Mark Twain-Water polo-Louisiana

Unlike Australia and other countries, in the old Soviet Union travelling during school holidays was not something that most people would undertake, even domestically. That was mainly for economic reasons as well as the absence of the tourist infrastructure; most people did not have personal cars or the means to afford family vacations on a regular basis.

Most Soviet citizens in those years were not able to travel abroad either. At the time, there were no such things as personal computers, iPhones and iPads. And, of course, there was not the Internet. The ‘information age’ was a long way from coming. Books were the main source of information about the outside world. The images of distant lands, cultures, peoples and their histories in Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia, Oceania, Europe and the Middle East would be derived from the works of various writers. I liked reading foreign classics Jack London, Charles Dickens, Fenimore Cooper, Ali-Shir Nava′i, Omar Khayyám, O’Henry, Honoré de Balzac, Leon Feihtvanger, Miguel de Cervantes and William Thackery, to name a few. To my parents’ credit, I could find those and many other world-famous authors in our home library. They were also available in community libraries.

As a little boy I enjoyed Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. They quickly became American Classics. I was mesmerized not only by the ‘adventures’ of the novels’ main characters but also by the descriptions of life along the banks of the Mississippi River from Missouri to Louisiana.

The main activity that would capture the imagination of young boys in the Soviet Union in those days was sport. The country’s physical education and sports system provided good opportunities for mass involvement as well as high-performance athletes’ development. There were well structured programmes for all Olympic sports but the most popular were football (soccer), basketball, volleyball, weight-lifting, wrestling, boxing, track-and-field athletics, gymnastics, swimming and ice-hockey in the Northern parts of the country.

Our neighbour, Viktor Tutushkin, was a water polo coach. When I was 10 he involved me in the sport. As an athlete, I was able to travel extensively throughout the whole country from the age of 13 and visited most of the Soviet republics: the Ukraine, Belorussia, Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia, Moldavia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kirgizia, Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation. Many of my friends – whom I got to know through water polo – still live in these now independent countries.

Mr. Tutushkin was a very competent coach who always looked for unorthodox ways to train and match tactics. I remember we often spoke about various technical and tactical aspects of the game and how to make them more efficient and difficult for the opposition to resist. My first discussions, for instance, about traditional static attacking patterns with the main focus on the centre-forward versus mobile dynamic ‘revolving’ offensive actions were with him. I am forever thankful to my first coach for everything he has done for me.

I was lucky. Because of water polo, my first visit to a foreign country, Poland, was at the age of 15 as a member of the USSR Youth Team. Subsequently, being a member of the National senior team, I was able to see many countries on all continents. Our team’s first trip to Australia was in 1985 (see “Why Australia should be interested in Asia” post). It is those visits to western ‘capitalist’ countries with market based economies that made us think that not everything was quite right with the ‘socialist’ economic system in our home-land, the USSR.

You never know what the future holds for you. If anyone told me thirty years ago that there would not be such a country as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics anymore I would have laughed. Recently, I recall the little boy who lived in Tashkent, in the Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan, in the 60s. That boy enjoyed reading about the distant places with such mysterious names as ‘Mississippi’, ‘Missouri’, ‘Louisiana’… At the time, he was wondering if he would ever be able to see those places with his own eyes. As it turned out, he was able to do it.

I enjoyed my latest trip to New-Orleans.



New-Orleans, French Quarter

Katrina’s aftermath in the lower 9th ward

Louisiana swamps

About Erkin Эркин Shagaev Шагаев
European, world, Olympic champion, two times World Cup winner Чемпион Европы, мира, Олимпийских игр, двукратный обладатель Кубка мира

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