Vasili Alexeyev, the premier sports hero of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, stood in his garden amid his strawberry plants, his red peppers and his roses. The autumn sun shone on the south Russia as if it were the south of France. Alexeyev's arms, thick as tree trunks, were akimbo, the vast muscles at rest in the sun. His kingly chest and belly, broader than any barrel, bass drum or office safe in common use today, expanded surrealistically when he inhaled. His torso glittered when he moved, for he was draped from right shoulder to left hip—a distance of perhaps four feet—with a brilliant vermilion silk sash adorned with row upon row of small medallions; the sash was so laden it looked like a swath of golden mail. It weighed seven or eight pounds, but was no burden for Vasili Alexeyev. At 33, Alexeyev weighs 324 pounds, stands 6'1�" and is the strongest man in the world.
Alexeyev is in fact the greatest super-heavyweight weight lifter of all time. He was the first man ever to lift 500 pounds, in 1970, and in the same year to total more than 600 kilograms (1,323 pounds) in the three standard lifts—since reduced to two. He has been the weight-lifting champion in his class in the Soviet Union and the European and world champion since 1970, and is the reigning Olympic champion. He has broken 67 world weight-lifting records. He has jerked 537 pounds, snatched 413, pressed 518.
But on this occasion Alexeyev was posing for formal portraits in his garden, wearing a heavy black suit and beginning to perspire. He glowered at the photographer from beneath furry black eyebrows. "Smile?" said the photographer meekly. Alexeyev's face became thoughtful. He scowled and then bellowed, "Schmile!" The sound rose from the deep caverns of his chest like the thunder and turbulence within a volcano. "Schmile! Then he smiled. And the camera clicked. Smile. Click. And so it went. Alexeyev's brow dripped as the noon sun beat upon his black wool suit. At last the formal shooting was done, but Alexeyev held up a huge hand and spoke urgently in Russian. His two sons, Sergei, 12, and Dmitri, 9, hurried to his side. Alexeyev removed the glorious sash and arranged his sons in front of him. Then he gently hung the silk across both their chests. "Schmile!" he roared and beamed at the camera. The photographer took many pictures of the proud father and his sons before Vasili Alexeyev pronounced the session over.
Vasili Alexeyev lives in the small city of Shakhty, on the steppes, about 800 miles southwest of Moscow. Shakhty is not mentioned in guidebooks to the Soviet Union. The city has been closed to Western visitors for years, not because it has any secret installations but because there are no official Intourist facilities to manage the rigidly controlled trips to which tourists are customarily restricted.
The exceptional arrangements accorded me involved simply a translator (a Moscow sportswriter named Yuri Solomakhin) and the almost constant presence of a tiny, balding, ashen-faced fellow we came to call simply The Chairman. His name was Leonid Tkach and he was, in fact, the chairman of the sports committee of Shakhty and our official host. Proper and usually quite stiff, though cordial, The Chairman did not seem well. At times he spoke to us, through Yuri, of stomach troubles that had long plagued him.
The city of Shakhty has over 200,000 inhabitants, and nearly 20,000 of them are coal miners. Mining is the city's principal industry, and has been for about 100 years. The shafts of the mines at Shakhty are driven uncommonly deep in order to reach the richest veins of coal; one has been sunk to a depth of a mile and a quarter. A gigantic electric star of red lights glows above the mines when the miners are producing their quota; when it is dark they are not. Last fall the star blazed through the nights of my visit.
But this is no Appalachia. The city of Shakhty is pleasant, its streets lined with trees. The central park has sidewalk cafes and tranquil ponds, and old ladies nod in the sun as they wait for someone to buy the bouquets of flowers displayed in pails at their feet. The young women wear miniskirts and are tastefully made up, the shopwindows are filled with fairly stylish clothes, there are trolley cars and a certain amount of automobile traffic on the main streets. But Shakhty seems a calm, relaxed city.
Its most striking sights are the great pyramids of slag that rise like melancholy black Alps, or the real pyramids of Egypt turned to soot. They can be very dangerous, for the dust within may build up to an intensity that can spontaneously explode. As The Chairman said, "They are like volcanoes when they burn. It may take weeks to put out the fires. Smoke will hang over the city, and the daytime will be like dusk."
Vasili Alexeyev lives at No. 16 Klimenko Street, a serene throughway with trees and park benches along a promenade down the center. It is quiet here. Alexeyev's home is a bungalow of soft brownish-pink brick with a pointed slate roof and high windows facing the street. It is termed a "state house," meaning that it is owned by the government and that he pays a symbolic rent of 12 rubles (around $17) a month. The house was built in 1913, and Alexeyev has lived in it for about three years. In the Soviet Union the average living space is approximately 90 square feet per person; in Shakhty, the average is a bit more. Alexeyev and his family have more space than that, possibly a third of an acre, including the vine-covered brick-walled courtyard with a charming garden.
One day Alexeyev addressed himself to the subject of his house, frowning at my intimation that it was his only because and for the duration of his successful weight-lifting career. "They have given me this house for eternity," he declared, as interpreted by Yuri Solomakhin. "My sons will live here, and my grandsons. Although—who knows?—they may have something better by then. I had an apartment with four rooms before, but I preferred an old house, a courtyard for my training needs, some space. My claim was put through the executive committee of the town council. Due to my training conditions, they approved this. There were two families living here before. They were relatives. They are in new housing developments now."