Vasili Alexeyev, the premier sports hero of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, stood in his garden amid his strawberry plants, his red peppers and his roses. The autumn sun shone on the south Russia as if it were the south of France. Alexeyev's arms, thick as tree trunks, were akimbo, the vast muscles at rest in the sun. His kingly chest and belly, broader than any barrel, bass drum or office safe in common use today, expanded surrealistically when he inhaled. His torso glittered when he moved, for he was draped from right shoulder to left hip—a distance of perhaps four feet—with a brilliant vermilion silk sash adorned with row upon row of small medallions; the sash was so laden it looked like a swath of golden mail. It weighed seven or eight pounds, but was no burden for Vasili Alexeyev. At 33, Alexeyev weighs 324 pounds, stands 6'1½" and is the strongest man in the world.
Alexeyev is in fact the greatest super-heavyweight weight lifter of all time. He was the first man ever to lift 500 pounds, in 1970, and in the same year to total more than 600 kilograms (1,323 pounds) in the three standard lifts—since reduced to two. He has been the weight-lifting champion in his class in the Soviet Union and the European and world champion since 1970, and is the reigning Olympic champion. He has broken 67 world weight-lifting records. He has jerked 537 pounds, snatched 413, pressed 518.
But on this occasion Alexeyev was posing for formal portraits in his garden, wearing a heavy black suit and beginning to perspire. He glowered at the photographer from beneath furry black eyebrows. "Smile?" said the photographer meekly. Alexeyev's face became thoughtful. He scowled and then bellowed, "Schmile!" The sound rose from the deep caverns of his chest like the thunder and turbulence within a volcano. "Schmile! Then he smiled. And the camera clicked. Smile. Click. And so it went. Alexeyev's brow dripped as the noon sun beat upon his black wool suit. At last the formal shooting was done, but Alexeyev held up a huge hand and spoke urgently in Russian. His two sons, Sergei, 12, and Dmitri, 9, hurried to his side. Alexeyev removed the glorious sash and arranged his sons in front of him. Then he gently hung the silk across both their chests. "Schmile!" he roared and beamed at the camera. The photographer took many pictures of the proud father and his sons before Vasili Alexeyev pronounced the session over.
Vasili Alexeyev lives in the small city of Shakhty, on the steppes, about 800 miles southwest of Moscow. Shakhty is not mentioned in guidebooks to the Soviet Union. The city has been closed to Western visitors for years, not because it has any secret installations but because there are no official Intourist facilities to manage the rigidly controlled trips to which tourists are customarily restricted.
April 13, 1975
The exceptional arrangements accorded me involved simply a translator (a Moscow sportswriter named Yuri Solomakhin) and the almost constant presence of a tiny, balding, ashen-faced fellow we came to call simply The Chairman. His name was Leonid Tkach and he was, in fact, the chairman of the sports committee of Shakhty and our official host. Proper and usually quite stiff, though cordial, The Chairman did not seem well. At times he spoke to us, through Yuri, of stomach troubles that had long plagued him.
The city of Shakhty has over 200,000 inhabitants, and nearly 20,000 of them are coal miners. Mining is the city's principal industry, and has been for about 100 years. The shafts of the mines at Shakhty are driven uncommonly deep in order to reach the richest veins of coal; one has been sunk to a depth of a mile and a quarter. A gigantic electric star of red lights glows above the mines when the miners are producing their quota; when it is dark they are not. Last fall the star blazed through the nights of my visit.
But this is no Appalachia. The city of Shakhty is pleasant, its streets lined with trees. The central park has sidewalk cafes and tranquil ponds, and old ladies nod in the sun as they wait for someone to buy the bouquets of flowers displayed in pails at their feet. The young women wear miniskirts and are tastefully made up, the shopwindows are filled with fairly stylish clothes, there are trolley cars and a certain amount of automobile traffic on the main streets. But Shakhty seems a calm, relaxed city.
Its most striking sights are the great pyramids of slag that rise like melancholy black Alps, or the real pyramids of Egypt turned to soot. They can be very dangerous, for the dust within may build up to an intensity that can spontaneously explode. As The Chairman said, "They are like volcanoes when they burn. It may take weeks to put out the fires. Smoke will hang over the city, and the daytime will be like dusk."
Vasili Alexeyev lives at No. 16 Klimenko Street, a serene throughway with trees and park benches along a promenade down the center. It is quiet here. Alexeyev's home is a bungalow of soft brownish-pink brick with a pointed slate roof and high windows facing the street. It is termed a "state house," meaning that it is owned by the government and that he pays a symbolic rent of 12 rubles (around $17) a month. The house was built in 1913, and Alexeyev has lived in it for about three years. In the Soviet Union the average living space is approximately 90 square feet per person; in Shakhty, the average is a bit more. Alexeyev and his family have more space than that, possibly a third of an acre, including the vine-covered brick-walled courtyard with a charming garden.
One day Alexeyev addressed himself to the subject of his house, frowning at my intimation that it was his only because and for the duration of his successful weight-lifting career. "They have given me this house for eternity," he declared, as interpreted by Yuri Solomakhin. "My sons will live here, and my grandsons. Although—who knows?—they may have something better by then. I had an apartment with four rooms before, but I preferred an old house, a courtyard for my training needs, some space. My claim was put through the executive committee of the town council. Due to my training conditions, they approved this. There were two families living here before. They were relatives. They are in new housing developments now."
The home thus acquired is warm and spacious, reflecting a graceful, prosperous way of life that might once have been labeled blatantly bourgeois. There are two sizable bedrooms, a fine bathroom and a modern, tiled kitchen. The parlor overlooks the street and is large and cool. There is a kind of muted elegance to the room, with its cut-glass chandelier, black marble fireplace and magnificent Oriental rug. Vases contain fresh flowers, a 21-inch color television is set in one corner, a long lacquered breakfront is filled with an assortment of crystal vases, goblets, pitchers and bowls, some of them prizes Alexeyev has won. On top are a few of his larger trophies, including the gleaming "First Man to jerk 500 pounds" award given him by George Petridis of Bayonne, N.J. Against the opposite parlor wall are two lacquered bookcases, and on one perches a pair of noble stuffed birds. "They are steppes eagles," said Alexeyev, "shot by me. I am a good marksman." Atop the other bookcase is a small portrait of Joseph Stalin, pipe in mouth. Among Alexeyev's books are a full set of the works of Jack London (in Russian), the complete writings of Lenin and a tome containing Brezhnev's Report to the 24th Communist Party Congress. A stereo is built into this bookcase, and as he talked Alexeyev put a Tom Jones recording on the turntable. Occasionally he hummed along. "It is a fact that I have the best singing voice on the Soviet weight-lifting team," he said. "We sing often, songs of winning and songs of workers. We must struggle in competition and we inspire ourselves by singing. Sometimes we sing about trenches and war, and sometimes about the Don flowing red with blood. Also a favorite song of mine is Yesterday as Tom Jones sings it. When I was a boy in the north of Russia I was a musician and I sang at weddings. I was very popular."
Alexeyev said that he seldom watches television. "There is too much literature, too much music in life to spend time at television." He said, however, that his sons frequently watch cartoons, including Mighty Mouse, Mickey Mouse and a popular Russian cartoon called Nhu Pogodi. This involves "a wolf, which displays all the qualities of evil, in conflict with a hare, inevitably a paragon of all that is good and honorable."
In a small room off the parlor is the collection of medals Alexeyev has won, dozens of them, displayed in glass cases and protected with care and tenderness. The room is not unlike a shrine, and Alexeyev himself seems to enter it with a hint of humility. "I have won these medals," he said, "but in fact they belong to the people of the Soviet Union. I am keeping them safe for them."
Alexeyev's wife is a handsome, blonde, blue-eyed woman, shapely and lively, given to arpeggios of giggles when her husband unleashes a witty line—which seemed to be often. Her name, believe it or not, is Olimpiada, and she was once a student of economics in Moscow.
Alexeyev said of her, "She is the wife of the champion weight lifter, but many do not know she is the champion's wife. They watch her closely when she walks. They are sure she is a young unmarried girl. They do not suspect she is mine, because many think my wife should weigh 200 kilos. When I take a promenade with Olimpiada, they think she is perhaps my little daughter." Outside, his boys frolicked and scuffled about the courtyard, kicking a rubber ball with an ungainly Doberman puppy. Occasionally Alexeyev would roar a command at the puppy, and it would cower: it seemed to be the only obsequious creature in the household of the strongest man in the world.
I asked Alexeyev if his sons received special admiration or treatment from friends or teachers because of his position. He shook his great head vigorously. "Nyet. They are normal boys both. The star system is not popular with us. If I am not in the up-front situation I am in, it would not matter, they would be handled the same."
The courtyard and garden of Alexeyev's home are perhaps more impressive than the house itself. The eight-foot brick wall was festooned with grapevines, the leaves changing to soft yellow and gentle red in the autumn sun. He was enthusiastic, even rapturous, about his garden. "Ahhh," he sighed, closing his eyes in a mock swoon over the splendor of nature. "To make something in the earth, that is the best recreation yet. I have made many things in this earth. Look here...." He moved swiftly to a patch of strawberry plants and bent to touch them. "I have three sorts of strawberries, and I have put them all together and made a new kind. And here...." He hurried across to another plant and crouched by it reverently. "My lovely Bulgarian peppers! There are none in Shakhty so crisp and pungent as mine. These are such beauties of a pepper! And here...." He moved on to some roses, a few fragile blossoms still aglow in October. "I have made also a new sort of rose. They are so new they have no name, so I will name them 'Shakhtinka' after the lovely women of Shakhty." For a moment he stood surveying the garden. "I have had carrots, white cabbages here," he said. "In no collective farm do you find such good vegetables as you do with me. In my yard is perfect Communism. I grow everything I need."
Two brick outbuildings are attached to the house proper. One is a garage, but it is used for storage. Alexeyev's four-door Volga sedan that cost about $10,000 is parked in the courtyard. It has plush maroon upholstery and a stereo tape deck. Next to the garage is his personal billiard building, generous living space for three or four people by Soviet standards. The floor is parquet; the walls are paneled in white pine with ornamentally carved strips and darkened grain; the ceiling is made of interlocking wooden squares, with indirect lighting and quiet fans. In the center of the room—gleaming, elegant—stands the billiard table.
Alexeyev breathed deeply as he gazed upon the room. He said, "I have done it with my own hands. I have a talent for carpentry. I have clever hands—I have what peasants used to call 'hands of gold.' I have laid the bricks in much of the courtyard walls. I have cleaned stones for my garden. I have built stools and tables here. I have built this room."
At the rear of the building is a gazebo that Alexeyev also built with his golden hands. It contains a Ping-Pong table and a chinning bar. Asked if he used the chinning bar in his training, he looked surprised and scoffed, "Nyet. It is for the children, but even they are too wise to use it." And the table-tennis setup? "I play often," he said. "I am best table-tennis player on the Soviet weight-lifting team. I am also best on the team at draughts, dominoes, billiards and, of course, lifting the weights."
The Chairman, Leonid Tkach, arranged a late dinner one evening in a Shakhty restaurant, where our party dined in a private back room. I asked if we could not sit at a table with the local people, but he shook his head no. Yuri explained delicately that Tkach was fearful of my encountering obstreperous drunks in the restaurant, which was also a nightclub with a band and a dance floor. "Sometimes coal miners work very hard and then drink very hard," Yuri said. "Our chairman would not want for there to be an incident which could spoil your visit with Vasili Alexeyev. You understand."
At dinner The Chairman told me that he and the town sports committee dealt with many of the aspects of Alexeyev's life. "We are supporting always good sportsmen," he said. "The point of our system is to treat them well. The better sportsmen get better living conditions, better working conditions. If the sports committee said Alexeyev needed a better house, a better work shift, he would probably get it. The job of the chairman," said The Chairman, "is to try to get athletes better conditions than the average worker. We have about 170 athletes under special working conditions in Shakhty. If they need to train in the morning, then I ask the mine administration. If a sportsman produces better results in sports, then he gets better food, better house, better job perhaps."
The Chairman paused and sighed. He looked weary. "We are always cursed, of course," he said, "if we do not pay enough attention to our great sportsmen. Certainly a great sportsman like Vasili Alexeyev must live better than anyone else. He must have the finest caloric food. The workers say it, too. They agree he should have better living conditions. Naturally in sports we are organized from the top to bottom. Much of what is done for Alexeyev is determined by the Sports Committee of the U.S.S.R. The committee says to us, 'Give us good sportsmen from Shakhty.' Every four years there is great inspection for our Olympic teams, and we must be ready to supply sportsmen who are excellent. We try to do that. The chairman is cursed by the U.S.S.R. committee and by the town council when our athletes do not do well." He sighed again. "We are hoping, you know, in 1976 to have two gold Olympic medals from Shakhty—Alexeyev and Rigert [David Rigert, a middle-heavyweight lifter who also won a world championship in Manila last year]. It is very difficult to satisfy everybody. But if I have been wrong in what I do, I would not be chairman for 10 years, as I have been, would I?"
I asked him if proving the Soviet/Communist way of life better than the American/capitalist were a primary motivation in this Russian effort to develop champions. The Chairman replied calmly, "In my opinion the best conditions exist between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in the sports struggle. The strongest must win. But who really wins? A man wins. It is true each individual must have a team to compete with. That is the rule. So it may be a nation or a nation's team a man is a part of. But it is the individual who wins the contest, not the nation or the way of life. I ask you: Is a boy carried on the shoulders of his comrades because he is a collectivism Nyet!"
Vasili Alexeyev's official occupation is that of mining engineer. He trained in the Shakhty mining institute, which is why he moved to Shakhty in 1966 from the Arkhangelsk region some 700 miles north of Moscow. When I told him that it is still being written in Western publications that he began his working life as a butcher's apprentice he said, "If I had started as a butcher, I would still be a butcher. I would have been a fine butcher, of course," he observed, "and butchers make good livings." In fact, as a youth Alexeyev worked in the forests near his home in Pokrovo-Shishking as a woodcutter apprentice to his father, who was an accomplished lumberjack.
But now he is a mining engineer. He said that he has an office near the mines, and visits it each day (though he did not visit the office or the mines with me) and his pay is very high—500 rubles (or $705 a month). I asked The Chairman about Alexeyev's salary in relation to the true value of his performance as a mining engineer. Tkach replied elliptically, "I prefer to count my money rather than Alexeyev's. I think he does not lend any money, so perhaps he does not have so much." The Chairman paused, then added an oddly appropriate non sequitur. "It is true, you know, that Gordie Howe earns more money than all the first hockey team of the U.S.S.R. and all of the reserves." In comparison to Alexeyev's monthly income of 500 rubles, Soviet office workers earn an average of 130 rubles a month, as do teachers. Doctors, of whom the vast majority are women, get 150 a month. Coal miners, regarded almost as heroes in the U.S.S.R. because of the pain and danger of their jobs, average 200 rubles a month.
Obviously Alexeyev's engineering career runs a poor second to his weight-lifting work, and he himself spoke of a kind of duality in his life. "Being famous as I have been is not all positive," he said. "It makes it more difficult to go upward in your working career. Of course, I am not striving to go upward in my career at this moment. If I achieve too much as a mining engineer, it becomes more difficult to pursue my training as a sportsman. I know also that if I were working my way up in my mining-engineer career, I would be a big chief by now." He paused, and spoke solemnly in a sepulchral bass voice. "I am not feeling greatly celebrated. I am not feeling a special man. I do not know how it is with U.S. sports heroes, but heroes in the Soviet Union are working very hard at their sports."
He went on. "There are two categories of performer in my sport. First: those who view competitions as tortures. Second: those who see competitions as great celebrations. I am in the middle of those two. For some performers there is a psychological problem. As the weight is greater, the more the mind makes the weight seem to be. But we are from the U.S.S.R., and such a psychological situation is no problem. During Shakespeare's times it was said, 'What must be cannot be avoided.' That is how it is when I lift. To successfully lift the weight cannot be avoided. I experience the tortures and the celebration. But I lift as well as I lift because it cannot be avoided.
"I am asked to make many speeches in the Soviet Union. I am very much at ease and I say to crowds, 'O.K., what topic do you like me to talk about?' They ask me to tell my biography, how I got to be a great sportsman, and they ask my impression of my last competition. Of course, I have nearly always won the last competition, so my impressions are always happy, proud. I say I have become a great champion because of my love of hard work and my great striving to reach the target of winning."
When I asked whether he considered his victories some sort of proof of the U.S.S.R.'s superiority over the U.S., Alexeyev replied, "I have always had to win because I respect my people and I display my country's success by winning. As to whether we would prove the Soviet way better than the American in the competitions of weight lifting—such a target was never put before us."
It was about 11:45 in the morning, another translucent autumn day in Alexeyev's courtyard. Young Dmitri was kicking his soccer ball, the Doberman puppy scrambling wildly after it. The boy's school hours were in the afternoon. His brother attended morning classes—there are double sessions in Shakhty. Suddenly the door of Alexeyev's house banged open and the great man stepped out. He was dressed in electric-blue sweat pants, Adidas sneakers, a thin apple-green T shirt. In his right hand he carried a bulging Adidas bag and looked not unlike a gigantic commuter bound for his train. And Vasili Alexeyev was indeed on his way to work. He strode about 25 mighty paces, and there he was at his office, chairman of the board, to say nothing of king of the mountain.
In those 25 paces from his back door to the bar, the weights and the rubber mats laid by the brick wall, everything in Alexeyev's existence as premier sports hero of the Soviet Union and strongest man in the world was on display. He moved with a powerful swagger across the courtyard bricks. His massive arms kept rhythm with the steady pump of his great thighs and his head swayed—gently, arrogantly—with each stride. He radiated absolute peace and self-assurance. His face was composed in the benign, even saintly, self-confident expression of an old-fashioned king absolutely certain of his divine right to reign. There might have been music, The Hallelujah Chorus perhaps, but it was not necessary.
At the weight-lifting area he unzipped the bag to take out a package of talcum powder and a white leather girdle which he strapped beneath his belly to diminish the immense strain on his stomach muscles when he hoists the weights. The weights, the great discs of iron, were stacked along the garden wall. He studied them, then picked up one weighing 25 kilos (55 pounds) and fitted it on one end of the bar. He put a similar disc on the other end and began to work. Next he progressed to 65 kilos (143 pounds). He dusted his hands with talcum, spat into his palms, bent and gripped the bar. With a horrible gasp and grunt he yanked it to shoulder level, paused, then raised it, in triumph, it seemed, above his head. He held it for a moment, then let it fall to the mats with an explosive crash.
In the soft morning, with his Shakhtinka roses nodding nearby and the leaves of the grapevines rustling on the garden wall, with the chirping of birds in his trees and the civilized sound of trolley cars in the distance, the savage clangor of the falling weight was as unnerving as a grenade blast at one's feet.
Alexeyev lifted the 65 kilos three or four times as a warmup. He rested for a moment, leaning on a padded gymnastic horse. He said nothing. He seemed to be concentrating very hard, as though slipping into some kind of trance necessary to the superhuman feats he performed so regularly. Dmitri and the puppy scampered by his feet, and Alexeyev emerged from his trance to inquire, "Have you done all your lessons?" Offended, the boy replied that of course he had.
Alexeyev added more weight and lifted something over 250 pounds. He seemed about to burst when he hoisted the bar above his head. His belly strained against the leather girdle. He dropped the weight with the same hideous crash. He lifted it again and let it fall. Then, panting, he leaned again against the horse. Once more he seemed to be entering a quasi-mystical state of concentration, which it seemed wise not to interrupt. But then he looked at me and said, "Ask me something."
Well, all right. Could he explain his training technique? He said, "The difference between my methodics and others is great. What is mainly different is that I train more often and I lift more weights than others. I never know when I will train. Sometimes deep in the night, sometimes in the morning. Sometimes several times a day, sometimes not at all. I never repeat myself. Only I understand what is right for me. I have never had a coach. I know my own possibilities bestly. No coach knows them. Coaches grow old and they have old ideas."
He bent over to attach more weight to his bar. It would be 310 pounds now. He dusted his hands and spat on them, then paused and said, "I am, of course, the unofficial coach of the Soviet team. Everybody asks my advice during training and competitions. They are very grateful, for what I say usually helps." With a bellow he hoisted the weight to his shoulders, hesitated, gasped and shouted with effort and exultation as he shoved it above his head. This time when the weight smashed to the mats he was panting more heavily and beginning to perspire. "Ask more," he said.
I asked about his daily routine. "I'm sleeping eight hours, normally," he said. "I also play tennis and volleyball. I have great springing qualities in volleyball. I love to play dominoes. It is excellent to play before a competition because it destroys the cares that come then."
He upped the weight to 360 pounds and raised it once with great noise and puffing and let it crash. I asked him about injuries. He replied with animation, though still panting from the last lift. "Yes, I have had legs twisted and backs twisted. Many times I have backs twisted. Also muscles in the stomach twisted. It was due to a back injury once that I was prohibited to train. But I am a very concentrated man. I continued my working anyway. The injury did not matter." Alexeyev was silent for a moment. Then, in a theatrical gesture, he threw out his chest, raised one arm and roared what sounded like a challenge to the heavens. Interpreter Yuri Solomakhin chuckled and said, "What Vasili has just shouted is 'Victory or death!' "
Alexeyev paused to let this sink in, then continued in melodramatic tones, "In spite of my pained back and in spite of the prohibition against my lifting the weights, I won the U.S.S.R. championships that time, then the European championships, and then I am that same year the world champion for the first time!"
There was some temptation to burst into a round of applause after the recital, but instead I asked Alexeyev how he dealt with pain, if he hypnotized himself when he lifted weights. He replied, "If you have pain you overcome it by physical exercise, not by the mind. The mind is no good for fixing pain."
Alexeyev worked out for about an hour. When he was finished he was streaming perspiration, but he seemed plainly exhilarated and said, "Let us talk some more for a moment." So I asked about his position as a deputy of the executive council of Shakhty. This is an elective position that Alexeyev holds in which he represents some 2,000 constituents as their spokesman and champion before the local parliament. He was delighted to discuss it. "Many, many times I represent people before the town council about such things as living conditions. A doctor may come to me, a respected man, and say, T have a two-room apartment, and I would like from the state a three-room apartment.' So I, as deputy, am analyzing this question and coming to a decision as to whether I think it is correct or not. If I feel it is correct, then I go to the council and present the case. If a man for whom I am deputy wants a different job shift, I may mention it to his plant manager and arrange the change. I do not mind using my reputation as a sports champion to help these people. They have elected me four times now. It is honest duty, simple duty. There is no pay."
I asked whether he had considered going into politics after his career as a champion was over, and he shouted, "That will be long from now! The Olympics of 1980—in Moscow—they are necessary for me. Most necessary!" Having made this perfectly clear, he spoke thoughtfully. "It is true my experience as deputy is good and may be helpful in my future. I may be elected to the town council, the regional council, the provincial council sometime. But I do not know about my future. I intend to enter the Communist Party soon. So far my politics exist only in sports gold. That is my only politics, and I am kept busy with speeches and with answering letters that come from fans. Sometimes I get them and they are addressed only to "Alexeyev, The Kremlin!' "
He picked up his Adidas bag, gave a small salute and said, "I am taking long hot bath now." And he sauntered off.
That night I left the hotel at about 11:30 to take a walk and strolled through the central park, which was dark and empty. There was no light except that of the moon. I walked about the business district, looking into shopwindows, until at last I reached Klimenko Street and sat on a bench across from Alexeyev's house. It was midnight now, but, surprisingly, the garden appeared floodlit. Then, faint and muffled, so that it was at first unclear what it was, came the sound of a falling weight. It was ghostly there in the dark, and I felt oddly frozen in time as I sat waiting. Many minutes passed, it seemed. Then, once more I heard—I thought I heard—another faraway crash on the other side of Vasili Alexeyev's garden wall. I rose and returned through the park to my hotel.
The following afternoon Alexeyev, beneath an apple tree, sat upon a wooden stool he had made. Before him was a table spread with an immaculate white cloth and laden with bowls of apples, grapes, tomatoes, red peppers, platters of cheese and meat, bottles of vodka and cognac. In his hands, bigger than any stevedore's yet supple as a cellist's, he held a cut-glass goblet which he polished with a white towel. The glass sparkled in the sunshine as he turned it in his hands. He polished all the glassware, then rose and ambled into the kitchen. He took some cuts of beef, vyrezka, and began to pound them with a meat hammer, adding salt and spices and onions, then frying them to make the main dish for luncheon. Asked if vyrezka was his favorite, Alexeyev replied, "Nyet. Everything I am preparing is my favorite because I am preparing only the most delicious dishes. No one in Shakhty is so good a cook as I. No one on the Soviet weight-lifting team is so good a cook, either."
We sat down for lunch and Alexeyev gazed rather slyly about the table. Then he asked me, "Vodka or cognac?" I asked what he would suggest, and he said, "I have drunk cognac all over the world. In France, everywhere. None is so good as Armenian cognac. This," he held up a bottle, "is Armenian cognac!" He filled one of his sparkling goblets to the brim and handed it to me; he took the same amount himself after filling the other glasses. He raised his own, offered a simple toast of welcome and swallowed it all. So did everyone else. I then felt a toast was in order. Alexeyev refilled the goblets all around, and I said something suitably pretentious about such luncheons as these going far toward improving relations between our two nations. The toast was drunk. Next, the local soccer coach proposed a toast, and it, too, went down. The Chairman followed—though he was taking only a sip each time, owing, he said, to his perennially unsettled stomach. Olimpiada skipped the last four or five toasts, smiling warmly, but Yuri kept up and became so affected by the drinking and the sun that eventually I could not understand his English and Alexeyev could not understand his Russian. Subsequent toasts were hurled therefore into a linguistic vacuum, and the guests were reduced to loud jovial noises. Alexeyev's vyrezka was superb, as was his "vegetable caviar," a dish made from eggplant he had, of course, raised himself.
Much later, when the guests were about to leave, The Chairman insisted on one last toast and Alexeyev poured for all. The Chairman rose and said, "Here is to 1992, to Vasili Alexeyev, who will still be champion, and to whom we will drink once more in that far-off year." The toast was drunk. I asked Alexeyev if he really thought he might still be the strongest man in the world in 1992. He beamed, his black eyes shining from beneath the black forest of his eyebrows. Then he smiled that huge and now familiar beatific smile that made happy wreaths of the blue jowls. He held up one finger and spoke with the utmost magniloquence. "Do not forget one thing." He paused. "I am original." He paused. "I am unique."
And with that Vasili Alexeyev shook hands with everyone, went into his house and closed the door.