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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Sport Skating on Thin Ice

ST. PETERSBURG -- Another Olympic figure-skating season having arrived, Artur Dmitriev and Oksana Kazakova entered a dance studio above the Troika nightclub on a recent night. Chorus girls usually rehearse in the cramped studio, but Dmitriev and Kazakova came to polish the choreography in their pairs routine.

Dmitriev won a gold medal in 1992 and a silver in 1994 with a former partner, and even while he danced this night in Topsiders, his familiar style of great emotion and balletic power was evident. But only until the studio's electricity went out during rehearsal, leaving Dmitriev and Kazakova without lights or music.

It was just one more obstacle for the two, who had been forced to find another training site because a horse show at the Jubilee sports arena made the ice rink there unavailable.

These inconveniences -- and the lack of financial opportunities from competitions, exhibitions, tours and teaching -- have prompted as many as 100 skaters and coaches from the former Soviet Union to live and train in the United States.

In Russia, rinks are closing and children who had skated free under the communist system now must pay for lessons. And if top coaches continue to leave, those in the sport wonder, who will be around to teach the next generation of skaters?

"If the older coaches stay here for the young skaters, it will stay at a high level," Dmitriev said of his sport. "If not, it's going to go down, down. Not fast, but down for sure."

His generation seems secure. Athletes from Russia and Ukraine won every figure-skating event at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. And it would surprise no one if Russia won gold medals in the men's competition, pairs and ice dancing in February at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

Dmitriev, Kazakova, the 1994 Olympic champion Aleksei Urmanov and other skaters here have learned to deal with the concerns largely by ignoring them. In part, that is because they are in a financial position to do so. The top skaters can earn more than $100,000 a season by competing and touring abroad, so if on occasion there is no gas for the Zamboni machine that resurfaces the ice, they can buy it themselves.

Or they simply skate on the rutted, unprepared ice, just as they do if the Zamboni driver decides not to work because he has not been paid. If the ice is too hard or too soft, if there is not enough light, if there are no trampolines to hone acrobatic skills, well, the skaters have long adjusted to lives of insufficiency.

St. Petersburg is the heart of Russian ice skating. Among those based here are Tamara Moskvina, the coach who produced a gold medal in 1984 with Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev, and another gold in 1992 with Dmitriev and Natalya Mishkutenok, and her husband, Igor Moskvin, who coached the legendary Protopopovs to two gold medals in the 1960s. Also here is Urmanov, and his coach, Aleksei Mishin, a former pairs partner of Moskvina.

"Before the changes," Moskvina said, referring to the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991, "I could call the skating federation or manager of the rink and say, 'The ice is bad.' He could order someone to make the ice. Now, if people have not been paid in months, how can I make demands? This is normal for us. I can either spend my time complaining and become bitter, or I find solutions."

Some problems, though, cannot be ignored. The Jubilee arena, where the Olympic champions train, had a floor of dirt for two weeks in September for an international equestrian competition. This led Urmanov and Mishin, his coach, to head to Sweden and Holland to train.

Moskvina located ice for Dmitriev and Kazakova at a factory that makes agricultural machinery. The rink was built as part of a sports complex for the factory's workers, but the smokestacks seem dormant now, and the ice has been taken over by figure-skating and hockey clubs.