“We turned the other cheek, and they beat us.” Alexei Zheleznyakov about the vulnerable Tutberidze and suspension of Russian athletes
Interview with the choreographer of Eteri Tutberidze’s group, Alexei Zheleznyakov.
source: RSport dd. by th July 2023 by Svetlana Bonopartova
Choreographer Alexei Zheleznyakov candidly revealed in the second part of his interview why Eteri Tutberidze is a sensitive person, why Evgeni Plushenko offended him and how Russian athletes are treated poorly in terms of the suspension from international competitions.
First part of the interview: Alexei Zheleznyakov: “Gleikhengauz can do a lot of things, but he didn’t go through the versatile dancer’s path. We study a wide range of stylistics, while Daniil is an ice choreographer with certain limitations.”
In interviews, you are often referred to as the choreographer of Eteri Tutberidze’s group. Do you feel offended by this constant association?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: It happened that way because I started with them when I was still a nobody, and no one called me anything. But this identification doesn’t bother me at all. I am proud to be called a member of Team Tutberidze. I believe that it is one of the best teams not only in Russia but in the world.
So, can we say that Eteri Georgievna helped you in your development?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Of course. Eteri took me in. I went through this path together with her and grew until this moment. Team Tutberidze is a brand, and I am a part of it. I don’t have the mindset that I should be a separate entity. I am not a superstar; I have healthy professional ambitions, but I will never say, “I am a big star! I am Zheleznyakov.” This team has brought me my name.
There was a case when Evgeni Plushenko made a comment about you: “Who is this guy who opened his mouth? Give me a magnifying glass.” If we compare your profiles, what makes you inferior to Plushenko?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: That conflict happened a hundred years ago when some girls ran away from us. Of course, these are incomparable things. I am not an athlete; I am a choreographer. I know my place, I know who I am. I don’t claim to be a super coach who is the king and god in the world of figure skating. I work in my own field. In a team, there should be an understanding that every gear contributes to the overall mechanism, even a wheel in a carriage plays a huge role. Can a carriage move without one wheel? Of course not. And in this carriage, every mechanism is responsible for itself: Sergei Dudakov, Daniil Gleikhengauz, Ksenia Potaplytsyna, Alexei Zheleznyakov. I don’t pay attention to such things; it doesn’t humiliate me. Someone wanted to offend me, but they only showed their own moral ugliness.
What was your first impression of Eteri Georgievna?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Before working with her, I had no idea who Eteri Tutberidze was. I was very distant from figure skating. But it became clear to me right away that she is a very wise woman who knows what she’s doing. Eteri is a very serious, devoted person when it comes to work. She approaches everything with incredible attention to detail. I also got the impression that she is reserved. Eteri is always like that – she keeps people at a distance, but if she realizes that you are fine, without any hidden motives, she starts to trust you. The communication and approach become completely different.
Eteri Georgievna is strength and power for us. You’ve known her for 15 years, what is she like for you?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Yes, strength, I agree. If she weren’t a strong person, we wouldn’t have achieved such results. It requires spiritual, moral, and physical strength. She doesn’t leave the ice; she stays there from morning till night, with only one day off a week. To maintain this level for so many years, the strength must be very serious. Power? I wouldn’t say that. She never relishes her power; everything is always focused on the work. If someone doesn’t fit her criteria, she simply says goodbye without explaining many nuances.
Is she vulnerable at times?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: I believe that Eteri is a vulnerable person, but she experiences it all internally. Sometimes I even think that a person should express their emotions; you can’t keep everything inside. It’s difficult. And I understand very well that many situations are hard for her to bear internally, but she will never show it. That’s her strength; she is a very strong woman. But behind this cold personality, behind this cold Snow Queen, as they say, there is a warm flame inside.
Eteri Georgievna demands full dedication from her athletes. Does she demand the same from those she works with?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: It’s impossible to work in her team if you don’t give yourself fully. She doesn’t tolerate laziness at all. If you come, be true to yourself and your conscience. Work properly, and then there won’t be any questions. But if you constantly try to slack off as a specialist, you won’t be able to be a part of this team. She is very demanding of herself, and she expects the same from others. That’s why we see such results.
Is it easy to find common ground with her? Does she listen to your advice?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Of course, when it comes to creative matters, disagreements can arise. Somewhere she listens, somewhere she still does things her own way, but in the end, we find a consensus to achieve a good result. But it can vary, and that’s a normal creative process. Constant search, constant contradictions, and discussions lead to the birth of truth.
If Eteri Georgievna is proven wrong, does she admit her mistake?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: She considers both options: hers and others. But if after a day or two she realizes that her option is worse, she definitely admits it. I’m telling you, everything is aimed at achieving the best result.
Have there been moments when you were afraid of her?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Eteri has such strong energy that initially, there were moments when it was scary. Now, it’s no longer the case because of life experience and years of work. But at first, yes, I was afraid. I can’t say there were any specific situations; it was more on a subconscious level. You’re afraid of doing something wrong, so that she doesn’t think you’re slacking off. If Eteri approaches me now and says she wants to change something, I will take it as normal work-related criticism. I won’t be afraid. It’s rather children who are afraid of her. But again, athletes who have been working with her for many years perceive her differently, constructively, without any animal fear.
If there is fear towards a coach, can an athlete be successful?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Animal fear doesn’t lead to anything good. The skater becomes closed off, withdrawn, and it affects their work and openness. If a skater is in such condition, they won’t skate properly. Trust must always be present.
You are an open person who is not afraid of blunt statements, including in the press. Have you had conversations with Eteri Georgievna on this topic?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: I always like to tell the truth; deceit is not my thing. I want to be honest with myself. If I believe someone is wrong in a situation concerning me, I will voice it. At that moment, I felt so uncomfortable and upset about the whole situation, knowing how much effort and soul was put into these children, that I spoke out. Then Eteri approached me and said, “Lesha, why bother? There’s no point in fighting windmills; we need to move on.” Perhaps she’s right; it’s better not to touch that swamp. But due to my creative profession, I’m very emotional, and sometimes I can’t hold back and express myself, which further fuels the argument, like a snowball rolling downhill.
If it’s a battle against windmills, do you regret your statements?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: No, I don’t regret them. But in the end, I realized it’s not worth it. It’s better to stay silent, and everything will fade away more quickly.
Can anyone in Russia compete with the Tutberidze group?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: At the moment, no. But with a desire you can even go to space. If people gather the right team, establish a system, anything is possible. We have many great coaches in Russia who have started bringing their skaters to a serious level. Notice that there is a trend of growth. This means they have made some conclusions and started working with a different approach. Maybe they took something from the Tutberidze team, and healthy competition is arising. Yes, it requires fanatical work day after day. It’s very challenging, and it’s even more difficult to maintain that status for years.
Specifically speaking about names, who can be competitors?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: There is CSKA. Very talented coach Sergei Davidov. Yes, maybe he lacks a bit of experience at the moment, but he is on the right path. I can mention Alexei Vasilievski, Yulia Lavrenchuk, and Sofia Fedchenko. They have the right and competent approach, they work well on technique, and they strive to create interesting programs. These are people who are now starting to reach a certain level. People started to talk about them. If they survive, develop further, then a good future awaits them, they will be able to compete with the Tutberidze team.
What can you say about Alexei Mishin’s team?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Elizaveta Tuktamysheva is a phenomenon. To maintain her position and compete at such a high level in figure skating for so many years is incredible. She deserves a monument and our utmost respect. It’s very challenging. Many skaters are already broken and can’t continue, but she has held on for so many years. Mishin is a great person, he knows so much. That’s why everyone calls him a professor. But I think now he should bring in a couple of young, talented specialists and cultivate a new generation of coaches. Of course, they will be part of his school. It’s evident that at his age, it’s difficult to work so intensively.
And if we talk about the world?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: In womens’ singles, there isn’t any competition. The trend in the world is not very good. I’ve been to Europe, and they say there is a lack of excellent specialists. And naturally, progress stagnates. Our athletes are moving forward and developing, while they remain stagnant. It’s very difficult to catch up with us.
Are we moving forward even in the conditions of suspension?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Yes, even in the current situation, we continue to develop. There was a slight decline among the children at the very beginning, especially among those who had already reached a serious level because the main motivation is international competitions. But now that has passed. The children have let go of it, and they are working again, just as they did before.
Recently, Bach and Macron discussed allowing Russians at the Olympic Games again. Do you believe they will allow us?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: No, I don’t believe it. They won’t allow it. Currently, the federations seem to be slowly allowing us, but at the same time, they impose conditions that we will compete under a neutral white flag, without the national anthem, without the name. Renouncing our country is the same as renouncing our parents.
But we have already competed without a flag and anthem.
Alexei Zheleznyakov: At that time, the situation was unclear and unstable, although even then I was against those conditions. You compete for your country; you represent its face and prestige, and suddenly you go under a neutral flag… Our sports officials and bureaucrats made that move, giving athletes the opportunity to compete. But now they are on our backs, kicking us, and even spitting on us from above. As they say, we turned the other cheek, and they beat us. Now even the athletes say they are not ready to compete in such a status. They also don’t allow those who are affiliated with the armed forces. It’s done deliberately to create discord. It’s a pure provocation.
Currently, sports federations make sure that Russian athletes do not publicly support special military operation. How legal is this?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: There is an Olympic Charter that states that sports should be separate from politics. So why should it suddenly be political for some and not for others? Let’s take the example of the United States. When they were at war with Iraq, no one demanded that they denounce the war as wrong. So why is this happening now? What kind of double standards and hypocrisy is this? It’s all done to portray Russians in a negative light.
Russian taekwondo athletes are prohibited from associating their World Championship medals with their country. Isn’t that demeaning?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: It is demeaning. In my opinion, we don’t need such competitions. But again, there are people who have their own opinion about supporting their country. And if a person believes it’s wrong, by all means, they can pack their things, leave, and compete for another country.
So, in this situation, is it normal for athletes to switch to other national teams?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: It depends on who is switching and to which country. For me, it is unacceptable if a Russian athlete of international level switches to a country that supplies weapons for military actions against us. These are basic things. But I am absolutely not against someone switching to compete for a friendly country. We are not slaves and have the right to make our own decisions. But the question is, will there be a way back? Because other people will consider you a traitor, and they won’t accept you back.
Recently, the Russian federation refused Dario Cirisano’s request for an expedited transfer to another country. Did they do the right thing?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: When a person joins the national team, the state spends enormous amounts of money on that athlete. It is necessary to introduce contracts where the reimbursement of damages in case of switching to another country is stipulated. If this is legally established, then the federation has the right to make a claim and not release the athlete. But if it is not backed by anything, it seems that no one has the right to keep the athlete. That’s why a system is needed, and it will make things easier for everyone.
Canadian skater Meagan Duhamel suggested that the team event awards ceremony at the 2022 Olympics should be held using Russian funds. How do you feel about her statements?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Megan Duhamel speaks out a lot and says many foolish things. It’s not her who is being spit in the face demanding they compete under a neutral flag, completely discrediting Canadian athletes. They don’t give us those medals, and yet we should pay for this spectacle? Meagan, where’s the logic? It’s complete nonsense. It’s impossible to take them seriously.
Last year, you went to Donetsk and Luhansk with charity master classes. Would you like to repeat it again?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: I would gladly go to those children again. But the situation there is very difficult now, bombings have resumed. If we go there, it means putting the children at risk. There are many ill-wishers, and if something happens based on a tip, I won’t forgive myself. That’s the only reason I’m not going there. But my team is ready, the guys want to go there, and we will definitely repeat our master classes. We’re waiting for things to calm down.
Did those master classes change you internally?
Alexei Zheleznyakov: Honestly, my world turned upside down. We talked to many people, saw many things, and visited the “Alley of Angels.” When you read those names and the ages of the children who are no longer here, it’s very difficult. We also went there with gifts. And there I am, handing out these T-shirts, shirts, jackets, and there’s a boy standing in front of me. I give him a baseball cap and say, “Take another one for your brother, for your dad.” And he says a phrase that almost made me cry: “I don’t have a dad anymore.” A five-year-old boy with adult eyes uttering those words… When you see what these children are going through, you realize that all your problems are trivial, insignificant, and yet you still pity yourself. Of course, everything turns inside you, and you start thinking in a completely different way.
Haein Lee: “Some skaters consider step sequences a break from jumps, but I always give my best in those moments, trying to show my energy and individuality the most.”