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Anti-war Russian fencers target spot on US Olympic team

February 1, 2024

A trio of Russian fencers hopes to obtain US citizenship and compete for Team USA after fleeing their homeland. But their actions haven't been well-received in Russia.

Russia's Sergey Bida (left) competes against Japan's Koki Kano in the men's epee team gold medal bout during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Three Russian fencers have made a brave choice for the hope of a brighter futureImage: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

For Konstantin Lokhanov, there are two main advantages to living in the United States. The first is the warm weather, the second goes a bit deeper.

"Freedom," Lokhanov told DW at a fencing club in San Diego, California, where he now resides.

The 25-year-old's life changed overnight when the first Russian troops flooded into Ukraine. As chance would have it, Lokhanov was in Germany at the time, undergoing an operation on his hip. A few minutes after waking up from surgery, he made up his mind never to return to Russia.

"I don't like the feeling that you cannot say anything," Lokhanov said. "You could stay even if you don't support the war. But you need to stay quiet. You cannot even talk to your friends because you never know. Maybe they're pro-war and they might report you. It's the feeling that you're not free."

A former junior world champion, Lokhanov is a rare example of a Russian athlete who has been prepared to speak out against the war in Ukraine, but that has seen him labeled a traitor back in Russia.

Russian fencer Konstantin Lokhanov
Konstantin Lokhanov's stance has seen his life change considerablyImage: DW

'Raspberry frappe and yellow scooters'

When it came out in public that Lokhanov had left Russia, Stanislav Pozdnyakov, the current head of the Russian Olympic Committee and Lokhanov's former father-in-law, delivered a scathing response.

In an apparent dig at the West, Pozdnyakov said "love for the motherland allowed Sofia not to share the sad fate of frightened lovers of raspberry frappe and yellow scooters."

Lokhanov's wife was Sofia Pozdniakova, a double gold medalist in fencing at the Tokyo Games in 2021, but Lokhanov says they haven't spoken since they agreed to divorce.

"It's partly political," he said. "Now we have nothing to talk about, actually."

His former father-in-law has kept talking, though, telling Russian journalists that Lokhanov should be careful not to choke on any "sweet cookies" he is offered.

Despite the apparent malice, Lokhanov laughs off the idea of feeling threatened. He thinks Pozdynakov's comments are "just funny" and insists he isn't worried about Russian spies hunting him down. For now, he has other things on his mind.

"The main priority is to be back in international fencing as soon as possible," Lokhanov said.

On a wanted list

Further up the Californian coast, Sergey and Violetta Bida are also building a new life for themselves, having fled Russia in May 2023. They didn't want to discuss the specifics of their departure for security reasons but said they would be "honored" to become US citizens.

Russian fencer Violetta Bida
Violetta Bida competed for Russia at the 2019 Fencing World Championships in Budapest, HungaryImage: Peter Kohalmi/AFP/Getty Images

"We will feel happy and thankful to spend our lives here," Sergey told DW in a video call, his arm around his wife.

If reports coming out of Russia are true, the fencing couple may need to do just that.

In late December last year, according to Russian state media, they were put on a wanted list by Russia's interior ministry, although exactly which law they broke is unclear. What is more clear, according to reports, is that they face 10 years in prison should they ever return to Russia.

It is thought that the charges relate to them deserting their state-paid jobs, which were connected to their sports teams: Sergey, a national guardsman, was a member of Dynamo, the police club, and Violetta, a servicewoman, was a member of CSKA, the army club. Their contracts have now been canceled, they said, and their salaries were stopped soon after they arrived in the US.

Like Lokhanov, the Bidas train and coach at their local fencing club, trying to give back to a community that has given them more than they ever imagined.

"They created a baby shower for us," said Violetta, who is expecting the couple's first child in March. "For me, it was really the first time that I understood how people can be generous to other people."

Russian fencer Violetta Bida
Violetta Bida has been taken aback by the reception she and her husband have received statesideImage: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

Sergey, a silver medalist in Tokyo, has been a star attraction at national fencing competitions across the country (as a condition of his participation, he had to sign a declaration renouncing the invasion of Ukraine). In northern California, he passes his knowledge on to young, aspiring fencers.

"At first, the children started off a little bit shy, but it's OK because I was also a little bit shy," Sergey said.

Eventually, a connection was made. "Now his kids understand him without words," Violetta added.

Both of the Bidas have sport in their blood. Violetta was a gymnast before getting into fencing in her teens, while Sergey comes from a long line of Olympic medal-winning athletes on his mother's side in fencing and water polo.

"We've been competitive all our lives," Sergey said. "We're alive when we compete. All of the things that our parents gave to us, and their experiences, we are using right now. There is always one more rock to climb."

Hurdles to overcome

Lokhanov and the Bidas are being supported pro bono by Jack Wiener, a lawyer and former fencer based in New York. With time ticking to this summer's Paris Games, he is lobbying the US Congress to fast-track the trio's citizenship applications, just one of the hurdles they need to overcome before they can compete for Team USA.

Anti-war Russian fencer hopes to compete for US at Olympics

"They should have somebody looking after their interests," Wiener told DW. "They deserve help. It's a statement if it can happen."

While emphasizing that the fencers would still need to make the US team on merit, sports bodies in the country have given Lokhanov and the Bidas their backing.

In a letter seen by DW, USA Fencing's CEO, Phil Andrews, wrote to members of Congress: "All three of these individuals have made sacrifices at great personal cost, and put their lives at risk to be able to represent our nation."

Amid all the uncertainty, Lokhanov says he wouldn't want to swap places with his former teammates, many of whom are stuck back in Russia, frozen out of international competition.

"If I were in their place, I wouldn't be motivated," he said. "As long as you don't have the world championships at the end of the season or the Olympics, what's the point?"

Sergei Satanovskii and Nils Hünerfürst contributed to reporting for this article.

Edited by: Jonathan Harding