On the morning of Feb. 24, 2022, the Russian Federation attacked the sovereign nation of Ukraine, causing the largest military crisis in Europe since the end of World War II. While much of the world immediately condemned this act of aggression, many Russian celebrities chose to remain silent. Although, some Russians, from the very beginning, publicly blamed the war on Russia. One of those who strongly opposes Russia’s aggressive policy is the well-known Russian kickboxing veteran, and mixed martial arts coach, Artem Levin. He recently spoke with Combat Press writer Ruslan Navshyrvanov.
Ruslan Navshyrvanov: You moved to the United States in 2015. Your team from Prokopyevsk was not very happy with this decision. What prompted you to make this choice and how did you decide to do it?
Artem Levin: “When I decided to move, I spoke with the team – with the coach. He listened to me and understood my position. And we continued to work. After all, I wasn’t searching for job prospects or a new manager. I didn’t need it, and everything was good enough for me in Russia then. You understand how the life goes in a small town. If you have the right connections, everything is decided on a call. All my friends are there – car, apartment, money.
“It was very difficult to get out of this comfort zone. And when I flew to the USA, I understood that no one needs you here. No one is waiting for you. And here you need to create yourself anew. I made this decision with a heavy heart. It was 2014. And I already understood that Russia, to put it mildly, is not on the right track. And I did not want my children to live without a future. That was the main motivator that made me move. I chose San Diego. But then I still continued to fly to Prokopyevsk for training camps, preparing there. [I] won the Russian Championship in 2015. We continued to cooperate. And I would not say that after that I had a conflict with the Prokopyevsk team.
“The problem is in the personal qualities of Sergei Busygin. He wants to control everything – to perceive fighters as the property. Actually, before our contract ended in 2018, relations were normal. Then I proposed to revise the terms. In the sense that he works as a manager. If he finds a fight, he gets 50 percent. If not, he goes through the forest. He offered to organize additional master classes. He categorically refused. Now, even master classes in the Kuzbass at the proper level, no one can properly hold. After that, he already aggravated the conditions of the athletes so that they could not claim something on their own.
“So he tightened the screws so that people could not contradict him. Now, probably, only Artem Vakhitov has his own voice. But Artem, in principle, is happy with everything. Now he is a top kickboxer, one of the strongest in the world. But we see that, apart from a small community that loves kickboxing, no one knows him. Yes, they promote him in Kuzbass. He regularly conducts master classes in Kuzbass. His goal is to be the star of Kuzbass?
“Sports career ends very quickly. And the fans forget you very quickly. And money also evaporates quickly. Then people have to develop and find themselves in some other area. Artem Vakhitov is a very talented person and could have achieved much more. Everything is in his hands. It’s a matter of character. Is it possible now to develop while remaining in Russia> Personally, for me, the country has been on a directional course for a very long time. Not a single stable period. And it’s only getting worse, to say the least. Look, 2008 is a crisis, 2012 – crisis, 2014 – crisis, 2022 – fucked up!”
RN: Yes, [that is] the right expression for this year. Your Instagram story condemning the invasion is one of the first anti-war posts I saw. Tell me how you found out about the beginning.
AL: “I am quite active on the news agenda. And this is not Russia 24 channel. I search on international news sites and opposition resources. Everything appeared almost immediately. I was at the UFC in [Las] Vegas. There I learned everything.
“At first I didn’t believe it. There are always some fakes, a lot of provocations, and you don’t know how to react at first. But here in America, in my social circle, there are many people from Ukraine, guys from Nikolaev. Therefore, I quickly realized that this is not fake. People in all cities confirmed that shelling had begun. But, again, I did not fully formulate my opinion on the first day, because I couldn’t believe that [Russian President Vladimir Putin] did it. He can’t just take and bury himself like that. This is the beginning of the end.”
RN: You are one of the first public Russians who decidedly condemned this act of aggression. Some Russians also spoke out against it – but few, especially in sports. I know that [soccer player] Fedor Smolov made a no-war post. I heard that [former UFC champion] Petr Yan also condemned the war, but he does not have such posts on Instagram. What prevents well-known Russians, who are, like you, abroad, to publicly oppose the war?
AL: “First of all, it is fear. Anyway, whatever some may say, we all have relatives there. For example, I have a wife with children here. Friends who are there are not responsible for my opinion. It may be different for us. I think that in Russia at the present time, silence is already an opposition. Although I don’t support it. I think if we had not been silent earlier, perhaps it would not have come to this point. Before the persecution that is now taking place in Russia – to complete censorship – before the war. I have put an end to many of my friends now, because they have always said that they are out of politics, that they are not interested in all this. Like, ‘What are you talking about here? We already know that everything is bad here. You left to America, and now you tell us from there.’ I explain that I’m not worried about myself. I’m worried about my close people. I want to someday return to the normal Russia of the future, and through some of my small deeds I try to speed up this process.
“They answer me, ‘We are not interested in politics. We have enough problems of our own.’ And now I see that they have the letter Z on their avatars. It says a lot to me. I understand some of them are from the state sector. It’s clear how it’s done. But, on the other hand, for me, it is also an indicator. I have my own position, my own opinion. And the understanding that, with such a gesture, you support the war. Many say, ‘Well, you don’t agree politically there, but you are still friends.’ No, that won’t work. I may have an old friend. I can love him, and he will be the closest to me. But, then I find out that he is a fan of catching a cat, dismembering it, gutting its insides, and that will be a big sign for me. There will be no more friendship. We will be done. And it’s the same here. My friend supports war. How come? I can’t understand it. And when they tell me, ‘But in America. What about America?’ I never supported American wars and bombings either. This autism they were taught, ‘And here in America.’ Everything compared to America.
RN: As far as I remember, America doesn’t forbid anti-war meetings and statements. If you don’t like it, come out and speak up.
AL: “Exactly. [The] Vietnam War has never been supported here. Crazy meetings were against the Vietnam War. I never supported the war, but I always understood that you need to defend yourself. And now, when Ukrainians die on the battlefield, they die like heroes. They protect their homeland. And the Russians, they are my countrymen, but they are invaders. And I understand it. What are they fighting for? There was no reason.”
RN: It is surprising that Russia, it seems, has always been a country with a great cultural heritage. Many famous scientists, writers, musicians from Russia. Lots of highly educated people. How did they all fall for this Nazi story? That a threat loomed, and someone plans to attack Russia. How can you believe it?
AL: “The stupefaction of Russians went on for years – decades – water dripping day by day wears the hardest rock away. There has been no freedom of speech for a very long time. And even those who were not interested in politics continued to live a public life. You go to the gym, to the hairdresser, communicate with colleagues at work. There is radio, there is Match TV, which also shows political advertising. And imperceptibly for himself, he gradually drowned in this propaganda. There are not many intellectuals who lend themselves to critical evaluation of any information. Basically, that’s how it works. 30 percent of Russians do not support what is happening. It’s not even that they don’t support it, but they are radically against it.
“Of the remaining 70 percent, 30 percent are those zombies who blindly support. These are those [who believe] ‘[they] are ready endure, [this is] not the first time, and so it will do.’ And 40 percent are rolling stones. Tomorrow, the agenda will change, [and] they will immediately switch sides. How this propaganda works is clear. In any manual since the time of Goebels, it is written. The people are poor – they need an external enemy who can be blamed for all the troubles. All this is realized when there is nothing to be proud of. And Modern Russia, unfortunately, has nothing to be proud of.
“Every field is a failure – science, medicine, education, space. The only successes are sports. But sport is the same propaganda. In principle, everything can be called propaganda. But sport is physical activity. For example, much more investment is needed for the space program development. This is both the education system and expensive material support. It still surprises me when the patriots shout, ‘Here! We have an army!.’ What kind of army? What kind of tanks are there in it, if you can’t make cars properly so that the doors don’t tremble when closing?
RN: Recently at one of the international meetings, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz condemned anti-Russians position around the world and said that this war is Putin’s personal responsibility. Do you agree with him?
AL: “Not really. I do not think that Putin alone should bear the responsibility. On the one hand, I understand who is at the helm of the Russian state. But on the other hand, it may be that our people have always been so apolitical, and there is our collective responsibility. With our silence, we supported the infringement of the media. We supported the suppression of freedoms by agreeing to various laws. After all, there are many propagandists. Lots of trolls on social media. All those who run this propaganda machine. There are a considerable number of them. Putin alone cannot manage all this. The country needs to be supported. And they all have to bear collective responsibility.”
RN: When do you think it will be finished?
AL: “You know, I want to believe it will end quickly. Now, perhaps, the time for blitzkrieg has passed. They didn’t succeed. But in Russia, he will not be forgiven for defeat. He can do the same with Ukraine as with the Donbas. To create such a zone of sluggish conflict, either flaring up or subsiding. I don’t think he’s smart enough to push the button. But to destroy Ukraine with bombing – just shell the cities to the ground. He is paranoid. What can I say? He does not care about the life of Russians. About the life of Ukrainians, he does not care any more.
“I think the West needs to get involved more actively. Close the sky. That would be a help. There is no way to tell yet when it will end. As I see it, either the third world war is already underway, or this is just the beginning, one of its phases. A grand coalition of advanced countries opposes undeveloped countries. Who supported Russia there, except for Belarus? North Korea, Syria, Eritrea. Ours is also credited with India and China, but they should not be entertained by illusions. These enslaving contracts with Asian countries play against our country. This gas pipeline past Siberia – we have a gas country, but we burn coal. In Siberia, coal is heated almost everywhere. There is no gas in my native Prokopyevsk. We have gas to the Ural, then almost nowhere.”
RN: Putin is a big fan of martial arts and an admirer of Russian champions. Tell me, have you met him in person?
AL: “Yes, twice. In 2007. It was Thailand day. Two champions were invited as representatives of culture. But in 2007, it was still a different Putin – before his famous Munich speech on a bipolar world. And in 2013, after the World Cup. Then, I didn’t really want this meeting. But you know how officials are very fond of sports here. Everyone joins right away.
RN: Here in Odessa, local authorities liked to congratulate Artur Kyshenko. On the first day of the war, Feb. 24, he posted on his Instagram stories, “Sport is out of politics. I’m flying to a seminar in Moscow”. What do you think about it?
AL: “Yes, I saw it. What can I say? I have nothing to say in his defense. It’s not for me to judge. The position of Artur Kyshenko – I do not understand it. I think this is the case when everything is said without words. We see examples of boxers – [Oleksandr] Usyk and [Vasyl Lomachenko] came to his gym. And they came home to protect Ukraine. They could refer to some kind of preparation – even just to financially support the guys. But they made a choice. As well as Yaroslav Amosov did – my close friend whom I love when he [is] not losing weight. Pavel Zhuravlev is also great. Here everyone makes a choice for himself and then he will live with this choice. Artur – he also made his choice.”
RN: What would you like to wish to Russians?
AL: “To those 30 percent who understand what is happening, I want to wish not to be afraid. Talk to people. Explain to the doubters what is going on. And then there will be more understanding. You see, I’m Russian. I like our culture. I like matryoshka. There are a lot of things that I don’t like. For example, Russian bullies. But many things are dear to me – the same Russian cuisine. I love our culture. And I love to share it. I also accept a different culture, even when it is incomprehensible to me. I may not understand Chinese food, but that’s their culture. I value cultural diversity. But I am Russian. And for me, everything that happens in my country directly concerns me. Therefore, I hope for the best and want to believe in a bright future for my country.”
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