kg. “There was still hunger in Russia then,” he says.

In Helsinki, he won gold in the single sculls by defeating the Sydney policeman Mervyn Wood. “Wood was supposed to be a 2m tall redhead who had the air of a policeman. But in fact he was a dark-haired guy, not very tall, with an intelligent air. That was the level of information then.”

Indeed, after the Olympics the Soviet press would report that the USSR had topped the medals table, something many Russians believe to this day, even though it is not true.

Tyukalov later turned to the double sculls, winning gold in 1956 and silver in Rome in 1960. In Rome, his club (then still called Red Flag) supplied 22 of the USSR’s 25 rowers. It was the world’s best boat club, one of those oases of excellence, like a brilliant cellar restaurant or a department of proper philosophy, that survived amid the horror and mediocrity of the USSR.

When I ask Tyukalov why Red Flag was so good, his answer involved repetitions of the word “lyubov”, or “love”. “Rowing is not a sport that pays money. It is a fanaticism, a sort of sickness.”

After Rome, the Politburo member Alexei Kosygin decided to turn Red Flag into a superclub modelled on the Henley rowing club, Leander. Kosygin believed sport could draw people away from religion, and in any case, the USSR needed sturdy rowers for the next war. The regime poured in money. The dilapidated clubhouse in which we are talking was built in 1961.

The gilded years are over now. A poster in the clubhouse shows Lenin with a closed fist from which a thumb juts out: a rude gesture in Russia, which here means, “No more money for rowing!” Tyukalov survives on a monthly pension of about $100 — higher than most, as a recognition for his war work — plus a supplement of $30 in honour of his Olympic medals.

Many of St Petersburg’s rowing clubs have closed, selling their land to the new rich whose motorboats now fill the rivers. The petrol baron next door owns an antique cycle boat. Znamya only survives thanks to his rent.

A quick peek over the baron’s garden fence reveals a tennis court under a grey dome. Just then the baron roars up in a black Land Cruiser. A surprisingly slender bodyguards jumps out, sees me taking notes, and charges up to ask who I am.

His caution is understandable: the petrol baron has apparently survived two assassination attempts. A Flag member explains that I am visiting the club, and we bustle off like speedwalkers. For the next two hours, the member shows me the remains of St Petersburg’s other rowing clubs — a landing stage here, some decaying boats there — and each time a car approaches I worry that someone will lean out and shoot me. But I hate to sound melodramatic.

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