From Slate, Matthew Polly reports on the infatuations of monarchs, the displacement of Nazi art, and “the Russian way of fighting,” from the “fetid bogland“of St. Petersburg during the 2009 World Sambo Championships.
On his interview with Russian Mixed Martial Arts legend Fedor Emelianenko:
I took my first stab at making him laugh with a question about his younger brother Alexsander, who suffers from second-son syndrome. He has recently been telling gullible foreign journalists about hunting bears in the traditional Russian manner. (When the provoked bear rises on its hind legs, you stick a staff with a U-shaped prong into its neck to keep it upright, and then you stab it to death with a knife.) While certainly more sporting than aerial wolf hunting, the story struck me as the kind of rural legend locals like to feed city-slicker outsiders.
Have you ever hunted a bear? “No.” But your brother has, yes? “I don’t know about my brother,” he replied, and his head dropped in shame. “But I have never hunted a bear.”
It was at this moment that I realized I had tapped into a family dynamic that Fedor found embarrassing. I also knew I had little time left, because the pace of the text messages was increasing, and Fedor was increasingly focused on them.
I had one arrow left in my quiver: Vladimir Putin, who idolizes and identifies with Fedor in the same way Teddy Roosevelt did John L. Sullivan. Both Fedor and Putin are Russian nationalists, painters, experts in Sambo and judo, and stars of martial arts instructional videos. (Putin’s is called Lets Learn Judo With Vladimir Putin.) Fedor’s nickname is “The Last Emperor” while Putin is Russia’s latest emperor.
“I saw Vladimir Putin’s judo video,” I said. “What do you think of his skill level?”
“When he was young, he was on the Russian team,” Fedor replied. “And I admire his talent.”
“How would he do against you?”
“I am an active sportsman, a practicing sportsman. I don’t know whether he is practicing now.”
This was the moment I was setting him up for: “So, would you let him win?”
Fora second, I could almost see his brain light up as he pondered thevariety of potential answers to this question and their variousimplications.
“I don’t think it would be like competing, just practicing, just enjoying.”
Ashe finished his sentence, he looked at me with a hand-in-the-cookie-jarexpression. I smiled wide and patted him on the shoulder.
“You are very careful, very careful.”
Withoutneed of translation, he dropped his head and his shoulders started toheave up and down. Unable to hold back his delight in his artful dodge,he finally let go.
“Heh, heh, heh, heh … heh.”