In numerous comments on the death of the two-time Olympic champion, most of all I was struck by the huge number of unfair accusations of treason against Oleg Protopopov. Even those who reported about the sad event and the contribution of famous Soviet athletes to the development of figure skating got it. Like, why write about a traitor to the motherland?
And this is said about a man who lived in Leningrad during the most terrible first months of the siege and was on the verge of death. In the early 50s, the Leningrad figure skater, who had already proven himself in competitions, was drafted into the navy. He served first in Severomorsk, and then in Guba Gryaznaya, without even having the opportunity to train. His first coach, Ivan Bogoyavlensky, achieved a transfer to Leningrad. “In my hometown, I was assigned to the boatswain’s team of a division of ships under construction,” Protopopov recalled. “The service was not easy, but once a week they gave me leave, and I could use this time for training.”
Naturally, once in the West, the former sailor Protopopov did not sell any secrets of the Soviet Navy to either the Swiss or American intelligence services. And he was not an enemy of the Soviet regime, nor was he a dissident in the traditional sense of the word. He generally lived in an amazing country, one might even say – on the planet of figure skating. It didn’t matter what cities were around, Soviet Leningrad or Swiss Grindelwald, New York or Tokyo. In Protopopov's life there was only ice, skates, and also his partner, wife and muse Lyudmila Belousova.
The two-time Olympic champion in the early 70s tried unsuccessfully to prove his right to create on the ice, not paying attention to the plans of the CPSU Central Committee to fulfill the tasks of the next five-year plan. As Protopopov himself said in one of his old interviews, until 1973 he and Lyudmila fought in all competitions and, only having finally become convinced that the existing system in Soviet sports could not be broken, they went to the Leningrad Ice Ballet.
“We made an appointment with the future architect of perestroika, Alexander Yakovlev,” Protopopov said in an interview during the 2002 European Championship in Lausanne. “He was then in charge of agitation and propaganda in the CPSU Central Committee. The future leader of the Gorbachev era held at the entrance for 40 minutes, not letting even to the waiting room.”
True, then the two-time Olympic champions had a conversation with Boris Gorbachev, who was responsible for sports in the CPSU Central Committee, and the then chairman of the USSR Figure Skating Federation, Anna Sinilkina. They offered a ceremonial farewell to coaching work, insisted on the need to develop the artistic direction of sports couples.
Belousova and, for the most part, Protopopov began to object: why should they leave if their performances bring joy? to the public, but can they ride themselves? “And anyway, why should someone dictate to us how to live?” – Protopopov was indignant, even many years later.
At the Leningrad Ice Ballet, the renowned champions also had problems. “You are athletes, and we need artists,” they were told directly. Even the then Minister of Culture Ekaterina Furtseva pushed the stakes for them. She generally strongly advised moving to Moscow, but Oleg did not want to leave his hometown, where he experienced the most difficult days of the siege.
“For six years we skated incognito,” recalled Protopopov. “Our names were on the posters among the corps de ballet dancers. And this despite the fact that there was a solo number that the audience forced to perform as an encore five or six times. The then artistic director of the ballet on ice, Adolf Khamzin openly said that he would not allow a solo concert to be held in his theater.”
Protopopov had an idea that was far ahead of its time to enlarge the stage area and create the world's first classical ballet on ice. The troupe strongly opposed it. As Protopopov said, behind-the-scenes conversations reached him. They say that if the two-time Olympic champion is confirmed as the artistic director of ice ballet, he will have to work ten times harder with the same salary.
The idea of leaving the Soviet champions arose when Oleg was 47 and Mila was 44. They were constantly hinted that it was time to finish ballet. Problems arose with foreign tours, which were then a great outlet for Soviet athletes and Soviet artists. Chance helped me leave.
“The Leningrad Ice Ballet was invited to go on tour to Brazil, where it was necessary to perform on small stages,” recalled Protopopov. “We did not have such a number in the repertoire, and the Brazilian impresario said: “Without Belousova and Protopopov, we wouldn’t even be able to organize a tour.” I will.” Then we agreed with the management that we would go to Switzerland on our vacation and prepare a special number for the Brazilian tour. We never returned to Leningrad.”
For those who remember the 70s in Leningrad, there is no doubt that the competent authorities were certainly aware of the skaters’ plans. Shortly before leaving, supposedly to prepare the room, they sold the Volga and many valuable things. But Lyudmila packed her sewing machine in her luggage, which she used to sew costumes for performances. If the party and government were interested in ensuring that the pride of Soviet sports and Soviet art remained in their native country, there would be no talk of any “business trip” to Switzerland.
It cannot be said that the flight behind the Iron Curtain was dictated by the desire to earn big money. “For us, this issue has never been the main issue,” Protopopov asserted. “As ice ballet soloists during foreign tours, we received ten dollars a day. Once I got into a conversation with a housemate, the famous opera singer Boris Shtokalov. He said that he sang the part of Boris Godunov in Helsinki and received the same ten dollars for it. For a huge performance that lasted more than three hours! And we were paid that kind of money for five minutes of being on the ice.”
Oleg and Lyudmila had neither children, nor students, nor close friends. Only figure skating and the love that they carried throughout their lives. Moreover, a huge number of fans all over the world, which, alas, was melting every year. Among their programs, of which there have been many over the years in sports and ballet, Belousova and Protopopov singled out one. With the number “Laugh, clown!” they were finishing their amateur careers and starting their professional ones.
As Protopopov emphasized, this was a kind of protest against a system in which a person could laugh or cry, but could not change anything. “The directors of the Leningrad Ice Ballet, who were very ignorant of music, announced it as “Laugh, clowns!” This was perceived to some extent symbolically.”
When the Soviet Union disappeared, Belousova and Protopopov did not come to their hometown for a very long time. And in general to Russia. Nobody simply invited them there. The first to call in 2003 was Vyacheslav Fetisov, who then headed the sports ministry. “It feels like this is our colleague, a two-time Olympic champion!” Protopopov spoke about this with warmth. “I felt it when he sent a congratulatory telegram on his 70th birthday. For the first time in a 48-year career, I received congratulations from the Minister of Sports.”< br>Belousova and Protopopov have repeatedly said that, living in Switzerland, they follow life in Russia. Only they were not going to change their familiar world, in which there was only figure skating, to a new reality, which is difficult to get used to at a fairly advanced age. We can talk about the difficult character of Protopopov, about his amazing ability to hit the truth in the eyes of the management, but only those who either do not understand the meaning of this word or do not know anything about Protopopov’s life can call the legend of Russian figure skating a traitor.
C with the same success one can demand the removal of books by Nobel laureate Ivan Bunin from libraries and a ban on performances in philharmonic halls and the use of Sergei Rachmaninov’s music in figure skaters’ programs. Let's just pay tribute to the great athlete and find worthy words for his farewell.