First chapter of Fair Play by Alexei Nemov

Alexei Nemov published his memoir “Fair Play” (written together with a sports journalist Irina Stepantseva) in 2010. The memoir was unfortunately never officially translated into English and is currently out of print in Russia. In the book, he tells not only about his gymnastics career but also about his hard life during childhood and youth, full of poverty, hunger, and dangers.

Here you can read the unofficial English translation of the first chapter.



I didn’t even know where I was being taken. I just remember this: big and very bright space. Some fleeting moment. I guess it was in the evening. And the light inside, especially after entering from the street, seemed unnaturally bright. The kids were hanging from the bar and tried to do something on it. A coach was helping them. Of course, I don’t remember who that was… But the picture stayed with me. And for a long time my idea of the gym existed in the form of this picture because my mom was then quickly told:

“What are you thinking? Your kid is too small. How old? Well, here you go, four years old, he still needs help with peeing and blowing his nose. And who’s going to do it? Come when he’s a bit older.”

This was my first “entrance” into gymnastics. It could easily become the last. I guess mom got upset back then. Regarding myself: I don’t know if I was upset or not. Because I didn’t even have time to understand anything except for the fact that I was rejected from somewhere. I can’t even say whether I liked that space where kids did this “gymnastics”. Only the picture, the impression stayed with me.

And only later, when I was about six, I got officially signed up for gymnastics classes. And, honestly, I don’t remember that either. I guess my mom brought me there again and then the coaches also went to kindergartens to choose suitable boys and girls. Perhaps, these two events coincided. I remember my first coach – it was Irina Ivanovna Shestakova. But nothing bright or interesting stayed in my memory from the start of gymnastics classes. An ordinary event. Perhaps, it was so because I started school around the same time. As any first-grader, I had enough of new events, emotions, and impressions.

So, I can’t really say that I very much wanted to start a sport, especially such a serious one. Or that I was refusing to do it with all my might and my mom forced me. Nothing like that. But I remember well that we had a whole exciting life on our street. I hung out with the boys and picked up cigarette butts. It was a whole show. You had to pick up the cigarette butts from a garbage bin so that no adults would see it. We were afraid that the adults would smack us for such “enjoyment of life”. So, we behaved like experienced actors. We pretended like our paper planes flew into a bin, we dove after them and hurray – we got the plane! While the cigarette butt is clenched in another palm. We smoked them somewhere away from the adult eyes.

No one ever found us out. Or they pretended like they didn’t see anything since people usually don’t care about kids that aren’t their own. And at home… I was masking the smell by eating Dutch cheese. This was a type of processed cheese. I wouldn’t be able to figure this method out by myself, but, as usual, there were bigger kids on the street who transmitted to me this science of hiding from the parents’ sense of smell.

And later, already in the first grade, I finished smoking one of these cigarette butts – and stopped smoking. Of course, it wasn’t a manifestation of willpower or some sort of conscience, it just happened that I already started regular gymnastics practices. I had to go to practices every day at a certain time. My daily schedule has changed completely. And the search for long cigarette butts was time-consuming, after all.

By the way, my mom didn’t know anything. If she learned about it there would be a huge scandal. I don’t know what kind of excuses I’d be able to come up with and what I would hear from her. But I know that I felt no shame and probably wouldn’t feel any even if caught. It would be unpleasant, I guess. I didn’t want to upset my mom. But I didn’t really know or care about the dangers of smoking at the time.

I’ve always tried to protect my mom. We had a hard life in a communal apartment – for three families. Each family had one room, the rest – kitchen, bathroom – was common. Of course, it shaped our life in a certain way. There were always conflicts. Mom had to fight for her rights on her own – she was alone, no one would protect her. There were even physical altercations, she was hit and responded. It was a serious school of life.

Three families in one apartment… I was home when the fight in the kitchen had started. I don’t know what was the reason, it could be anything – from a kettle to a pot, from forgotten kitchen rag to boiled-over milk. When there are too many mistresses in one kitchen, there are many reasons for fights. No one there was known for their fine manners. And I was too little to try to figure something out, but when I rushed out of the room I saw my mom having an altercation with the neighbors. Everyone was screaming, not trying to watch their language and I only saw this ball of flying arms and clothes in front of me. I was screaming and crying and trying to interfere somehow… “Let go of my mom!” – the only coherent words I managed to get out of myself.

Somehow it all ended. Then my mom and I locked ourselves in our room and cried together. I don’t remember that she tried to explain anything to me. She always tried to avoid talks like that. Maybe she was protecting me. Maybe she couldn’t find words to explain to me properly what just happened. And maybe her attempts to explain just disappeared from my memory and only the scene of the fight as a culmination was left there. And the feeling of helplessness which I’ve been hating my whole life.

It was a hard time. Of course, then we were living in it, we knew nothing else. And it all seemed natural. I remember there was a boy on our street. He, like his mom, was a bit weird and quickly got a nickname – “schizophrenic”, perhaps not accidentally. Once we were all playing in the yard and someone pushed someone, or something like that happened and he ran to his mom to complain. And she, without trying to get to the bottom of it, suddenly ran after me after deciding that I was the main offender.

I started running from her, hoping that this woman wouldn’t catch me. She was chasing me for a long time without slowing down. I guess we ran more than a couple of kilometers and I got tired already. I was gasping for air, I got side stitches and, scared, I didn’t know where else to run. At the end, I stumbled and fell. When the furious woman caught up with me, she suddenly grabbed my hair and hit my head against the curb. I guess it looked terrifying to the bystanders. And my head looked horrible after its encounter with the curb – the hair was sticky with blood, the face was dirty from sweat and tears mixing with the street dirt

I came home wailing. When my mom saw all that she rushed outside. Without saying a word, she hit that woman with her fist. I don’t know where she hit but I remember that other women barely managed to pull them apart. Then the whole crowd went to the police, my mom filed a complaint, there were many witnesses. My mom was always ready to tear anyone apart in order to protect me. She was alone and she had to fight for two.

You can say that for a long time I didn’t know my father. I was already in third grade when he was released from prison. He was imprisoned when I was two years old. And after doing his time he came back to us but we didn’t stay together for a long time, perhaps, only for 1,5 years or so. Father drank and beat my mom up. Not frequently, but he hit her sometimes. And here it seemed to me I couldn’t interfere – parents are sorting their things out. Thankfully, father often left for Nizhnevatovsk – he worked as a driver there and spent 15 days on the road. It was a relief.

I actually waited for my father to come back from prison. It was a joyful moment for me. After all, kids feel it when they’re different from everyone else. My mom tried to protect me, told me that my father was in a hospital, that he was sick. Then, of course, “kind” neighbors opened my eyes, whispered to me that he was in prison but I didn’t believe them. Even though we visited him in prison and I remember I kept asking: “Mom, why are there so many dogs in this place?” I didn’t understand where we went. And mom kept saying: dad is in a hospital, his legs hurt, it has to be this way…

We went there with our bags full of food. I remember well how mom packed them. She packed them full to the brim. We were depriving ourselves of many things in order to bring food to him. We lived on mom’s salary and how much kindergarten employees were earning?

My attitude towards my father was gradually changing. At first, I was really waiting for him – who wants to live without a father when he’s alive and well? Then we finally met and I was immediately drawn to him. I thought that something was bound to change in our life. He would be our protector who’d shield my mom and me from all the problems. I remember how I got a C in school and my father punished me. He beat me up with his belt really bad. For me it was a first corporal punishment – mom could spank me lightly sometimes, but she never really hit me… After this beating, I got scared and tried to distance myself from him. Mom tried to protect me, of course, she threatened my father: “If you touch him one more time…” But what could she really do? She also got her share of beatings. I screamed at him like I did during the fights with the neighbors, but all of it was out of feeling completely helpless. Because everything happened behind the closed doors, my father just threw me out of the room at the times like these. When I think of it now, I’m amazed at how horrible it was, how it all happened to me.

This is a sad story. Then my parents got divorced.



I bet you want to read more and you’re in luck! I’m posting the unofficial translations of Russian and Soviet gymnastics memoirs on Patreon as a way to raise money to cover the costs of running Gymnovosti. A new chapter is published every week! Currently, I am alternating between Flick Flacks in High Heels by Svetlana Khorkina and Balance by Larisa Latynina. And after these two are translated, I’ll start working on Nemov’s book.

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