Story of Soviet Cycling: The Nikolai Razouvaev Files
The introduction to Nikolai Razouvaev’s series in RIDE Cycling Review was in 2014. It begans with the following statement:
Thirty years ago, Nikolai Razouvaev was a junior world champion. He experienced the Soviet cycling system in its prime. It was more than sport, it was a way of life.
When Razouvaev won his world title, he was 18. When he started documenting his experiences as a member of the national team in the former USSR, he was 48.
He was a racer at at time when his government used sport as a means of propaganda.
“A good deal of my past is buried in a country you can’t find on a map anymore,” wrote Razouvaev to introduce himself to RIDE’s readers. “Once a mighty, all-conquering powerhouse, it crashed to the ground as violently as it rose to the global stage in 1917, waving a red flag in one hand and shaking a fist at the rest of the world with the other.
“We stood alone, our teachers taught us. In the sea of capitalism, an inhumane system of exploitation and greed, we were the first nation on earth to stand up from our proletarian knees to start a new era in human history, a new social order of equality, peace and prosperity.
“We turned an agrarian, feudal empire into a leading industrial nation in two decades. We laid down 30 million of our fellow men to rid the world of Nazism. We rose from the rubble and ashes of the WWII and launched the first spacecraft in the history of humankind. To safeguard our way of life, we built a nuclear arsenal deadly enough to destroy the planet more than once.
“Firmly on our feet and with the world rotting away in its immoral pursuit of riches, by the 1950s we were ready to show socialism’s superiority in the sporting arena.”
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This is not your typical story about cycling. It is series that includes references to sport and training and racing and even bicycle equipment. But there are also political and social references, and talk about doping – performance enhancing and ‘recreational’ alike – and myriad other topics.
It is a unique perspective on an amazing life lived at a time of enormous change.
Razvouvaev won his world championship in 1984. It was a time when communism was struggling and, while he raced around the world, he watched on as perestroika changed the dynamic of the Soviet Union.
He would turn to booze, cigarettes and illicit drugs during his time with the national team. And, while trying to showcase Soviet dominance, he was constantly considering how he would be able to defect.
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Below are links to PDFs of all nine features as they appeared in print.
Click the files below to read the complete story.
Story of Soviet cycling: part 1, #RIDE66 (published in December 2014)
Razouvaev introduces himself by referencing the political climate at the time he raced. Sport, he surmises, was used to prove that the Soviet system was superior to that of “the West”.
“We sent an ice hockey team on a tour of Canada and the USA in the 1970s to humiliate the NHL and show the North American public that Soviet amateur hockey players are better than wealthy, lazy professionals. The number of Olympic medals we harvested every four years was so enormous, we thought that, by the 21st century, there would be nothing for us to win. We marched to world dominance on all fronts in steady, unstoppable strides.
“This, in essence, was the mindset I had when, after trying several different sports, I fell for cycling at the age of 12. The Peace Race and the Olympic Games, both closed for depraved professionals, were the two most important events in cycling. Yes, there are those “profis” and their Tour de France, but they have their own playground, fuelled by drugs and money. Take away the dope and pay cheques, and we’ll own them just like we own everyone else, save the East Germans and maybe the Poles, to a degree. It’s good to be kings, get high and never come down…”
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Story of Soviet cycling: part 2, #RIDE67 (published in March 2015)
“Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory was a perfect match for the Soviet road cycling machine,” writes Razouvaev at the start of part two. “A state religion married to a rigorous selection process designed to sort the wheat from the tares.
“We’re animals, I was taught in school, highly evolved and sophisticated, but animals nevertheless. We may play chess and write poetry, but we also build nuclear weapons and scorch each other with them.
“Examine the human history, I was told, and notice how bloody it is. Look as far back as you can and what do you see? War after war after war. We never stop, do we? You either kill or someone else kills you.
“Darwinism’s grim implications have been camouflaged by communist rhetoric and brainwashing propaganda about how bright and glorious the future will be once the ignorant idiots in the West see the light of Marxism. Believe in it and hang everyone who doesn’t agree – which is what we did – and join us in our man-made heaven on earth. In the meantime, toughen the hell up and prepare for the worst because the sport you have been stupid enough to pick will bring that primeval animal out of you real quick and you’ll either give in and join the pack or it will spit you out like lukewarm waste.”
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Story of Soviet cycling: part 2, #RIDE67 (published in May 2015)
Part three begins with a quote from George Orwell’s famous book ‘1984’.
“Life, if you looked about you, bore no resemblance not only to the lies that streamed out of the telescreens, but even to the ideals that the Party was trying to achieve…”
And then Razouvaev compares it in context with his own life.
“How George Orwell could describe the Soviet Union of the 1980s in 1947 is hard to explain; but he did. The triumphant march we started on in 1917 to rid the world of capitalism was near its end if the ‘telescreens’ told the truth. The adversary, the United States and its lackeys, is weak and about to crumble. The West has nothing to live for – those cowards – and no common goal to unite around. We will prevail, shouted the slogans on the billboards in my country, the victory is ours.
“I don’t remember the day or even the year I discovered the world I believed in was fake. Perhaps there was no such day. Perhaps it was a process, an evolution of sorts. Perhaps it even started one afternoon when I came over to a friend’s place to borrow a couple of books. His dad was a librarian and the apartment the family lived in looked more like a library than a dwelling place – almost every wall was turned into a bookshelf filled with volumes of literature of all kinds. It is here he passed on to me one day a hand-typed copy of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. At the time, a mere possession of this work, never mind ‘distributing’ it to friends, was a criminal offence with a long jail term.”
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Story of Soviet cycling: part 4, #RIDE67 (published in September 2015)
The fourth instalment of the series explains the ways Soviet athlete could exploit their circumstance and profit from their ability to travel…
“At the dawn of a mid-August morning, as an Air France flight carrying four newly-minted junior world champions from Paris touched down in Sheremetyevo International Airport, Anton Morgatchev was on a commuter train from Sergiev Posad to Moscow. Dazed and confused for three days in a row, he was slowly regaining a grip on a reality. The irrational part of him believed he was still in control. The drugs, the parties, these are nothing but the means – the gateway – to escape the clutches of depressukha, that all-pervasive despair many in the Soviet Union lived in from the moment they saw the hole they were stuck in from birth was not only too deep to climb out of, it was covered with metal bars. The rational part, that sober, intelligent, clear thinking ego was in an emergency mode for some time now – the opium ship Anton had been sailing on until now was heading for a fatal wreck.
“The proverbial point of no return was too close to pretend everything was fine. He tried to convince himself he could get off any time, that it wasn’t too difficult…”
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Story of Soviet cycling: part 5, #RIDE70 (published in December 2015)
Soviet athletes had things to consider other than just doing their sport. As Razouvaev points out (repeatedly) the KGB had a constant presence…
“We drove in silence toward Kreshchatyk, then plunged down by the ancient cobbles of Vladimirsky Descent, past the Pochtovaya Square, into Podol’s narrow, rambling streets. Looking out the window at the pedestrians, in their colourless winter jackets and coats, I wondered what the protocol should be when the KGB sends an officer with an uber-Ukrainian name like Bogdan – in a black Volga for goodness’ sake – to pick you up. Should I ask where we’re going, what’s going on? Or pretend I have nothing to worry about, show patience and respect for the authorities?
“‘Are you a member of the Komsomol, Nikolai?’
“Bogdan broke the silence. Is this what it’s all about? Me, slipping through the system, reaching the national team’s ranks, travelling abroad, becoming a university student, without ever taking out the Komsomol membership? Don’t you guys have CIA spies to catch?”
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Story of Soviet cycling: part 6, #RIDE72 (published in May 2016)
“Not going to the 1985 Coors Classic was a blow that sent me into a knock-out. I wanted to stop cycling. Quitting was already in my thoughts on and off after the car ride with Bogdan in Kiev, but my desire to get out of the country was stronger than the thought of what he might do with my case. I saw the first two non-selections for European races as a combination of my average performance and young age. Perhaps, I thought, they want to spare me for the second half of the season or even for next year, but then I looked at Igor Soumnikov, a guy who I won the gold medal with in the junior team time trial at the world championships of 1984, and he was doing the program from A to Z. By June, he had qualified for the subsequent worlds team time trial in Italy and won another gold, this time in the elite amateur category.
“Soumnikov joined the Soviet national team later than me and, as soon as he did, he was on the ball. No matter how small a race was early in the season, he was all over it…”
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Story of Soviet cycling: part 7, #RIDE73 (published in September 2016)
“With trembling hands, I zipped my bag, slung it over my shoulder, slammed the door and walked out of my room. Once outside, I headed toward the busy Krasnoarmeyskaya Street to catch a taxi to the airport. I was always lucky with taxis in Kiev, they seemed to hang around me everywhere I went. I saw one rattling down the cobbles coming from Lev Tolstoy Square. I ran and reached the curb in time to hail the cab.
“‘Airport,’ I said to the driver when I opened the front passenger door. In a country that had done away with free market, people in control of goods and services had no incentive to do their job right. With fixed salaries, paid regardless of how well you did your job, or even if you did it at all, apathy was the prime attitude of many Soviet citizens between eight in the morning and five in the afternoon. Everyone in charge of anything of value acted like a God-ordained emperor. You couldn’t get into a taxi, tell the cabbie where you wanted to go and expect him to drive you. Instead, the protocol was to tell the destination first and wait for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ verdict.”
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Story of Soviet cycling: part eight, #RIDE74 (published in December 2016)
“Yuri Tonkoshkurov, the man we knew as ‘Zyama’, pulled out his military ID, stuck it in the guard’s face and ordered him to open the door. We stepped into a sun-lit, 100 metre wide square surrounded by two- and three-storey buildings. An alley at its far end led deeper into the garrison. We walked to a building on our right, climbed two flights of stairs, and reached a wooden blue door at the end of a long, dark corridor.
“‘The Colonel is a nice guy,’ Zyama said when we stopped in front of the door. ‘Don’t open your mouth unless he asks you a question.’ He knocked and after a muffled ‘yes’ from the other side, we walked in.
“An obese frog of a man with loaded bags under his eyes sat behind the desk filled with stacks of manila folders, printing paper, and a crystal ashtray in the middle full of cigarette butts. With his face behind a smoke screen, the Colonel was about to add one more to the heap, holding it next to his puffed lips between two brown fingers.
“‘Kapitan,’ he said, blowing smoke out of his mouth. ‘What brings you here?’ He pointed at the chair next to his desk and said, ‘Have a seat.’
“I followed Zyama like I was on a leash.”
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Story of Soviet cycling: part 9, #RIDE75 (published in March 2017)
“The Titan team runs like clockwork. It’s how Yuri Elizarov wants it. You land in Kiev and a team bus is waiting for you. They brought the bus with two drivers soon after I came back to the Soviet Union from the worlds in 1984 and I liked to think it was a bonus for two gold medals we earned in France. I didn’t like the drivers the first time we met. Tolik was an old-timer, a long-haul trucker who could drive a semi-trailer through a needle’s eye; and Grisha an Afghan veteran. They knew jack all about cycling.
“You don’t ask a rider how the race was because you want to have a small talk. And what can I tell you anyway? I came in 75th; so… how far was the winner from me? Same time dude, same time.”
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Nikolai Razouvaev (above) in 2014.
Nikolai has written part 10. He had been asked to “try and reach a conclusion”.
“I’ll do my best,” he replied.
He didn’t quite get to the finish of his story.
RIDE Media is proud to have helped introduce his writing to a broad audience. We will continue to collaborate and tell the story of Soviet cycling from a unique perspective. From episode 10 onward, it will be published online only.
Razouvaev lives in Brisbane with his wife and children.