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A Bruiser and A Thinker
Nicholas Dawidoff
May 13, 1991
Soviet Greco-Roman wrestler Alexander Karelin is a rare combination of massive physique and imposing intellect
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May 13, 1991

A Bruiser And A Thinker

Soviet Greco-Roman wrestler Alexander Karelin is a rare combination of massive physique and imposing intellect

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"Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago is an interesting book," says Karelin. "The only problem I had with it is that a lot inside me was ruined by trusting in the society where I live. After reading this, I had nothing left. I wondered, Are there no white spots in our history, only black? My whole country is in perpetual funeral."

Of the many writers he loves, the mordant Bulgakov— "He is sarcastic but his outlook is not bleak; he is like me," says Karelin—and the poet Esenin seem to touch him most deeply. Esenin was briefly married to the American dancer Isadora Duncan and later wed a granddaughter of Tolstoy's. Despairing at Russia's direction after the Revolution, he became an alcoholic. In 1925, at age 30, Esenin slit his wrists in a hotel, wrote a final poem in his own blood and then hanged himself. "I love my home," he once wrote. "I love so much, so very much. Gnawed as it is with griefs willow-rust."

There has been talk that Karelin, like Sergei Beloglazov, the six-time world champion and two-time Olympic champion bantamweight who now coaches at Lehigh, will one day leave the U.S.S.R., never to return. Others conjecture that he will soon move west from Siberia to a more cosmopolitan Soviet city (he now spends a good deal of time in the Black Sea port of Alushta, near the Spartak training center). However, both suggestions are a misreading of Karelin. Like Bulgakov and Esenin, he is foremost a patriot, a man whose every athletic endeavor is a demonstration of pride in and affection for the people, if not the government, of his homeland.

That homeland is not a happy place these days. The word Gorbachev has used is razval, which means disintegration, collapse. It is, as Bulgakov wrote of 1918 Russia, "A time and a place of suffocating uncertainty." Until a year ago, Karelin's mother was a Communist Party member. Her son forced her to resign.

"I don't believe in socialism as is," he says. "I can't. I believe in myself and the people around me. I'm surprised the Soviet people are as optimistic as they are, after what they've been through. When I return there from the U.S. or Europe, it's very depressing, but it's also inspiring to see these people who are resilient despite the constant pressure of life. The situation gets worse and worse and worse and they don't break. They endure. I want to help these people. I don't think about a political career yet, but perhaps I'll grow into that."

Karelin's best friend is a tiny man named Kalunia, who grew up as an orphan in Novosibirsk. "The strongest man is Kalunia, whose gentleness and consideration are as pure as life," says Karelin. Not long ago Karelin visited the orphanage where Kalunia was raised. In his hand Karelin carried some chocolate. When the door was opened, he found the small building crammed with 160 children, all delighted to see the famous wrestler. He put the candy behind his back, embarrassed.

"I didn't want to be the rich man spreading trinkets," he says. After talking with the director of the orphanage, Karelin backed out of the building. Later that day he returned, with money. The director wept.

"When I'm on the first-place pedestal and they raise the Soviet flag, I don't see the Soviet government behind the flag," he says. "I don't hear the system when they play the national anthem. My heart responds because I'm thinking about the people who raised me, the people who love me and whom I love. People ask me, Why don't you move from Siberia? There's something about that place. It's where my heart is. I don't want to be anywhere else."

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