Thursday, 7 July 2016

What The Zhuk?: Scandals From Behind The Iron Curtain


With wife Nina, Stanislav Alekseevich Zhuk won three consecutive silver medals at the European Championships from 1958 and 1960. However, it is his controversial coaching career and not his competitive accomplishments that most remember today. Just what made Stanislav Zhuk one of the most despised coaches in history? Let's go back in skating history, sneak behind The Iron Curtain and explore this fascinatingly despicable tale.


Let's get this party started with an excerpt from a letter to the editor, published in the November 16,
1968 edition of the омсомо́льская пра́вда (Komsomolskaya Pravda), the Soviet Union's All-Union newspaper: "Dear Editor, We are writing to the Komosol paper because what we have to say has to do with the upbringing of young athletes. Let's start by mentioning just one episode, which unfortunately, did not fail to slip past millions of TV viewers at the Grenoble Olympics. Remember the wonderful moment when our 'Golden Pair' of figure skating, two-time Olympic Champions Ludmilla Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, were greated by an ovation as they stood on the highest step of the winners' platform? It seems only one pair of athletes, a mere step below, 'forgot' to congratulate them. Only so as not to provide silage for sensation-seeking Western papers did the champions finally shake the hands of their rival teammates. But we will not reproach these athletes, for 'There are no bad students - only bad teachers.' Let us now turn our attention to the tutor of the Silver Pair - Honored Coach Of The Soviet Union, Honored Master Of Sport, Comrade Stanislav Zhuk. There he stood, arms folded, right in front of the TV cameras. Millions saw how he turned his back as Belousova and Protopopov entered. To an outsider this might have seemed just chance, an unfortunate slip, but we know better: we know all too well of those interviews he has so zealously been granting foreign columnists, and we know that what he did to the Golden Pair was, alas, hardly accidental. We have read those interviews in foreign publications, and we can testify that Zhuk continually expatiates on our champions' flaws with obsessively extolling his pair alone. Is this befitting for a Soviet coach? We dare not cite most of the language Zhuk uses with his colleagues. But we submit just one, barely printable, example, addressed to Honored Coach of the Soviet Union Tatiana Tolmacheva, an individual respected by all sportsmen: 'Just wait, I'll drown you like a mangy kitten in a slop pail!' This because Comrade Tomalcheva, a judge at the competition, consigned his pupils to second place. One of Zhuk's 'teaching methods' is to collect personal vouchers from his charges saying he's the one that taught them a particular technique. He keeps the vouchers in his tweed jacket, and every time his students win he shakes the papers in his fist as proof he's the one to thank for it. For some reason - whether out of fear or mesmerized by his past performance - there's no one who's yet had the nerve to straighten him out." This scathing letter was signed by six prominent soviet coaches, including the national team's senior coach Viacheslav Zaitsev as well as Tomalcheva, Elena Chaikovskaia and Igor Moskvin. The silver medal Soviet pair referenced as Zhuk's pupils in Grenoble were of course none other than his sister Tatiana and partner Alexander Gorelik.

The letter to the омсомо́льская пра́вда fuelled a showdown. Although the Soviet Sports Committee were steadfast in their support of Zhuk and maintained silence on the issue, the furor was just beginning. When the newspaper later shared that "Comrade Zhuk has been given a stern dressing down. The appropriate notation has been made in his personal file" his rival coaches didn't buy it. In his 1978 book "The Big Red Machine The Rise And Fall Of Soviet Olympic Champions", Yuri Brokhin notes that "after a training session of the National Team at a suburban Moscow dacha, the angry Zhuk decided to get even. He packed his skaters onto a bus, waited until Belousova and Protopopov showed up, promptly slammed the door in their faces, and ordered the driver to step on the gas. The Golden Pair was left stranded twenty miles outside the city. The next day Belousova and Protopopov blew into the offices of Komsolskaia Pravda brandishing two points. First Zhuk had borne them a personal grudge ever since the 1950s, when they were training under rival theorist Petr Orlov. He continually made disparaging remarks to them, talked about them behind their backs, and ultimately had them expelled. What he was doing now was no different: conspiring to turn the Sports Committee against them. Second, Zhuk was having his pupils imitate Barbara Wagner and Robert Paul while dismissing the achievements of the native Russian school, for which Belousova and Protopopov had paved the way."


On January 8, 1969, right before that year's European Championships, the омсомо́льская пра́вда published an article demanding that Zhuk be fired. This time, the media fire storm was so overwhelming that the Sports Committee removed Zhuk as the coach of the National Team heading to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. His students, Irina Rodnina and Alexei Nikolaevich Ulanov, won their first European title without their coach present, soundly defeating two time Olympic Gold Medallists Belousova and Protopopov. At a press conference after the competition in Germany, Rodnina told reporters "It's true we don't show the depth of feeling that they do, but tell me - I'm only nineteen, so why should I try to play with a kind of experience I haven't yet had and they have? I can't - and what's more, I don't want to - come off like some artiste. But I do have something of my own to offer. If Aleksei and I started imitating them, we'd never have won. Coach Zhuk found a style that was right for us - and it's just the opposite of theirs, which I think everybody's bored with by now anyway." To say that there was no love lost at the time between the Protopopov's and Rodnina, Ulanov and Zhuk is really the understatement of the late sixties. After finishing third to Rodnina and Ulanov and another legendary Soviet pair, Tamara Moskvina and Alexei Mishin, the Protopopov's retired amidst allegations that Zhuk and Valentin Piseev had a hand in their demise, Rodnina flourished with Ulanov and later Zaitsev... but Zhuk continued to zhuk up. Behind the scenes, the indomitable Rodnina was actually intimidated of her coach, so much so that she would reportedly get up even earlier in the morning than she was asked to just to be early for their lessons and avoid his wrath. Zaitsev and Zhuk didn't get along and things eventually got so bad that Rodnina eventually made a deal with the Central Red Army Club (CKSA Moscow) to allow Tatiana Tarasova to take over as their coach in 1974.


In addition to his prize pair, Stanislav Zhuk acted as coach to many other top Soviet skaters in the seventies, including Sergei Chetverukhin, Elena Vodorezova, Marina Cherkasova and Sergei Shakrai and Sergei Volkov. Brokhin's book recalls Zhuk's behavior during his pupil Elena Vodorezova's free skate at the 1977 World Championships in Tokyo: "Tweed-jacket collar tucked under the bulldog jaw, tired eyes cast downward at his shoes, he transformed every sound of the girl's skates into an image of unmistakable clarity. Suddenly he could hold back no longer, breaking his practice of many years. He raised his eyes and riveted them on Elena. His glower pierced the skater as his thoughts bubbled over in unpronounced phrases: 'What the hell is she doing?... Get up there! Somersault! No, no! Stupid brat! How many times have I told you not to move into a jump like that? Well... Dazzle those damned judges with that finale of yours! Ah... Ah! Shit... you snot-nose little dummy!' A couple of minutes later, smiling for the TV camera, the man was down by the rink kissing the girl, straightening the light blue bows that stuck up from her hair like propellers: 'Atta girl, Lenochka! You blew it here and there, but dammit, you weren't half bad! Molodets! Next year, we're gonna get that gold!'" Vodorezova actually won the free skate that year in Tokyo, but a thirteenth place finish in the school figures and a fifth place in the short program kept her in seventh place. Rodnina and Zaitsev fought with Zhuk and left him for Tatiana Tarasova. He turned his attention to Marina Pestova and Stanislav Leonovich, who won World medals in 1980 and 1982.

The drama continued! In her book "My Sergei: A Love Story", Ekaterina Gordeeva wrote at length of her experience training under Zhuk in the mid eighties: "The head coach of the army club at that time was Stanislav Alexeyvich Zhuk, who by any definition was a miserable, pitiless man... He was in his fifties, short, with a big stomach and a round face. His most arresting feature was his eyes, which were small and dark and looked very deep into you. They were very scary, peering at you from beneath his hairy eyebrows. All of Zhuk's movements were fast. He also had very strong but not very nice hands. I didn't like it when he showed us movements with his hands. And on the ice, when he demonstrated something to us with his feet, he couldn't straighten his leg. It looked ridiculous. Sergei used to laugh at Zhuk, but not to his face. We used to imitate the way he walked fast, taking very small steps. Sergei didn't like him as a person. Zhuk drank every night, and he used to speak harshly, even filthily, to the boys. He liked to order them around as if they were soldiers, because they skated for the army club. 'Shut up,' he would say. 'I'm higher than you in rank.' Zhuk liked these army rules... He used to tell us, 'If I don't coach you, you'll never be on the World or Olympic team.'"


Gordeeva continued by stating, "I shared a room with Anna Kondrashova, and Zhuk would tease us about eating dinner at the cafeteria. Anna always had a problem keeping her weight down, so we stopped going to dinner because afterward Zhuk would tell such stories about how much we ate and how much we'd weigh if we kept eating dinners like that... One time I saw Zhuk hit Anna. I was in the bathroom, and Zhuk came and started talking loudly to her. I decided I'd better stay where I was, but then they started fighting, and when I came out, he was hitting her on the back. I ran out to get Sergei, but by the time we came back Zhuk was gone. Anna was crying. That was nothing new. She cried almost every day. Zhuk used to come to her and say, 'I saw you last night go into Fadeev's room. What were you doing in there?' Even if she had done this, it was none of his business, of course. But he would torment her with his spying, and I was so young that Anna never confided in me what was behind it. I understand now that he was trying to get Anna to sleep with him. He had done this with many girls over the years."

In the spring of 1986, Gordeeva and Grinkov, Alexandr Fadeev, Anna Kondrashova and Marina Zueva sent a letter to Central Red Army Club officials reporting Zhuk's drinking, missing practices and abuse. The club appointed Stanislav Leonovich to coach Gordeeva and Grinkov, but Zhuk (a colonel by rank) remained the Central Red Army Club's head coach, continuing his work with young skaters for years to come. On November 1, 1998, he passed away at a Moscow subway station near the same club he coached at for decades. Despite his controversial (to put it mildly) career as coach, in 2008 a statue was erected in his honor at the Central Army Red Club. I don't know about you, but that seems like a tough pill to swallow.

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