“Mixed Together, Fused”: On a Novel of Sports and War from Ukraine

May 5, 2022

“All strong teams are similar, like people who achieve success through their own effort and will; weak teams are different in all ways except in their results.”

These words sound familiar. “All happy families are alike,” as the famous opening to Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina goes. We are used to the radical binaries great authors use to introduce contrast into their cast of characters. But Ukrainian writer Alexei Nikitin’s 2021 novel The Face of Fire is anything but black and white. Binaries do not begin to explain the World War II-era Soviet Ukraine of this novel. Nor indeed the Ukraine of today. 

Ukraine has always been a cultural crossroads. Its people have always been multi-ethnic, multi-confessional, multi-lingual. And across the centuries those people have experienced all kinds of conflict, horrors, trauma. There are few Yiddish-speakers these days in Ukraine, and the Russian language, once commonly heard, may also disappear from these lands. Nikitin is one of those Ukrainians who writes in Russian, and this novel was first published in that language. A Ukrainian translation of the novel is already available, and thanks to the efforts of translators Catherine O’Neil and Dominique Hoffman, English-language readers will soon also get the opportunity to explore Nikitin’s beautiful prose and haunting stories.

Born in 1967 in Kyiv, then the capital of Soviet Ukraine, Alexei Nikitin has spent the past dozen years writing in Russian about the city he loves, a city that has been much in the news since Russia launched its full-scale invasion. His earlier works are more playful, some even postmodern. Victory Park (2014), for example, highlights the amusing and often absurd moments in the lives of its characters. They pursue higher education, chase pretty girls, and make mischief, reminding me of my own experiences as a college student in Leningrad in the late 1980s. The Face of Fire is a departure for him. A sprawling, historical family saga à la Tolstoy or Vasily Grossmann, it takes us back to a grim period in the life of Ukraine.

The Face of Fire tells the tale of a Kyiv family during the years before and during World War II. It’s a love story of two young Russian-speaking Ukrainian athletes: Ilya Goldinov, a boxer, and Feliksa, a girl from the countryside who has moved to Kyiv to compete as a sprinter. Ilya and Feliksa’s union mirrors the easy relationships among different nationalities that we see in peacetime: while his mother is Jewish and sprinkles her speech with Yiddish expressions, her mother is Polish and her father Ukrainian, and they belong to a sect of Stundists — pacifists and vegetarians who follow a German Protestant faith. A fellow athlete, Kolya Zagalsky, is described as a “real looker: a tall, blue-eyed blond.” Lyonya Saplivenko, Ilya’s boxing coach, is an ethnic Ukrainian from Novorossiysk, but the Kyiv director of the NKVD club (whom Feliksa meets at Ilya’s boxing match) is the Jewish Samuil Aronovich Rebrik. Kostya Shchegotsky has moved to Kyiv to play forward for the Ukrainian “Dynamo” soccer team. He’s an ethnic Russian.

Nikitin presents his characters in and around stadiums and sporting events, drawing a melancholy parallel between athletic competition and the war that looms. His description of Kolya Zagalsky’s experience during his army service brings the military theme into the novel almost from the beginning and ties the two subjects together. After completing his education at the sports institute, Kolya finds himself in a regiment quartered in Finland with no real sense as to why they are there. About the real course of events in those frigid lands he and his regiment are told nothing. As the narrator explains: “Instead the political administration of the Red Army had sent metodichki [manuals] to the political officers, filled with historical data according to which these lands had belonged to Novgorod back in the fourteenth century and thus even now we were not seizing foreign territory but were essentially fighting to regain that which was ours.” The Finnish working people, the soldiers are told, long to be liberated. This too sounds familiar: these metodichki are the direct historical predecessors of the lies Russian soldiers — and the larger Russian population — are being fed about Ukraine today.

After the German attack on June 22, sports become a luxury in Kyiv, and Ilya Goldinov leaves the boxing ring behind. He is put at the head of his own detachment made up of athletes and firemen, but throughout the novel we see Ilya continuing to think like an athlete. Seeing a traffic policeman, Ilya notes: “he is dancing from one foot to another like a boxer in the ring.” “Sports are driven by ambition and jealousy,” he believes, and “if you look a little further, ambition and jealousy drive everything in our world...”

Ilya and his soldiers accidentally engage German troops, losing men on the way but gathering up German weapons. With no direct orders (“Act according to circumstances,” Ilya is told), the survivors move through ravines and forests and join up with the Sixth Rifle Corps in the village of Tagancha. Here — as in contemporary journalistic accounts of the toponyms showing up in dispatches from this latest invasion — we get a vivid sense of just how history has permeated Ukrainian soil.

The oldest soldier in Ilya’s platoon, 52-year-old Sozont Isachenko, begins to reminisce about the region. Tagancha, he tells the other men, was the estate of long-forgotten 19th-century poet Pyotr Buturlin. Isachenko muses: “Here everything became mixed … Poles, Tatars, Russians and Jews, Ukrainians, Moldovans. This is Ukraine — this is our people and our culture; everything is mixed together, fused, you can’t tear it apart.” Ilya asks Isachenko to quote the lines that had come to his mind in the forest, and the old soldier reluctantly obliges: “An orange sunset glowed, but from the lilac abyss a swarm of constellations had already emerged. And peace, like an angel from pleasant dreams, flew over Ukraine as a scented evening fog embraced it …” Embarrassed, he trails off: “Well, and so on.”

Nikitin began work on this novel shortly after the 2014 Russian invasion of Donbas and annexation of Crimea. Never forgetting that Ukraine is in danger, Nikitin and his protagonist focus on the significance of their homeland: “Everything had changed in his life, but Ukraine, even occupied by an enemy army, remained his Ukraine.” I dove into Face of Fire in the late winter, and my timing could not have been better, or perhaps worse. Reading the scene set on June 22, 1941 — the day the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union — and the wartime scenes — families being evacuated from Kyiv, men forming partisan groups to defend against invaders — felt utterly surreal in late February and early March. Just as during World War II, Ukrainians have had to run and hide, to fear and flee, this time attacked not by the Nazi army but by their neighbors from the east, whose propaganda machine labels the Ukrainians as fascists and Nazis. It would be surreal, except it’s real.

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Angela Brintlinger is professor of Russian literature and director of the Center for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies at Ohio State University. She has published a monograph and several articles about the portrayal of war in Russian fiction and film.