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Window on the World
E.M. Swift
February 07, 1994
Having triumphed over tragedy, Oksana Baiul eyes the Games
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February 07, 1994

Window On The World

Having triumphed over tragedy, Oksana Baiul eyes the Games

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The quarters are crowded, but there is nothing unique about that. Zmievskaya's husband, Nicolai, president of Black Sea Inc., a shipping and construction company, also lives in the apartment. As does Zmievskaya's mother, the family dog and a cockatoo, which, according to Bauil, screams hello in Russian whenever the phone rings. "He's also dancing rap sometimes," she says.

Ah, the curse on domestic tranquillity known as rap music has even reached Ukraine. Oksana and young Galina, now 14, who've grown to be like sisters, crank up the volume on the stereo in their room on CDs by Hammer and Dr. Alban—"the one with the strange haircut who has girls dancing around him in plastic," says Baiul—and dance until they hear the thump, thump, thumping of the angry family from the apartment below them.

"I'm very patient with them," says Zmievskaya. "They dance and fall on the ground. They throw pillows. They are starting to put on makeup. They even succeeded in putting makeup on their granny. We have fun together, and when the music is too loud, we have headaches together. The atmosphere at home is always jolly."

It is easy to believe. The Ukrainian motto, at least in the once-proud city of Odessa, seems to be: Better to laugh.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, newly independent Ukraine has fallen on lean times. The Odessa airport is usually shut down for lack of jet fuel, and when Zmievskaya, Baiul and Petrenko leave for an international competition, they must first travel to Kiev via the overnight train. Streetlights along Odessa's cobbled, tree-lined avenues are dark, and stray dogs wander hungrily along the wide sidewalks. Traffic is light. Lines at the bakeries are long, unemployment is high, and crime, virtually unheard of under communist rule, is rampant. Tourism, a potentially lucrative industry for this old, handsome city on the Black Sea, is hobbled by a lack of Western-style hotels and fine restaurants.

When asked for directions to a seafood restaurant, one Odessan commented wryly, "We have no seafood. We have no meat, either. You are American? If you want seafood, I suggest you hire a fisherman."

"A sense of humor is the only thing that is left for us," says Zmievskaya when she is told the story. "Have you heard the one about the Ukrainian dog that met the American dog?" she asks. " 'How are you, Bob?' asks the Ukrainian dog. 'Can't complain,' Bob says. 'I eat the scraps at McDonald's in the morning, and in the afternoon I head across the street to Pizza Hut. It's a fine life. And you, Boris? I hear that there are many changes in the former Soviet
Union. New republics. Elections. Free markets.'

" 'Yes, many changes,' Boris says. 'The leash around our necks has become shorter. The food? It's been put aside and we cannot find it.' " Zmievskaya smiles and winks as she sets up the punch line. " 'But there is the chance, to bark as much as you like.' "

Baiul has never heard these stories before, she has never seen Zmievskaya so animated during one of her interviews, and she laughs like a girl whose joy has been bottled up like soda water, then is shaken and popped open. Every topic, no matter how mundane, becomes a fresh source of merriment for her.

"The ice machines, they don't work," Zmievskaya scoffs, when asked about the two Zambonis parked beside the ice at the Sports Palace, where Baiul and Petrenko train. "They're a monument to a former life." She explains how, in the not infrequent times when the Zambonis are being repaired, Baiul herself will pick up a shovel and help clear the ice. So will Baiul's ballet instructor, Nina Stoyan, who was a prima ballerina at the renowned Odessa Academy Theater. So will Petrenko, who says of the ice on which he and Baiul train, "It's getting worse every year. The front is sinking."

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