Ukrainian skaters at Worlds: sending the message of a country hit by war

Ukrainian representatives at 2022 World Figure Skating Championships in Montpellier, France, during the opening ceremony. Coach Lilia Batutina is the first on the right. Photo © International Skating Union

Head to head, we look into Lilia’s phone and we keep quiet. “Red is for bombing, green means bombing is over. Now it’s bombing!” Lines of sentences in Ukrainian, and red and green exclamation points – a long line of messages that Lilia keeps receiving on her phone; a bombing-alert system that gives you shivers.

At 2022 World Figure Skating Championships in Montpellier, France, the war in Ukraine seems geographically very far. But watching the red-green alerts in Lilia Batutina’s phone – Lilia is a coach and choreographer from Dnipro, accompanying her pair skaters in Montpellier – the war never felt so close.

by Florentina Tone/Montpellier

This edition of the World Figure Skating Championships has been, first and foremost, about them: the Ukrainian team – five skaters, one coach – who came to Montpellier, France, with a purpose: to tell the world what’s happening in their country.

To send the message of a country, of a nation hit by war. To skate for all Ukrainians. To ask the world to hear them out. To thank for the support – and ask for more support.

The five skaters are ice dancers Oleksandra Nazarova (25) and Maksym Nikitin (27), pair skaters Sofiia Holichenko (17) and Artem Darenskyi (20), and single skater Ivan Shmuratko (20). The only coach accompanying them – coach to Sofiia and Artem – is Lilia Batutina (40). Oleksandra and Maksyim are from Kharkiv, Ivan and Sofiia, from Kyiv, Artem and Lilia, from Dnipro.

They had just returned from 2022 Olympics in Beijing, and taken a couple of days off, when the war started. Weeks into the war, in Kharkiv, Kyiv, Dnipro, their hometowns, they’ve seen it all, they heard it all.

And now they’re in Montpellier, and it took them days to arrive to the place of championships, it even took them a while to scatter doubts on their mind (is there a point in skating when there’s a war happening and people are dying?) – but this is, nevertheless, a journey with a meaning.

Still, they don’t know what their life will be like when World Championships end. Maybe stay and train in Poland, in France, in Italy? At the time of the competition, their future was hanging under a huge question mark.

Different roads to get to Montpellier, a common purpose

Pair skaters Sofiia Holichenko and Artem Darenskyi skating their short program in Sud de France Arena in Montpellier; their coach, Lilia Batutina, at the boards.

It is with coach and choreographer Lilia Batutina that we talk first, on the night of March 23. Her young students, Sofiia Holichenko and Artem Darenskyi, have opened the pairs’ event at Worlds – less than an hour after taking part in the emotional opening ceremony of the championships, focusing on them, applauding them, the Ukrainian delegation.

And until Sofiia and Artem find their way through the numerous media crews in the mixed zone, we’re surrounding Lilia. The coach has left Ukraine with her daughter and her mother, to come to Poland, and from there to France, for the World Championships.

What we know so far is the skaters’ roads to these championships have been different, in routing, in the cities they left from, the days spent on the road – and we also know they couldn’t possibly train.

So we listen to the coach, her words translated by a graceful colleague in the mixed zone, and we don’t dare to ask much – until we do, we ask the questions, we hear the answers, because these six Ukrainian people in Montpellier are signaling the world, in their own way, about what happens in their country – what they had seen, what they had lived in the month since the war started.

Listening Lilia talk, you understand: for her skaters it was like falling from very high in the sky (their dream to be at the Olympics, the goal of every skater out there) to a mundane, atrocious, unthinkable experience: that of a war.

Coach Lilia Batutina: “Now it’s bombing!”

To get to Montpellier, France, wasn’t easy – Lilia summarizes her students’ journey to get to Worlds, her own journey, and her sentences are a mixture of dreams, skating, war and unknown future. We give Lilia the word – our questions have been eliminated and her intervention has been translated and edited.

“After the Olympics, we went home, had a little time for ourselves – and then we couldn’t go to the ice rink [in Dnipro] because the war started – so the skaters didn’t practice at all before these Championships, after the Olympics.

That’s why we only have a small team here, because they had no practice, and it’s dangerous for the skaters to perform at this high level without any practice.

My skaters, Sofiia and Artem, are in their first year together, and they had this dream of going to the Olympics. The dream came true, and they were thinking: «Oh, afterwards, we go to France and then we have holidays».

But after the Olympics, they came back, they had a couple of days off, and the war started…

We came here from Poland. We stayed one day in Torun, we practiced there for one day – and we came here, in Montpellier. I left my mother and my daughter there [in Torun].

Afterwards, we will go back to Torun. We also have an invitation from the Italians, to maybe go there and train. Maybe, we don’t know it yet…

[Leaving Ukraine] was difficult, was awful, because we had to cross all Ukraine. I took my mother with me – she can’t walk, she’s an invalid, and I also took my daughter. We were very frightened because at any time a tank could have come, or a bombing could have happened…

I have on my phone… [she shows us a line of messages on her phone, alerts for when and where the bombing happen in Ukraine]: Green means bombing is over, red means bombing is going on. Now it’s bombing!

[Lilia repeats the information in English: «Red – bombing started, green – finished bombing. Now, bombing!»].

So far, my home is still intact, but…

The skaters’ families are still in Ukraine, they are without their families here.

[The authorities] gave the permission to leave the country only to the skaters from the first national division, from the highest level, the others couldn’t go.

My husband, my father, Artem [Darenskyi]’s father, all men couldn’t leave Ukraine – they are fighting or they are defending the country. They pray every day.

I call and ask: Where are they bombing? [Lilia says it again in English: «Where is bomb? Here, here»].

We don’t know for how long the war will go on – and I’m afraid that, maybe, my skaters will stop the sport, will stop skating, because no one knows when the skaters will resume practice in the normal way.

That’s because of a country, we all know the name of the country – that the skaters will, perhaps, stop their sport, their future in sport.

…Yes, Sofiia and Artem changed the music of their short program, they now skate to a Ukrainian song [«Zhiva» (Alive)] and the lyrics say something like: «The wheat doesn’t grow now…», so it’s a bit of a symbolic song.

A symbol for the people at home, for when they listen to the song – and we had help from Hugo Chouinard in Montreal, many thanks to him, and the skaters had to adapt their program to the new music. We decided: If we go to the World Championships, we’ll have this music – and it was done very quickly”.

Sofiia and Artem: “We want to show that the Ukrainian athletes are here to fight, that the Ukrainian people are very strong”

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Soon, pair skaters Sofiia Holichenko and Artem Darenskyi join us in the mixed zone – and listening to them, as well as listening to all of them during the days of championships, it becomes even clearer: Ukrainian skaters are in Montpellier, at Worlds, not so much to skate, or pride themselves with the quality of their skating, but to signal what happens in Ukraine, and show their strength, their power, their resilience to their people.

A message both to the world and the Ukrainians watching them, looking at them – even from afar.

And the journey they all follow throughout the championships is more or less common: apart from Ivan Shmuratko, who will venture to skate his free program too in Montpellier, the dancers and the pair skaters will only skate their short programs here, as much as they could have trained them, in a day or two, and then withdraw from the next segment of the competition “due to personal reasons”.

Because what is more personal than a war?

Sofiia and Artem are the youngest of the entire Ukrainian team at Worlds – but their answers strike you with their maturity, especially considering the mission they all embraced in Montpellier; and, more than that, they impress you with the strength they found in them to go out there and skate after an opening ceremony that had all of us watching it on tears.

It took them approximately six days to arrive in Montpellier, from Ukraine, Sofiia says in the mixed zone.

“We travelled from Dnipro to Romania, to Italy and to Poland, to Torun”. The translator offers additional information: “From the city where they train in Ukraine, they travelled for 16 hours to get to Romania. From Romania, they went to Italy, then they flew to Warsaw, then they took a train to Torun, where they stayed for two more days”.

Sofiia again: “In Poland [in Torun] we had two days of training, one without our coach, and one with the coach. And we also changed our program music, we are now using Ukrainian music. We didn’t have time to do much, and we came here already, in France, after two days in Poland”.

For their short program in Montpellier, “we were more mentally prepared – than physically. After everything that happened, yes, it was difficult – but it was really motivating for us, the whole world was supporting us. And we want to show that the Ukrainian athletes are here to fight, and that the Ukrainian people are very strong”.

Their families are still in Ukraine, they say. Sofiia: “All my family is in Kyiv, which is bombed, and there are airstrikes every day, and I really hope that at least my mother can come out, but men over 16 years of age cannot leave the country”. Artem adds: “My mother is in Dnipro, my father is now serving in the army. I have a lot of friends and acquaintances, and they are all serving in the army right now, and everybody is doing whatever they can to support our country”.

Their future is uncertain, and they only know their next steps. Sofiia: “We decided together with our coach that we will withdraw from the free skating. We are not prepared to do the free as we did not train since the Olympic Games”. Artem: “After this competition we go back to Poland, to the city of Torun, and we will train there and we will decide what to do next”.

And they don’t leave the mixed zone without a final message.

Sofiia: “First of all, I want to thank the people in Poland who received us so well and who made it possible for us to come to the World Championships – because without their help I don’t think it would have been possible for us to come here, and show what we, at least, were able to show today”.

Artem: “I want to thank all people, especially in Poland, Romania and Slovakia, for taking a lot of refugees. I got many messages, even from people in Brazil, that they are supporting us, and I want to thank the whole world for supporting Ukraine, and delivering humanitarian aid and doing what they possibly can to support Ukraine”.

Championships with a heart – a blue-yellow heart

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Looking around, at skaters, coaches, officials, at people in the stands of Sud de France Arena in Montpellier, it is so very obvious: the support for Ukraine is tremendous. There are Ukrainian flags in the audience, and blue-yellow banners – and many skaters, from so many different countries, wearing a blue-yellow heart, in the colours of Ukraine, on their jackets, while sitting in the Kiss and Cry.

The message of these Championships is more than clear: We stand with you – we stand with Ukraine.

Ukrainian skater Ivan Shmuratko, taking the ice on March 24 for his short program, does even more, when deciding – a well-thought of decision, and one that is so powerful – to skate in his training T-shirt: a blue one, with Ukraine’s name on his back, on which he added a blue-yellow heart.

And he skates his short program to “Une vie d’amour” by Charles Aznavour – and this program, on this music, becomes, all of a sudden, even more striking and emotional. He breathes a second life into his program, so much (new) meaning into it – and this performance brings people on their feet. Behind the boards for him, taking the roles of coaches, of friends, of Ukrainians being in this together, are teammates and ice dancers Oleksandra Nazarova and Maksym Nikitin.

They had to run from their practice session in Vegapolis ice rink, in another part of the town, to be here for Ivan – and they did, and they are all here and show the world the team they are.

Team Ukraine with Ivan at the boards: one for all and all for one

Ivan: “Today I skated with all my country by my side”

Minutes after his skate, in the mixed zone, Ivan is offered by a journalist to speak in Russian, if it’s easier for him. He’ll say No to that. He’ll talk in English, quietly, slowly, and carefully choosing his words.

“It is important for my country to live – and I’m proud that my country is so strong. And today I skated with every Ukrainian, with all my country by my side. And there is no room for different colours or costumes with everything happening in my country during the war. So I decided to skate with my flag, with our flag on my chest and the colours of my country, Ukraine”.

The situation in Ukraine, as he saw it, coming from Kyiv?

“It’s really hard to describe what’s going on there. It’s a war there. Bombs are flying all over cities in Ukraine, people are dying, children, women…

But people of my country are having everything to fight for – and if someone just comes and wants us to give them what’s ours, no, that’s not how it goes, with a war in the 21st century.

Ukraine is strong, I’m proud to be Ukrainian and thank you to the world for being with us. Thank you to everyone standing with Ukraine, for supporting us.

We are proud to be here to represent Ukraine, and to be together during the programs, during the competitions, because it is really important now to stand behind each other and support each other”.

“We’re living day by day now, hour by hour – it’s hard to say what’s next for us”

Two days later, after skating his long program to “Nuvole bianche” by Ludovico Einaudi, Ivan Shmuratko will take again the opportunity to emphasize Ukraine’s strength, confronted with a war, and give a voice to all Ukrainians at home.

“Now, in our world, the words «difficult» and «skate» cannot be used in one sentence, because «difficult» from now on is to get a message that your friends, or someone from your family is killed, or they are dead, or you cannot find them. So it was not difficult to skate here.

What is happening around is life and, in life, everything is possible, you can change whatever you want. What is not possible is to change the thing that someone is dead.

So, now, the world should change the values and we, Ukrainians, will show, and are showing for one month, what the real values are. Of course, in the 21st century the understanding of war, for the people, is surreal – but it is what is happening in our country and Europe, on our planet.

We have to make everything possible for each of us to stop it, to stop the terrorism, to stop people being killed by the will of some just crazy maniac”.

His future, their future? He can’t really comprehend the meaning of the word at the moment.

“We’re living now day by day, hour by hour – hard to say what’s next for us, just step by step. I will probably stay in Europe, train, I hope to do volunteer work, I will make everything possible from my side to help my country”.

“When strangers are coming / They come to your house / They kill you all and say / We’re not guilty”

Oleksandra Nazarova and Maksym Nikitin are the last Ukrainian skaters to take the ice at Worlds: the ice dancing event only starts on Friday, on March 25th.

But up until this point, they had already lived the emotions of their teammates, and their own emotions in the practice sessions, in the opening ceremony and in the Kiss and Cry, outpourings of affection and support coming their way.

We see them first on March 24th, in their practice group at Vegapolis ice rink: around noon, Oleksandra and Maksym are practicing their rhythm dance to a new music, and Jamala’s powerful voice, powerful words, her cry fill the arena.

There’s this utter despair in the song, in the lyrics – one that you feel through every fiber of your body.

“When strangers are coming
They come to your house
They kill you all
and say
We’re not guilty
not guilty

Where is your mind?
Humanity cries
You think you are gods
But everyone dies
Don’t swallow my soul
Our souls

We could build a future
Where people are free
to live and love
The happiest time
Where is your heart?

Humanity rise
You think you are gods
But everyone dies
Don’t swallow my soul
Our souls”

You might remember Jamala – and, in these times, you most certainly do: she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2016, with this song, titled “1944”, inspired by the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars from Crimea, taking place under the Soviet regime in 1944. Jamala’s great-grandmother, Nazylhan, and her family were among the ones deported. But the song was equally inspired by the Crimean annexation by Russia in 2014, the singer confirmed in her post-win interviews.

The song is symbolic, an ancestral cry coming from within, and, to those listening, it’s absolutely heartbreaking: Jamala sings in English, for everyone to get the meaning of it, but the chorus is in the Crimean Tatar dialect.

And watching Oleksandra and Maksym skate to “1944” in their dark training suits in the practice rink becomes a moment that gets imprinted on us even before they get to perform their rhythm dance in the main arena.

And the second piece of music they use is a Ukrainian patriotic song that can be translated through “Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow”, composed in 1914 – and remade, at the beginning of March, by the Ukrainian singer Andriy Khlyvnyuk (from the band Boomboks) and remixed by the South African musician The Kiffness. The singer was on tour in the United States when the war started – and he came back to Ukraine, to fight against the invasion.

“Oh, in the meadow a red kalyna has bent down low,
For some reason, our glorious Ukraine is in sorrow.
And we’ll take that red kalyna and we will raise it up,
And we shall cheer for our glorious Ukraine, hey, hey!”

Taking bits of this march for freedom, and adding them to Jamala’s cry, Montreal’s music editor Hugo Chouinard helped Oleksandra Nazarova and Maksym Nikitin to be ready, music wise, for the World Championships in Montpellier. Had they not changed the music, they wouldn’t have come – they didn’t want to skate to happy, jolly music, their previous rhythm dance music, in times of war.

Oleksandra and Maksym: “One month ago, no one could believe someone can attack a country in the 21st century…”

And when Oleksandra and Maksym finally take the ice, on March 25th, you know it already: it’s going to be emotional.

It is emotional. Two Ukrainian hearts, one blue, one yellow, on the white surface of Sud de France Arena. And what a powerful message they send to the world, while skating to those poignant, meaningful, striking music pieces.

With them at the boards, with them in the Kiss and Cry, it’s Ivan Shmuratko. And just like Ivan a day prior, Oleksandra and Maksym have too skated in their national T-shirts: Oleksandra, in blue, Maksym, in yellow.

In the mixed zone minutes later, they talk in Ukrainian. And though we don’t understand Ukrainian, we understand words like “terror” and “fascism”, as powerfully said, as repeatedly said by Maksym.

Translated into English, their words keep their power.

Oleksandra: “[In our hometown Kharkiv] we saw the tanks, heard the shooting, my house doesn’t have windows anymore. It’s horrible to run to the shelter holding a kid in your arms – and I will not wish to anyone to live through it”.

Maksym: “The bigger point is to tell the truth about what is happening in Ukraine – and I hope this will help people in Ukraine who are now not safe, they are still in danger and might lose their houses. I hope we can help all people in the world understand what really happened, because we saw it!

Just six days ago I was in Kharkiv, and our whole families are still in Ukraine, and we saw what they [the Russian army] are doing, how they work, and it’s disgusting.

The music [we skate to] is Ukrainian, by our famous Ukrainian singer Jamala, who won the Eurovision Song Contest. The song [1944] was written by her. The first part is a call for the whole world, and telling them, and warning them.

One month and a day ago, no one could believe someone can attack a country in the 21st century…”


At the end of the day, at the end of the competition even, Oleksandra and Maksym will be asked to join the medalists of the ice dancing event on the ice: they’ll take pictures, and cry, and be embraced by everyone – the embrace, as a metaphor of the entire world embracing Ukraine in the times we are living.

And though their future was uncertain, and the roads to follow under a question mark, they’ll retain their role as messengers – as Jamala herself did, singing in so many European capitals since the war started, and bringing Ukraine’s message to the world.

On April 2nd, Oleksandra and Maksym were in Bucharest, Romania, home to so many Ukrainian refugees, as guests of the show “Dancing on ice”. But not just that: talking about the war, their experience, wearing black costumes, they’d also skate to a Romanian song, while on the background one could see ruins, flames, cities destroyed. Not a random choice of a song – not at all: Alexandrina sings – her deep, profound voice – a song called “Oraşul umbre”: “The city-shadows”.

Oleksandra Nazarova and Maksym Nikitin at Dancing on Ice, Bucharest, Romania. Photo by Gabriela Arsenie/Antena 1

“Time will pass
You’ll understand, and I’ll understand
Our city is destroyed
We have nowhere to go

It burned, our Living Town burned
Burned to ashes
The wind blew
And of what’s left now
Sprouting buds from ashes
Rose red like a sunset

How to fly now
Over the abandoned city
The Earth flees underfoot
It is not known where
It runs further away

All we’re left are shadows,
All we’re left are shadows…”

Oleksandra Nazarova and Maksym Nikitin at Dancing on Ice, Bucharest, Romania. Photo by Gabriela Arsenie/Antena 1

A week later, still at Dancing on Ice Romania, the two Ukrainian ice dancers, in light-brown costumes, will offer the audience, the viewers, another emotional performance to maybe one of the most meaningful Romanian songs: “Nopţi” (Nights) by Valeriu Sterian, an hymn to freedom and to those who died in December 1989, overthrowing communism.

“Lord, come, Lord,
And see what’s left of people…”