While Ukraine lives in fear of the next mass bombing of its energy infrastructure by Russian missiles and Iranian drones, and constantly monitors the actions of troops located in Belarus, there are still small forms of normalcy, small forms of resistance. A blitz chess championship was recently held in Zhytomyr, a city 140km west of Kyiv and a regular target of missile attacks.
Blitz chess – because slow chess is impossible in today’s Ukraine, where everything has to be done quickly or very quickly. The games were played according to the Swiss system, and with nine rounds in which players have only three minutes a move. If in peacetime a person appreciates every hour of tranquility, during a war we appreciate every minute.
Forty-four amateur chess players took part in the tournament. The youngest was four years old, the oldest 72. The tournament was organised by the regional chess federation and took place at Zhytomyr’s Ivan Franko University. It was dedicated to the birthday of the local chess federation’s previous president, Artem Sachuk, who is now fighting at the front. During the championship, money was collected for the Ukrainian army, and all funds raised were sent to Sachuk’s military unit.
Across town, Zhytomyr School No 7 hosted the regional junior female basketball championship. The competition lasted two days and ended with victory for the team from the Dynamovets Children’s sports school. At the same time, in the city of Cherkasy, 300km to the south-west, Ukraine’s Greco-Roman wrestling championship took place. The Afro-Ukrainian MP from Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, Zhan Beleniuk, became the champion of Ukraine in the 87kg category.
Beleniuk’s father was a Rwandan citizen, a Hutu who died during the civil war. Zhan Beleniuk grew up in Kyiv and in 2020 he brought Ukraine its only gold medal from the Tokyo Olympics. The Servant of the People party invited him to become a member of parliament because of his determination and his popularity among sports fans.
Beleniuk, Ukraine’s first black MP, was also a member of the country’s National Olympic Committee, which held elections in November. The results of the ballot shocked Ukraine. Many of the newly elected members of the NOC turned out to be former representatives of pro-Russian parties or oligarchs, or officials close to oligarchs.
In protest, Beleniuk resigned from the National Olympic Committee and called on all other patriotic newly elected members to do the same. The international football player Andriy Shevchenko heeded that call. He had just been elected to the position of vice-president of the committee.
Shevchenko said: “At the most difficult time in the history of my country, I am proud to stand by Ukraine and help in any way I can for our victory. I consider it an honour to serve on the National Olympic Committee, I understand the importance of its development. At the same time, I cannot be part of such a lineup. We are paying an infinitely high price for our freedom with the lives of the best of Ukrainians. We must be worthy of them.”
While Ukrainians are outraged by the new composition of the committee, thousands of Ukrainian athletes are fighting and often dying at the front. Near Donetsk three months ago, a friend and colleague of Beleniuk, the wrestler Igor Pastukh, was killed – one of the more than 100 athletes to have died in the war so far. They have become known as “Sports Angels” and a website has been launched in Ukraine in their memory.
The number of angels in the sky over Ukraine is growing. In 2014, after the executions of protesters on the Maidan and nearby streets of Kyiv, those who died became known as the “Heavenly Hundred”. To those angel throngs we can add the hundreds of Ukrainian children killed by Russian army shelling and the tens of thousands of adults, including soldiers.
The willingness of Ukrainians to support local sporting events is a form of resistance, but there is little interest in this year’s World Cup in Qatar. Only the news about a fan running on to the pitch in a T-shirt with a Superman logo and the inscription “Save Ukraine” attracted the country’s attention. They are focused on their own battles and on staying strong. As the Christmas and New Year season approaches, there are new tensions around how to celebrate.
In Kyiv, after lengthy disputes, the city’s mayor – the multiple-time world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko – has decided to put up the country’s main Christmas tree on Sophia Square, as usual.
There were protests from representatives of the presidential administration and other activists who said that decorating for a holiday during the war is neither ethical nor moral. But the mayor’s office insisted that the war should not deprive Ukrainian children of their holiday. On the contrary, the Russian aggressors should not be allowed to rob children of seasonal good cheer, as it has robbed them of electricity, heating and running water.
I agree with Klitschko. War does not cancel Christmas and the new year. The war only increases the significance of these holidays for Ukrainians. Every festive event that goes ahead, every sports competition, contributes to the future of Ukraine.
I hope that very soon competitions in classical chess will be held in Ukraine. These competitions will require prolonged silence, prolonged electric lighting, and the opportunity for chess players to think of nothing else but their next step and victory.
Andrey Kurkov is a Ukrainian novelist and the author of Death and the Penguin