Ivan Piddubny: the Ukrainian Hercules, a powerful athlete and staunch patriot

by Danylo Kulyniak

Ukrainian-born Ivan Piddubny was once one of the most famous athletes in the world - a legend in his own time. He began his sports career at the turn of the century. In the course of almost 40 years Mr. Piddubny tested his strength against the mightiest people in the world.

He died undefeated in August 1949, in the town of Yeysk, in the Kuban region, to which he and with his wife had to escape the Terror-Famine of 1933 in Ukraine.

This Ukrainian Hercules was born October 8, 1871, in the village of Krasenivka (now in the Chornobayivskyi region of Cherkasy Oblast). Traveling across this region along the Dnipro, one cannot help but marvel at the tremendous natural beauty of the land that gave birth to this incredible athlete. As a young man Piddubny worked as a fitter in the ports of Sevastopol and Feodosiya for seven years, and in 1898 he started traveling with circus tours.

In the eyes of the world Piddubny quickly became the epitome of the Russian "bogatyr" (mighty man), though he never considered himself to be Russian, as did others. (However, all Soviet academic reference materials and the latest Russian reference books refer to Piddubny as a Russian sportsman.) In 1939 he was given the title of Honored Artist of the Russian Federation, and in 1945 that of Honored Master of Sports. It was precisely this discrepancy in his national identity that was the basis for one of the most unpleasant incidents in his biography.

When the first passports were introduced in the Soviet Union in 1932-1933, his last name was written in a Russian form as Poddubny. This deliberate Russification of last names was then an unwritten law, and in the column of nationality they marked the great man down as Russian.

All this was done without the consent of the passport's owner, of course. He protested, together with then renowned specialist in Ukrainian lore, Hnatenko, who was Russified as Ihnatenko by the Soviet authorities. However, all their protests proved to be in vain. Faced with official intransigence, Piddubny asked Hnatenko to correct the o in his passport to an i, which he did, also crossing out Russian as the nationality and replacing it with Ukrainian. Soon enough somebody reported this deliberate act of vandalism, and the world champion was carted off to the regional NKVD headquarters (Ministry of Internal Affairs) in Rostov-on-Don on 26 Engels St. There Piddubny was locked up for several days in a basement room, up to the waist in water.

Of what was he accused? "Inveterate anti-Soviet agitation." Officials at the time justified the charge saying that, along with the passport episode, which was then interpreted as a "manifestation of Ukrainian nationalism," there also were Piddubny's accounts of his life abroad before the Russian Revolution, when he was touring the world as a wrestler. This all occurred in 1937, during Stalin's repressions. Refusing to confess to anything, Piddubny was scorched with an electric soldering iron, leaving him scarred for life.

"That was the way they taught me Lenism (he refused to pronounce the word "Leninism") in the NKVD on Engels Street," he used to later say. "I endured everything from those devils in their little pocket of hell because I was a world champion, not a sardel on two legs [a fish similar to a sardine; this is a common Ukrainian phrase expressing weakness - Ed.]. But I have a bunch of scars for souvenirs, damn it," he would claim.

Piddubny was finally able to break loose from the clutches of the secret police when an influential figure helped free him, remembering the bygone worldwide fame of the Ukrainian wrestler.

His fame was of great use to him later in life, as well. During World War II, when the Romanian troops occupied Yeysk (Romania was an ally of Nazi Germany), the soldiers began looting local homes. On that occasion it was Piddubny who intervened to protect the town's residents and their possessions: he threatened the commandant that he would lodge a complaint with the "Old King" himself, the father of the Romanian king, who had once greeted the world champion in Bucharest. It worked.

Old-timers of Yeysk remember one famous incident when a local girl approached Piddubny one day in the town's marketplace.

- Ivan Maksymovych, why are you so sad these days?

- I am reminiscing over my first infatuation and my last love.

- And what was the name of your first love?

- Ukraine, of course, and what else could it be? When appearing on stage, I used to pray not for me, or the tsar, but only for my dear Ukraine. And that's why I was winning!

Piddubny died on alien land; his tombstone bears the following engraving: "Ivan Maksimovich Poddubny, outstanding Russian Soviet athlete."

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, May 21, 2000, No. 21, Vol. LXVIII

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