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Figure skaters fleeing Russia as Ukraine war rages on

Sergey Satanovskiy
March 24, 2023

Figure skating has been Russia's pride for decades if not centuries. But faced with bans from international competitions, young Russian skating talents are leaving the country in search of a better future.

Russland Eiskunstlauf Meisterschaften Frauen
Image: Alexei Danichev/SNA/IMAGO

Russian figure skating has confronted the repercussions of the International Skating Union's (ISU) ban on the participation of its skaters in international competitions.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine began last year, dozens of talented youngsters have given up their citizenship to compete for other countries, even those on Russia's so-called 'Unfriendly countries' list.

They are faced with harsh criticism not only from State Duma representatives but often from teammates in their new federations too.

Russian skaters 'judged unfairly'

As figure skating fans follow the world championship that started in Tokyo on March 22, Russia's four-time Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko's statement made last month has created a sporting and political scandal.

After a junior championship in Perm, Pluschenko gave an interview in which he accused the judges for giving unfair scores to the students of his figure skating academy "Angels of Plushenko".

Evgeni Plushenko
Russia's four-time Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko has accused judges of marking down his students.Image: Alexei Danichev/SNA/IMAGO

"I talked to the parents of the athletes. Most likely there will be transfers to different countries", Plushenko said. He added that many athletes who were judged unfairly may be affected. "If our federation doesn't need my athletes, if our figure skating doesn't need them, then we will go where we are needed."

Among those who may switch allegiance is one of Plushenko's students, Veronika Zhilina (main picture). She received plaudits for being able to easily do quadruple jumps at the age of 14, as well as Zhilina's peer Sofia Titova, who can land the triple axel jump.

Plushenko and his school did not respond to DW's interview inquiries.

Escaping mobilization?

In Russia, the renowned coach's words were put into context and were seen as an attempt to remove his athletes from under the sanctions. "Considering today's political situation… this sounds like treason," star choreographer Alexey Zheleznyakov said, in response to Zhilina and Titova's intentions.

Despite such comments, last September, six months after the full-scale invasion, Russia's Figure Skating Federation announced that 19 athletes applied to switch federations. Given that this doesn't include those who don't belong to the federation, the real number of athletes who left or are planning to flee is even higher.

figure skating world championships Tokyo
The figure skating world championships got underway in Tokyo this week.Image: Raniero Corbelletti/AFLOSPORT/IMAGO

The war against Ukraine and ensuing sanctions on Russian sports might have played a significant role in skaters' decision to give up their citizenship.

"Athletes are young people of conscription age. Would they benefit from getting to the front in the assault units near Ugledar or straight to the next world? I don't think so," famous Russian Olympic sportscaster Kirill Nabutov said.

"Do athletes profit from moping around their local rinks in St Petersburg, Moscow or Novosibirsk realizing how short their sporting life is without having a chance to take part in international competitions? The answer is no," he added.

Ukrainian and former Russian skaters meet

Most athletes themselves don't admit they have escaped Russia because of the war. The departure of 17-year-old Marya Dmitrieva, who can land a triple axel, caused a stir in the sports press last August.

The teenager holds dual Russian-Israeli citizenship but only decided to move to Israel with her mother last year. In an interview with DW, she insists that it was her family's love for the Middle Eastern country and not sanctions against Russia that motivated them to move.

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It appears unlikely that Russian athletes will be allowed ti compete at the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy.Image: Alexander Vilf/SNA/IMAGO

Now Dmitrieva has been actively participating in competitions across the world that are unavailable to skaters from Russia. On her Instagram, she is posting joint photos with young skaters from different countries including ones from Ukraine. "I meet Russian-speaking guys from various countries. Whatever countries we are from, we are all very friendly," Dmitrieva says.

Some Russian athletes not welcome

Dmitrieva explains that she was welcomed warmly by her teammates and is on good terms with the head of the Israeli Figure Skating Federation, Boris Chait. In this respect, she was luckier than her former teammate and friend, Polina Dhzumaniyazova,who transferred to the Hungarian team last year.

When Polina joined the Hungarian national team it sparked harsh criticism from young Hungarian skater Vivien Papp. "I had excellent results, but then a Russian girl was brought here. I will go to a place where I am welcomed and appreciated. My beautiful country does not need me," local media cited Papp. At the last European Figure Skating Championship, the Hungarian team consisted of 6 people, four of whom are Russian.

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Former Russian figure skater turned coach Tatiana Tarasova has defended those who have switched allegiance from Russia.Image: Maksim Konstantinov/Russian Look/IMAGO

'Not a betrayal'

Back in Russia, the athletes' relocations has been met with mixed reactions. "Is it normal to change your sports citizenship in this situation? From my perspective, it is. It is not a betrayal at all," according to reknowned Russian coach Tatyana Tarasova, speaking shortly after the breakout of the war.

However, some Russian politicians see it differently. Switching citizenships by athletes can only be considered as an act of high treason, State Duma representative and former Moscow regional sports minister Roman Tereshkov stated last summer. And though Tereshkov's words weren't backed by the Kremlin, this narrative has been repeated even by some coaches.

"These words don't hurt me. If I have relatives in Israel, if I am Jewish, then why I can't compete for my second country?" Dmitrieva said in reaction. She has set a goal to win the Junior World Championships and Olympic games in the next year, but it remains unclear whether her Russian compatriots will be allowed to take part in these competitions.