I have always loved sports. As a preschooler, I ran with my small friends in hole-hole, in the ninth grade I began to seriously engage in basketball, did not leave it studying at the academy, and kept my love for this game for my whole life. But, apparently, neither my mother nor father wanted me to become a high-class athlete. They did everything to stop me that they could, starting from the fact that they did not give me a trifle for bus tickets to travel to the gym and ending with them not allowing me to train.

So Thieves Do Not Cut People

I encountered organized children’s sports for the first time in the second grade. A school physical education teacher decided to open a gymnastics section for second-graders and announced it. Mother knew him very well, and I expected that she would let me go to classes. Inspired, I rushed home and publicly asked for permission, but my mother discouraged me by the ban.

“Why, mom?” I asked.

“Because this is not a circle for pupils, but for thieves,” my mother  answered without a second thought. “So that thieves do not climb the streets and cut people.”

To argue with my mother was useless. The gymnastics section passed by me.

Will Not Go in a Sweatshirt

However, good people did not abandon their attempts to introduce me to the sport. And a serious step in this direction was made by the physical education teacher of eight-year school No. 111, Pavel Vasilyevich Drobyshev. He approached my mother and bluntly said that I was tall and I needed to practice basketball. Mother didn’t like it terribly. She returned home irritated and indignant: “He walks in a worker sweatshirt and wants my son to go in a sweatshirt!” She did not see the difference in social status between the school teacher and a high-class athlete. But, nevertheless, Drobishev encouraged her to let me go to classes in the school basketball section.

Training in the basketball section of provincial eight-year school yielded little. Usually, the trainer—this was a school gym, teachers in turn played this role—gave us a ball, and we played 3×3 or 5×5 until we got bored.

This pleasure did not last long and ended in failure. I had a fight with my rival/friend Yurka Ermakov. It turned out so. Usually, we came to the gym in a sports uniform and just changed shoes. Leaving gym, we also only changed shoes, tying the laces of the sneaker and then throwing this ligament over the shoulder—one sneaker in front, on the chest, the other—behind, on the back. I did not know who threw a cigarette butt into Ermakov’s sneaker, which was in the back, and did not participate in this trick. His mother, having discovered the indecency in her son’s sports shoes, deliciously flogged him and didn’t let him go to training for several days. For some reason, Yurka decided that I threw a cigarette butt and began to bully and nag me in every way. It ended when I grappled with him in the locker room. I returned home in abrasions and bruises, and my mother joyfully forbade me to walk into the gym.

However, basketball had sunk into my soul. The advantage in growth gave me the opportunity to prevail over small players and made my thinness and clumsiness invisible. In addition, I was noticed by young men who trained in the basketball section at the Petrovsky Palace of Culture. They began to invite me to classes, and I began to ask my mother. DK was in the park near our house. Mother could have checked me elementarily, spending only a few minutes. In addition, the basketball section in the Palace of Culture was visited by the son of a respected person at Petrovka, a gynecologist from Beshuli. Undoubtedly, this played a role, and Mother allowed it.

Training in the Palace of Culture was conducted by a real coach. And although he was young and inexperienced, these exercises were already beneficial. I learned to drive the ball alternately with both hands, throw it correctly in the basket, and began to stand out among my peers. In the winter, the championship of the district among the mines began, and although by that time I was still very weak as a player, I went to the site in the starting five. We, the team of Mine No. 4/21, became champions.

The championship of the district among mine collectives was an event in the sports life of the district. They wrote about him in the district and mine newspapers, and, of course, my last name and photograph got there as the youngest and most promising. Mother was not particularly pleased. She did not see the benefits of my sports activities.


During the winter holidays, the district championship among schools was held. Of course, this event was not as significant as the championship among the mines, but it also left a mark in my memory. And that’s why. The miners were not awarded medals, only certificates. The winners of the championship were awarded with diplomas and medals: gold, silver, and bronze. There were rumors that the best player will awarded a ticket to Artek. The miners were given a prize for the first place, each getting ten rubles, but the players decided to give this money to the coach so that he could sew a new suit for his wedding. I didn’t mind.

We lost the championship of the district among schools. By mutual agreement, the final game was judged by two representatives from both teams: one from our school, the other from the school of rivals. Their judge favored his team with terrible force, and although during the break we expressed everything to our judge, he still did not get the necessary audacity to favor us. The final whistle recorded the victory of the opponent. We took second place. For some reason, this suited the head of our team, the schoolteacher, and he did not protest, although the students asked him.

We were lined up for our rewards. The distribution of certificates and medals began. They put a silver circle around my neck and handed me a certificate. The awarding ceremony for third place began, but suddenly, the secretary of the director came running and said that some director of the mine was going to reward it. The team leaders collected the certificates and medals and carried them to the coaching room.

There were three coal mines nearby, and no one knew exactly which boss was going. After some time, the music was interrupted, and they began to build us again. I noticed how some guy got attached to our team in the middle of it. He was brought all the same by the school teacher and put in growth in the line of players. I sometimes saw this kid in school training, but he never played for the team of our school. My friend Slavik Shcheglov, who was the penultimate one, in front of me, said that this kid was the son of the director of the mine, who would be awarded certificates and medals. I was the longest and in the ranks was the last.

A note was published in the district newspaper that the district school basketball competitions were held. The best player of the tournament was this kid who had suddenly appeared and had not played a single match. But the newspaper did not mention this nuance. But she wrote that he was awarded a ticket to Artek.

Permit, Zinaida Nikolaevna!

At the district championship among the mines, I met two wonderful young men: Volodya Nakonechnikov and Slava Kovalev. They were not just celebrities; they were celebrities of an all-Union scale.

At the very least, in the U.S.S.R., basketball competitions were very popular.

Volodya and Slava were champions of the U.S.S.R. among educational institutions of the coal industry. The team of the Rutchenkovsky Mining College, in which they were leading players, even beat the teams of the Donetsk Polytechnic and Moscow Mining Institutes. In addition, when Nakonechnikov was a schoolboy, he was a pupil of my mother, and she knew him well.

They, especially Volodya, began to persuade me to go to training at his college. I would agree without hesitation, but the final solution to the matter depended on my mother, and without her consent, I could not promise anything. Knowing her attitude to sports, I waited for a convenient moment, but everything turned out like no one had expected.

The leadership of the college sometimes, in order to popularize its foundation, arranged meetings of teachers and students of the college with pupils of schools. Usually, eighth graders accompanied by teachers were gathered from these boys for such meetings, but Volodya asked me to come.

The meeting took place in the assembly hall of the Palace of Culture. I was surprised when I saw Nakonechnikov at the presidium table. Even more surprised was his performance, which was one of the last. He very coolly told about the victory of the technical school team, but concluded it with the phrase that Zinaida Nikolaevna (that was my mother’s name) should allow her son to attend the basketball section. All those present began to stare at my mother, and Vovka continued to conjure: “Allow, Zinaida Nikolaevna, allow!” And Mother gave up and allowed it.

But Mother was not going to fully fulfill her promise. She began to forbid me from training under the pretext of my poor studies, bad behavior, and lack of money for tickets. My friends took measures and began to ask the coach to figure out why I was absent from training.

Once, when she said that I received a bad mark, the trainer called the class teacher and it turned out that I did not have bad grades. The coach called my mother back, and when she arrived at school, the class teacher asked her in the presence of other teachers why she was lying.

My furious mother came home and began to beat me. At the training, the guys saw bruises on my legs and told the coach about it. The next day, the trainer called the district department of public education and told the chief responsible for physical education and sports. The person in charge came to school and summoned my mother to the principal’s office. I don’t know what they were talking about, but after that, my mother stopped banning me from training.

Two Are Looking for a Third

College was far away. It was necessary to go from the stop “Trest” to the stop “Rutchenkovo.” Opposite this stop, in the middle of Freedom Square, stood a strange monument called “Fighters for Soviet Power.” It was a sculpture of two workers with weapons in their hands and in tense poses. The people gave this monument its name: “Two Are Looking for a Third.” The one-way road took more than half an hour to ride, buses ran it unevenly, and it took time to change clothes. The training itself lasted about one and a half to two hours. This happened four times a week.

My mother was terribly nervous and, as a rule, my trips were accompanied by her cries that I “chased the ball instead of poring over textbooks.” Of course, combining study and hard training was not easy, but I tried my best.

Once, I almost came to an open conflict with my mother. I must honestly admit that I treated different school subjects differently. If I liked math, I taught it carefully and diligently. I was interested in history, physics, and chemistry: antiquities, “gimlet rules,” and “Kliperon-Mendeleev equations” attracted my attention and curiosity.

I studied Russian language and literature for two reasons. The main was the exactingness of my mother. She did not recognize any marks except for the “fives,” and her attempts to find flaws in my literacy drove me into a rage, which, of course, I hid. The second reason was that I loved literature, readily read not only school books, but simply fiction books, and disliked those who wrote illiterately in their native language.

I simply ignored social studies, astronomy, the Ukrainian language, and some other subjects, taking the time to study them only during meals and during breaks between lessons. This could not last long, and once, I got a “deuce” in social studies. The situation was aggravated by the fact that the teacher had forgiven several times my knowledge gaps, but this time could not stand it and complained to my mother. Of course, I could devote one or two Sundays to this subject, and thoroughly learn the topics, but I did not guess to agree on this with the teacher, and no one prompted this to me.

My mother immediately rushed into the classroom—we were already in different schools by that time—and gave me a public scolding. She liked to look like a demanding mother, and she, not embarrassed by others, slapped me in the face. I bounced, turned around, and left school.

By that time, I met several guys who studied at a technical school, lived in a dormitory, and attended a section. I envied them; they did not spend time on the road, but instead gave it to study and training. Their parents did not pursue them, and they lived a happy student life.

I looked home—there were no parents—took a passport, a bag with sports things, and went to training. Of course, I arrived early, but this gave me the opportunity to talk with the coach about being enrolled in a college. Exams for him had long passed, the school year had begun, and it was difficult to do. However, the coach considered me promising and promised the next day to talk with the director of the college. I stayed overnight with my friends.

The next morning, I went back to school to pick up the certificate of graduation from the eight-year school. The director invited me into the office, and refused to give me a certificate. Then he picked up the phone and called the school where my mother worked. She came, but this time did not scream. My mother was terribly afraid of the superiors, and although the director of the 101st school was not her supervisor, he could tell the head of the district about this conversation, who knew both my mother and me.

We decided that I would not leave school, my mother would let me go to training, and I would tighten the gap in subjects. As a result of this, I lost the only Sunday weekend.


The coach led a section on basketball, not only in college, but also at the university. By regional standards, Donetsk State University had a decent team that fought with basketball players from the medical, commercial, and polytechnic institutes for first place in the region among universities. Although I was a schoolboy, the coach began to connect me to classes with the university team, and then to student competitions. The rules allowed it. Now I had to go to the center five times a week, because on Sundays there were either competitions or training sessions. Sometimes the trainer scheduled classes on Saturday night, when the basketball gym was free.

This wildly unnerved my mother and she stopped giving me money for travel, but couldn’t knock me out of the rut; I continued to attend training. My friend Slavik Shcheglov and I upgraded two coins—made a penny and three pennies on the strings—we lowered them into an appropriate machine and knocked out a ticket or drank carbonated water. There were two soda machines in the university corridor, and after training, a cool drink was very welcome. My great assistant was the side pocket of the bag, where I put the used bus tickets. At the request of the controllers to present a ticket, I opened this pocket, and they came into a stupor, seeing there a whole tangle of these pieces of paper.

In the end, my mother could not stand it and decided to talk with the coach. Unforgettable Vladimir Danilovich Prokopov! What a huge mistake you made by telling my mother that basketball is a hobby. Under no circumstances could basketball be opposed to study, as my mother did. Since then, my mother began and ended her moralizing with the phrase “even the coach said that basketball is a hobby, and you, a long bastard, have completely abandoned your studies!” I’ll add that I have only two “fours” in my certificate for a ten-year-school, the remaining ratings are “five”: excellent.

The last spring school holidays were marked by zonal basketball competitions. Schoolchildren of the U.S.S.R. were preparing for the 1972 Spartakiad, and Donetsk sports functionaries hoped that I would get into the Ukrainian team.

The championship of the zone took place in Lugansk, which was then called Voroshilovgrad. My mother, as usual, tried not to let me go there, but the official called her directly, and my mother, cursing, was forced to agree. She began to throw at me with my sports things, cursing everything in the world and, first of all, of course, “the long bastard, which completely abandoned studies.” Such “wires” had a depressing effect on me. When I tried to call home—my aunt had an telephone in her apartment—when my mother picked up the phone, I immediately heard a series of threats from her, that if I was a “long bully” I wouldn’t go to university, then she didn’t know what to make of me.

In the zone, we performed well and took first place. True, my contribution to the victory was minimal; it was due to the fact that I came to basketball late and did not receive the appropriate training at the youth sports school. Parents, walking, ruined the talent of their son. The final games were to be held in April in Kiev, but my mother, learning that I must miss a week of school to go, got up with bones and did not let me go there. At the same time, the impression was created that she flaunted her severity, trying to gain authority from her superiors.

Just before leaving Lugansk, the chief judge of the competition approached me and asked about my studies in school. I had nothing to hide, and I told everything as it is. He invited me to go to study to the Dzerzhinsky Military Academy in Moscow and gave his phone number. Such an offer was unexpected for me. I saw myself as a student at one of Donetsk’s universities, but the “academy” and “Moscow” struck my imagination, and I took the phone number.


For all installments from In the Shadow of the Belt, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Introduction
  2. Chapter 1: Early Childhood
  3. Chapter 2: School? This is Just the Beginning, Baby…
  4. Chapter 3: Cognizing Life
  5. Chapter 4: Football as it Is
  6. Chapter 5: My Friend Sasha Bichukov
  7. Chapter 6: Score
  8. Chapter 7: Again, the Transience of Being, Part 1
  9. Chapter 7: Again, the Transience of Being, Part 2
  10. Chapter 8: Old Colony, Part 1
  11. Chapter 8: Old Colony, Part 2
  12. Chapter 8: Old Colony, Part 3
  13. Chapter 8: Old Colony, Part 4
  14. Chapter 8: Old Colony, Part 5
  15. Chapter 9: School Again, Part 1
  16. Chapter 9: School Again, Part 2
  17. Chapter 10: Drama Studio