Voices from Russia

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Ivan Zaikin: Wrestler and Aviator

Filed under: history,Russian,sport — 01varvara @ 00.00

Ivan Zaikin (1880-1948), sportsman and pioneer aviator

“Each sport should have its share, however small, of risk and disregard for pain and death…” Looks like the outstanding Russian writer Aleksandr Kuprin had in mind the famous strongman-turned-pilot Ivan Zaikin who ruled supreme over Russia’s circus and sports arenas at the dawn of the 20th century…

The circus is jam-packed with people… To the strains of the orchestra, Ivan Zaikin, bulging muscles rolling under his skin, emerges from behind the curtains to roaring cheers from the audience. Making a circle of the arena, he stops in front of a huge metal anchor he is supposed to lift… People, their eyes glued to the arena, are wondering if he will able to handle the impossible weight… Zaikin bends down and the next moment goes up with the anchor sitting squarely on his wide shoulders! The orchestra blares out again as the 265-pound (120-kilo) giant of a man makes another circle of the arena, this time with the hefty anchor on his back! The giant hall literally explodes with a long round of deafening applause!

Ivan Zaikin had other such stunts up his sleeve, including one called A Live Merry-Go-Round with ten people hanging on a long metal bar he held on his shoulders. He would then start rotating that huge weight slowly and then faster and faster… He made easy work of steel chains, tearing them up as if they were made of paper, twisted steel bars, and carried a huge pail of water on his shoulders cheered on by the stunned fans…

A tall, handsome, and powerful circus strongman people admiringly called “Our Volga Giant”, Ivan Zaikin was born in the family of a struggling Volga prize-fighter and always dreamed of someday becoming as strong as his father once was. His first lucky break came when he caught the attention of the millionaire Merkuryev merchant brothers, who were running an athletic show. In 1904, they sent Zaikin to a national amateur contest where he won the top weightlifting award. His first big success, however, came at a world wrestling championship in Paris where Ivan finished second behind his good friend and teacher Ivan Poddubny. Their final excruciating bout lasted for more than an hour! Poddubny eventually came out the winner, but, Zaikin was by no means humiliated by losing out to his great instructor…

Ivan Zaikin’s virtuosic wrestling excellence won him the title of the Noble Knight of the Mat. He never played foul and never fought a single rigged bout in his life. His popularity went through the roof! “Zaikin’s unique physical strength, his absolute mastery, charm, and artistic presence invariably made him the darling of just about anyone anywhere”, one of his students later recalled. Many years later, when he arrived in Paris, the local newspapers wrote, “The famous Russian wrestler and athlete Ivan Zaikin is back in town after a triumphal tour of the United States where he was hailed as one the strongest men alive!”

There was more to Ivan Zaikin that just naked strength and wrestling mastery though. Essentially an uneducated man, Ivan Zaikin had a surprising ability to engage in lively conversation with just about anyone, be he a theatre critic, labourer, or engineer. He was rightly considered as one of the world’s most intelligent wrestlers. Zaikin’s other passion was aviation, a pastime that was very much “in” at the dawn of the 20th century. Finishing flying school in Paris, he became one of Russia’s first airmen. Ivan Zaikin would fly demonstration flights all across Russia, striking people with his all-stops-out daredevilry… A caption under a photograph made at the turn of last century says, “Airman Ivan Zaikin, also a world wrestling champion”. Back in those days, pilots and athletes were household names everywhere, accorded a hero’s welcome wherever they went.

“Zaikin is a very apt and crafty wrestler”, a Russian magazine wrote about the famous champion. “He invented a stunt he calls The Bent Rail and has given himself the title of Captain of the Air. He has come a long way from a street sweeper and loader to become a wealthy landowner and celebrity. On special occasions, he walks about wearing a silver ribbon, which makes him look like a Field Marshal…” After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Ivan Zaikin emigrated to the West. He only came back in December 1945, invited to take part in celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of Russian athletics in Leningrad, now St Petersburg. He was buried in the Moldavian capital of Kishinev. Ivan Zaikin will forever be remembered as a pioneer of Russian aviation and an outstanding Russian athlete…

30 April 2008

Olga Troshina

Legends of Russian Sport

Voice of Russia World Service



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