Alexander Bolshunov, the Russian skier who is the odds on favorite to win Saturday’s 50-kilometer freestyle marathon at the Beijing Olympics, may have more on his mind than a momentous ski race: A potential Russian invasion of Ukraine will likely pass near to his childhood home in the rural village of Podyvot’e, in Russia’s Bryansk region.
Bolshunov grew up in Podyvot’e where his father taught him to ski on a pair of green wooden Malyshokas on trails he built by hand in the fields and forests near their home. “I don’t remember my childhood without skis,” Bolshunov has said in an interview.
When Bolshunov was a kid he could travel by ski or otherwise into Ukraine, whose border is only a couple of kilometers from town. That changed in 2014 when Russian forces and Russian backed separatists invaded the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine. Since 2018, Russian men between the ages of sixteen and sixty are banned from entering Ukraine.
Now, with tensions rising as the Russian military surrounds Ukraine, some analysts have pointed to a potential invasion route of Ukraine that would take Russian forces close to Bolshunov’s family home.
The Center for Strategic & International Studies has suggested that the northern invasion route may include “a 200-mile thrust through Troebortnoe, Russia…into Kiev.”
A major arterial highway runs through Troebortnoe. On the Russian side of the border it is called the M3 and leads to Moscow. On the Ukrainian side it is the M2 and runs close to Kiev. A Russian invasion would likely need that highway to move forces quickly toward the Ukrainian capital.
The border crossing at Troebortnoe is only about 14 miles from Podyvot’e, separated by fields and a forest that stretches near to the doorstep of Bolshunov’s family home. “Just 500 meters from the house begins a large forest,” said Bolshunov, “Where there are those [loops] that I always run when I go there – 10 k, 15 k.”
For Bolshunov, this landscape of birch and pine represents the natural idyllics of his youth. “I love to go to the forest picking mushrooms, [and] also fishing if I have enough time.” Bolshunov said in an interview with FIS.
“Childhood memories of the village—strawberries, for which we often went,” recounted Bolshunov. “Sometimes, 10 liters were collected. Another [were] blueberries—it took six hours to collect a bucket of 5-6 liters. Everything grew near our house.”
For the older residents of Podyvot’e, the forest also carries somber memories: A quiet memorial remembers the 182 villagers that were massacred by the Nazis as they hid in the forest.
Whether conflict will arise again in the area remains to be seen. Should Russian President Vladimir Putin decide to invade this weekend, it would mark the second time he has done so in conjunction with the men’s Olympic 50 k race.
In 2014, the night before the final cross country race at the Sochi Olympics—the men’s 50k—Putin held an all night meeting at the Kremlin with his security and defense leaders to discuss the annexation of Crimea.
“We finished about seven in the morning.” Putin told a Russian TV documentary as reported by the BBC. “When we were parting, I told all my colleagues, ‘We are forced to begin the work to bring Crimea back into Russia’.”
Four hours later, the men’s 50 k race kicked off in Sochi and the Russian men notoriously swept the event. Putin would fly back in time for the closing ceremonies where the three skiers received their medals before a packed stadium.
The correlation between the Olympics and Russian military adventures is quite direct. At the Sochi Olympics, the Russian medal haul helped boost Putin’s public approval numbers to record highs, and in his all night war room meeting that February, Putin carefully considered secret polling that showed favor to the annexation issue.
In the Netflix documentary Icarus, former RUSADA head Grigory Rodchenkov who helped to orchestrate the 2014 Russian state sponsored doping program, said of the post Olympic invasion of Crimea, “I felt my personal guilt for such [an] event. [If] Russia had [won] less medals, Putin would not be [so] aggressive.”
In terms of medal count, the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) heads into the final weekend in second place. Their medal haul has been bolstered by the cross country ski team which has won a third of all ROC medals. Of those, four have involved Alexander Bolshunov, who at 25 years old has already become the winningest cross country skier in Russian history. He has won a medal in every Olympic race he has entered and is poised to deliver again in the men’s 50 k on Saturday. For his success, he has been nominated by the State Duma to carry the ROC flag at the closing ceremonies.
For Bolshunov’s father in Podyvot’e, the results of his son have meant more than any economic advantage that his career has provided, and Bolshunov Sr. still prepares his ski trails in the hope that his son might make an unscheduled return. “Neighbors think I’m crazy,” Bolshunov Sr. has said. “But my son has such results. This is worth living for. Money is not manna from heaven, I never needed it.”
Bolshunov Sr. has no plans to leave Podyvot’e. “You can’t kick me out of there with a stick,” Bolshunov’s father said in 2018. “As we lived, so we live. We don’t get into politics. Ukraine is nearby, but no one seems to be coming to us from there. Everything is fine.”
Through no fault of Bolshunov’s own, a possible gold medal in the Olympic 50k could help burgeon feelings of confident nationalism in Russia and put his hometown on the frontlines of what could be the largest European war this century. When it comes to the men’s Olympic 50k race, the stakes are often much greater than gold.
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.