Ordinarily, these days, a statement by a top athlete that she is gay is not the bombshell that such news used to cause, but Daria Kasatkina’s revelation this week is having repercussions back home in Russia for the 25-year old and beyond.
There hasn't been a single day since February 24 [when Russia invaded Ukraine] that I haven't read some news, or haven't thought of for the day to pass by. Really, I have no connection with it [the war]. I haven't been affected, thank God, barely minimum, Wimbledon and all that. But people who have relatives in Ukraine, especially when you start talking about Russia. I can't imagine what they are going through. It's full-blown nightmare. Without a thought, I would do anything I can [to end it], but unfortunately [I can’t]. Daria Kasatkina
Kasatkina may not be a household name, despite her being the Russian No 1 female tennis player and on the verge of the Top 10, having reached the semi-finals of the French Open, her last Grand Slam, but her interview with Russian YouTuber Vitya Kravchenko hit the internet on Monday, and has been replayed hundreds of thousands of times, revealing she is in a same-sex relationship and condemning the war in Ukraine, so, suddenly, her face is all over the news.
Kasatkina’s girlfriend is Natalia Zabiiako, an Olympic figure-skating silver medal-winner for Canada, although the 27-year-old is originally a Russian Estonian competitive pair skater.
Back home in Russia, sports channel Match TV suspended its presenter and PR agent Sofya Tartakova, who supported Kasatkina by refusing to participate in a talk show conceived as a smear campaign against Kasatkina.
“Public statements, like the one made today, violate the standards of corporate and journalist ethics,” Alexander Tashchin, Match TV‘s general producer said. “My colleagues and I are frank with each other in personal conversations and correspondence; we may have different opinions of particular products made by the channel, but expressing them to the general public in such a manner is unacceptable.”
He added that Tartakova would not ‘appear on air’ until she ‘has had enough time to reconsider her statements’.
Tartakova refused to participate in an episode of Yest Tema [“There’s a Topic to Discuss”] that was dedicated to Kasatkina and Andrey Rublev after they had both been interviewed by Russian blogger Kravchenko.
The talk show participants apparently spent an hour bad-mouthing the two players, and Tartakova referred to the program as a ‘freak show for tongue-tied public officials, pseudo-experts, and those greedy for their five minutes in the limelight’.
“Most importantly, Andrey and Daria,” Tartakova said. “I love you very much. I’m proud of you. You’re the kindest, the most open and honest people. Working with you is a real blessing.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been able to protect you. I feel so ashamed and upset that they tried to hurt you. But I’m always on your side.”
On 18 July Russian parliamentarians proposed a bill prohibiting the ‘propaganda of homosexual relationships and the negation of family values’.
The new law would expand on the country’s so-called ‘gay propaganda’ bill passed in 2013, which banned the ‘promotion of non-traditional sexual relations’ to minors, and has been used to stop gay pride marches and arrest gay rights activists.
The aim is to ban any public discussion of LGBTQ+ relationships in a positive or neutral light, and all LGBTQ+ content in cinemas.
The bill came after the influential parliamentary speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said earlier this month that since Russia had left the Council of Europe human rights watchdog, it would now be able to ban the promotion of ‘non-traditional values’.
“Demands to legalise same-sex marriages in Russia are a thing of the past,” Volodin said. “Attempts to impose alien values on our society have failed.”
The bill was introduced as the Kremlin appears to adopt an increasingly conservative line following the country’s invasion of Ukraine, positioning itself as a global bastion of ‘family values’.
Activists and athletes, though, are saying it is an important and symbolic moment for rights of LGBTQ+ people in Russia.
“When I heard the news about Kasatkina, I couldn’t believe it, I was so proud,” said Nadya Karpova, a footballer, who became the first openly gay Russian national team athlete when she came out last month. “I was ecstatic, jumping around like crazy in my flat.”
Kasatkina said in the Kravchenko interview posted on Monday that Karpova had served as an inspiration in her decision to come out.
“It is so important for younger people to have role models who are like them,” Karpova added. “For them to see that there is absolutely nothing wrong with them.
“The timing is so symbolic as well, with all the fucked-up things happening in Russia.”
Besides Moscow’s stated goals to ‘de-nazify’ and ‘demilitarise’ Ukraine, Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, has also framed the invasion as a definitive battle against ‘western values’, a notion that has been eagerly picked up by the country’s conservative segments, including the Orthodox church, with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow blaming gay pride parades for the country’s invasion of Ukraine in a recent sermon.
Given the current climate, Igor Kochetkov of the LGBT Network, a prominent Russian group defending the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, described Kasatkina’s coming out as ‘monumental’.
“This is the first time in our history that an undisputed sports star of Kasatkina’s stature has come out,” Kochetkov said. “And, in Putin’s Russia, sport is always political.”
Putin has held rallies with the country’s top athletes to galvanise support for Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.
Kasatkina’s interview was first picked up by Sports.ru, a popular Russian sports website, where it has received mostly positive reactions from readers.
“Well done for saying what you said,” was one of the many encouraging comments. “If it is important for her to do it openly – that is her absolute right. In the civilised world, no one should be condemned for this.”
Recent polls have shown that Russian society has become more polarised over the matter, with the number of people who hold views of LGBTQ+ people as ‘normal’ growing from 23% to 32% over the last 8 years, and to 68% among Russians under 18.
“The Kremlin strives for complete unity in society during the war,” Kochetkov said. “If they see that an attack on sexual minorities is going to stir heated discussion and debate, they will think twice before launching one.
“That’s why Kasatkina’s coming out has the actual power to prevent new homophobic campaigns.”
The 25-year-old’s opposition, though, probably means she can no longer call Russia home and, now as an openly gay athlete, who has denounced the war, she realises there is no place for her there anymore.
‘Dasha’, the affectionate Russian shortening of Daria, recognises that her own suffering because of the war is ‘bullshit’ compared to the many millions impacted by the war in Ukraine.
Along with Rublev, the men’s World No 8, Kasatkina trains in Barcelona, a temperate, attractive base where she can practise for virtually the whole season, and where she still gets stopped in the street for selfies by Russians on holiday or living in Catalonia.
Were she back in the country of her birth, it might not be so straightforward, and she has mooted changing nationality to try and keep her career alive, something that has infuriated the Russian media.
“At the moment, we’re outsiders,” Kasatkina explains, adding when asked what she wants the most right now is: “For the war to end.
“There hasn’t been a single day since February 24 [when Russia invaded Ukraine] that I haven’t read some news, or haven’t thought of for the day to pass by.
“Really, I have no connection with it [the war]. I haven’t been affected, thank God, barely minimum, Wimbledon and all that. But people who have relatives in Ukraine, especially when you start talking about Russia. I can’t imagine what they are going through.
“It’s full-blown nightmare. Without a thought, I would do anything I can [to end it], but unfortunately [I can’t].”
At this point in the interview she burst into tears, sobbing into Kravchenko’s arms, before he put the camera down to console her in private.
There are probably hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of Russians who want no part of Putin’s war, whose very accident of birth leaves them at risk of unemployment, abuse, violence and worse, wherever they are in the world.
In hindsight, perhaps Wimbledon’s ban was mis-guided in that it punished those who are suffering for something they did not choose.
The AELTC steered away from asking players to sign a declaration denouncing the war because of the danger it would put them and/or their families in, but many, including Rublev and Kasatkina, would gladly have done so, although others may not have felt able to since they were told in no uncertain terms by Russian authorities not to sign.
Elsewhere, Lyudmyla Kichenok has been speaking about the support she has been receiving from Jelena Ostapenko, who has been there for her Ukrainian doubles partner since the start of Russian invasion.
Kichenok misses being in her homeland so much but adds she is grateful to Latvia’s Ostapenko.
“I want to come back home so much, just go for a walk, Kyiv is so beautiful in summer,” she said. “I want to come back and live as before.
“I get it, it can’t be as before anymore, but I have hope. I believe in Ukraine’s victory from the first day, we will do everything to win.”
Kichenok has told of how she fled because of Russia’s war, and the emotional turmoil of managing her life on WTA Tour.
Kichenok, who is solely focused on doubles, has formed a strong team with Ostapenko, and the pair have made 3 finals and they also reached back-to-back semi-finals at the French Open and Wimbledon.
Since Kichenok has been unable to return to her home in Ukraine, Ostapenko invited her to Riga in Latvia.
“Jelena Ostapenko supported me a lot from the start, she helped me when I was with her in Riga,” Kichenok added. “Jelena did all she could to make me feel okay.
“I don’t need to explain it to her, she understands what’s going on very well. Next for us: we’ll get ready for the US series.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian players, including 2019 Wimbledon semi-finalist Elina Svitolina, have penned a letter to the ITF calling for the resignation of Ukrainian Tennis Federation (UTF) Vice President Yevhen Zukin.
The letter states that ‘representatives of the national teams of Ukraine (women’s and men’s) were systematically harassed and harassed by officials of the UTF’.
Kichenok, Nadia Kichenok, Marta Kostyuk, Ilya Marchenko, Serhiy Stakhovsky, Svitolina, Lesya Tsurenko, and Katarina Zavatskaya, all claim that Zukin ‘communicates in a rude and obscene manner’ and exceeds his authority by determining the make-up of national teams based on his own preferences.
As a result of the alleged transgressions, the players have demanded the removal of Zukin from all positions in tennis, both in Ukraine and in Europe.
“Underlining the complete lack of coherence and transparency in the actions of the Federation and in the use of financial support recently received from the international organisation, the players warn the ITF that Yevgeny Zukin is sowing division and chaos by hardly communicating with them, if not in an aggressive manner, while not providing standard assistance for Davis Cup or Billie Jean King Cup competitions,” stated the players’ release.
“In a very difficult time for our country, we need the support and unity of Ukrainian tennis more than ever.
“Instead, Mr Zukin continued to focus on his own interests and his international career.
“Hoping to restore the trust and reputation of the Tennis Federation of Ukraine, a group of Ukrainian professional tennis players in their letter officially demands the dismissal of Yevhen Zukin from positions in the Tennis Federation of Ukraine and the ITF Davis Cup Committee, from the position of ITF referee and from any other position he holds within the ITF.”
Other Ukrainian players, however, namely Dayana Yastremska and Katarina Zavatska, have condemned the action.
“I consider it necessary to speak about the letter signed by my colleagues and directed, as it were, against the executive director of UTF Yevhen Zukin, but in fact against all Ukrainian tennis!” Yastremska wrote on Instagram.
“I strongly condemn such actions, which are absolutely not constructive and cause significant damage to national sports in the eyes of international organisations.”