With war as the backdrop, the Russian duel drama is set in the United States

Fencing is usually among the less visible Olympic events, but a year after the Paris Olympics, the political, sports and family drama related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presents.

Three Russian fencers who renounced the 2022 invasion in written statements and now live in the United States were Grant eligibility to compete as neutral athletesnot representing any country, at the US Summer National Championships which conclude Sunday in Phoenix.

And this is just the beginning of the drama. A top Russian coach was fired after a star couple left for the United States three weeks ago. Fencing’s high-profile divorce touched the top ranks of the Russian Olympic Committee and even led to the entry of the word “Raspberry frappé” into the lexicon as a swordfighter.

Konstantin Lukhanov, a Russian fencer who now trains and coaches in San Diego, is a former son-in-law of the president of the Russian Olympic Committee and former husband of a two-time Russian Olympic fencing gold medalist. He won the men’s saber competition at the US Summer Championships after competing for Russia at the 2021 Tokyo Games.

After winning in Phoenix, the 6-foot-6 Lukhanov posed with a Ukrainian fencer as the two carried the Ukrainian flag in a defiant show of support. Lukhanov had “Liberty” tattooed on his right forearm shortly after arriving in the United States in May 2022.

The invasion represented a stark turn in the personal and professional life of Lokhanov, who married into a Russian fencer’s first family and seemed an integral part of the lives of sporting royalty.

In 2020, Lukhanov married Sofia Pozdnyakova, 26, who later won gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics in the women’s individual and team saber events. She is the daughter of Stanislav Pozdnyakov, 49, president of the Russian Olympic Committee and himself a four-time Olympic gold medalist in fencing.

But the marriage was soon dissolved, and the separation became public the previous September. Lukhanov said that the divorce occurred for several reasons, the main of which was the war. “I just said I’m not going back to Russia,” Lukhanov said in an interview with Zoom from Phoenix, which he described as an English-language first. In follow-up written remarks, he added, “I have decided that I can no longer live in a country that kills innocent Ukrainians.”

Lukhanov and Pozdinakova both said that she refused his invitation to leave Russia with him. She said that she had filed for divorce and that she was grateful to Lukhanov for many things but the couple had entered “Different directions.”

Pozdnyakov, President of the Russian Olympics – speaking to Match TVAnd A sports channel owned by Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled energy company, confirmed the dissolution of his daughter’s marriage. With a clear criticism of Western glee, he said Match TV last September that his daughter’s upbringing and “patriotism” allowed her to avoid “the sad fate of frightened lovers of cranberries and yellow scooters.”

Lukhanov said he thought the comment was funny and unsurprising, even if he wasn’t entirely sure why it was made. “I’ve never had a motorcycle,” he said with a smile. “I am a coffee lover, but not a coffee lover.”

In an Instagram post last December, Lukhanov said he entered a “really dark period” after his mother died of COVID-19 at the age of 43 at the end of 2021. After finishing a disappointing 24th in the sword competition at the Tokyo Olympics, he also faced the second of two surgeries in Germany. A thigh injury threatened his fencing career.

He traveled to Munich for the second surgery on February 23, 2022. One day later, Russia invaded Ukraine. During weeks of recovery in Germany, Lukhanov contemplated whether he should return to Russia. Instead, he flew to Atlanta in May 2022 to stay with a friend and then received an invitation to join a fencing club in San Diego.

He said that he does not consider himself brave, just because he made a natural decision that he does not regret. To stay in Russia, he said, “you need to forget that killing others is bad.”

When the invasion began, “everything was divided into black and white” for him, said Lukhanov, adding: “When I hear that everything is not clear, what is not clear? It is as clear as possible. Killing others is bad.”

Another Russian fencer now in the US, Sergey Beda, 30, has won gold in the épée team event at the US Championships, two years after winning silver for Russia in the same event at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

“American athletes go to Russia and end up in jail,” said Jack Weiner, the New York attorney representing Lukhanov and Beda, referring to basketball star Brittney Grenier. “Russian fencers come to the United States and wake up with gold medals.”

The third Russian, 25-year-old Oleg Knysh, also took part in the American championship.

Among the fencing powers, Russia and the former Soviet Union trail only Italy, France and Hungary in winning Olympic medals. So embarrassing was the departure of épée stars like Peda and his wife, Violetta Kravina Peda, also a Tokyo Olympian, that Russia fired its national team coach, according to state news agency TASS. (Kravina Beda did not compete at the US Championships.)

TASS reported on July 1 that the respected coach, Alexander Glazunov, was sacked “because his athletes fled to the United States without the consent” of the Russian Fencing Federation.

The international federations of some sports, including fencing, have begun to grant eligibility to athletes from Russia and Belarus—a close Russian ally that provided a springboard for the invasion of Ukraine—to compete as neutrals without national symbols, following a path established by the International Federation. Olympic committee.

This path is expected to extend to the Paris Games. If that is the case, it is likely that athletes from the two countries will compete if they do not publicly support the Russian invasion and do not belong to the Russian military or state security agencies.

But Lukhanov and Sergey Beda gave up a lot about leaving Russia, including perhaps their immediate Olympic dreams. They are not U.S. citizens, so they are not eligible to compete for the United States in the World Fencing Championships, which begin July 22 in Milan. And without exceptional government intervention, it will be a long chance that they will be granted US citizenship before the Paris Olympics.

There seems no chance that Russia will welcome them back. Lukhanov said he did not wish to compete for Russia again. It appears that the best options for him and Beda, according to Weiner, their attorney, are to find a third country that will give them citizenship to participate in the Paris Games or seek to compete for the Refugee Olympic Team.

Or, Lukhanov said, maybe he could put his dream on hold and compete in the 2028 Olympics up Interstate 5 from San Diego to Los Angeles.

“I dream of going to the Olympic Games, of driving my own car,” he said.