PLAYTIME IS OVER FOR MARAT SAFIN
After his tennis career, Marat Safin went into politics as a member of president Vladimir Putin's party. Victoria Koblenko spoke to him when he was in the Netherlands for the AFAS Tennis Classics. The former world number one alternates between newly acquired political correctness and surprising candour.
Commotion on Twitter. Marat Safin is taking part in the AFAS Tennis Classics in Apeldoorn. It's not so much the fact that he has won two Grand Slam titles and is a former world number one, but that he is a member of United Russia, the party of president Vladimir Putin. Shouldn't we, as a champion of equal rights for gays, send out a stronger signal to the MPs of a political party that has adopted laws restricting freedom for gay men?
You once said that a politician, like an athlete, should have a strong character. The end of your first term in the Duma is in sight. Is it OK to lose your temper in your new career?
Without discipline you can't do anything. Not in sports and certainly not in politics. I have to be on my toes every day, keep well versed in matters, speak to thousands of professionals, day in and day out prepare ahead. Ready for the press every day as well.
What is your portfolio?
I'm vice-chairman of the Committee for Public Associations and Religious Organizations, and of course sports affairs too.
Do you feel that you get space to present a vision?
Of course. The work we do is collective.
Give me an example of something you're proud of accomplishing.
Adapting the electoral system, so that the system is more democratic. That you can pass a mandate on behalf of a particular region, so that fewer signatures are required to get it represented in parliament.
Do you feel that you can make a real difference in the current political system in Russia?
Who is teaching you the most as a politician?
I'm still learning. Every day. There are people who read countless pages to me and summarise, prepare me for various specific topics.
There was just announced a "golden hundred poll" of Duma members, whom the public most wants to see again in a successive term. You were in 127th place. How far does your ambition reach, as a politician? Are you hoping for another term?
I don’t think about it. I try to train my mind not to dwell on the past, and not to depend too much on the future. It has never made sense to me to look far ahead. If I've done good things, I'll be rewarded. The feeling I have inside, that I feel I make spotless decisions, is the only thing that counts.
The magical 'here and now'. Is that the influence of religion on your life?
I'm a Muslim, but not brought up strictly.
Has Islam had an impact on your upbringing, or was faith overshadowed by the Soviet influence?
During the Soviet era, faith wasn't actually promoted. Our country has frequently changed from an empire to ...
… a totalitarian regime? What would you call the regime anyway?
A young democracy. It's really too early to put a label on it that completely encompasses the contradictory content. After the Soviet Union fell apart, people were left alone in terms of their religious beliefs and some sought guidance in religion in uncertain political times.
Are you actively Muslim?
I respect all religions.
That's a politically correct answer. Let me rephrase the question: how many Muslim women have you dated?
GAY OR BISEXUAL
Do you pray?
I have my own prayers, my own vision of God. Nobody can impose on me a definition of what God is. It's something I feel, an energy.
When have you felt it?
When I've gone through difficult periods. I've had my share.
Perhaps you're not religious, but spiritual.
I'm working on the spiritual. But fortunately everyone is free to believe in whatever he or she wants.
Do you think Russian society is that tolerant?
It's very slowly becoming more tolerant.
The opposite is true for gay rights in Russia.
The country isn't ready for that yet.
Do you think the country is as ready as it ever will be?
Everything is changing so fast. Through travel, internet and mobile phones, you get access to all information. All the ideas you are trying to define by law, are up for grabs. These things are changing society fast. But ingraining tolerance sometimes takes generations. That's culture-building, to change a mindset. It requires a certain collective state of 'being'. In the past century how many wars have there been, in which Russia has taken part? Seven! People are still recovering from conflict, or they're in the throes of the next. In such a situation, it takes longer to develop a tolerant mentality.
The continuous use of war as a strategy to divert attention from domestic problems does not contribute positively to this. But tell me honestly, as a member of a party that adopts active laws against gay rights, do you feel you contribute to tolerance in society?
Of course it's not as if we shoot gay men. I live in the country, I work there, and I just see firsthand how people respond to gays in public and in private. There's a discrepancy. I'm sure many people are okay with gay people, but they just don't want it to be promoted. They are passionate about this.
And so 'promote' then becomes a catch-all term, and a convenient excuse to dispense with the notion of 'live and let live'. Should gays be better protected in Russia?
But protected against what? If you want to be gay or bisexual, you can do so in Russia.
You've travelled the world for over twelve years, you're aware there's a difference on this issue between Russia and the rest of the world. Suppose you could sit in the French parliament, how would you stand on this issue?
Completely differently. Of course! If society is ready for it, then politics must provide the legal foundation for it. Not the other way around.
So, hypothetically, if you're still in the Duma in 2024, would you dare to present such a law?
If society is ready for it, sure!
How do you prepare society for this kind of thing?
You can't force it, it has to grow organically.
Don't you feel that athletes like you, who have travelled the world, can and should be role models in this area?
I'm very tolerant. But I'm against young children seeing two men kissing on TV before the children's bedtime. I don’t think you can even see that in the Netherlands.
If you were a father, and your child came home and told you his friend in the playground has two mums instead of a dad and a mum - what would you say?
Phew, that's intense. That you can ask me if I were a father.
When will you become a father?
Not for the time being... I've only just finished being a child myself. I think that's the greatest sacrifice that many athletes make, that they've had no childhood. Around me were just people who were involved in sport. I would've liked to play with children who had nothing to do with sport. Just play.
Have you made up for your youth?
In a way. I've played enough. I've tried everything. Everything.
What impact has "tried everything" had on your sporting career? Did you get the most out of it?
I could have got a lot more out of it. If I had known what I know now ... I've made many mistakes, not listening to people around me.
Is that down to your personality?
This too. I had a lot of injuries, but my mental state fluctuated a lot as well. If I had a chance to master the mental side, I probably still wouldn’t have done what was good for me, owing to my stubbornness. That I freely admit it now, is life experience. I’m more balanced now, I no longer suffer from my ego.
How did you reach that conclusion?
Life puts you in certain frameworks. You can't escape them, unless you give up your ego. If your ego is inflated, you're not in the real world, so you're not in the here and now. How my ego has grown disproportionately, I'm not sure. But it must have started somewhere in my youth. It often has to do with how you're raised by your parents and trainers. Look, all of a sudden I was a professional, at that time I had no confidence in myself. But I started collecting points for the world ranking. In tennis, it means you accomplished something at the expense of others. If you win, you get the idea: I'm better. At some point you're going to believe you're better than anyone, whereas you've just played a better game.
Are you, as a politician, also a magnet for women?
You should ask the women ...
I'm asking you.
I hope they don't find me interesting because I used to be a professional athlete, just as I hope it doesn't affect them that I'm a politician. I hope someone comes to me purely in terms of me as a person. It's cliché, but everyone is looking for a soulmate. The rest is irrelevant.
How many soulmates have you encountered?
In my life I've experienced it three times.
Are you now looking for the same spark?
No, I don't need any more sparks. If everything is on fire from the start, it can only burn out. A big fire doesn't burn for very long. Passion goes away, but love has to grow. I want to make a fire, but slowly. I don't want it to happen to me. To love this way hasn't made anyone happy for very long, in my opinion.
What is love, for you?
It's a ghost, everyone talks about it, but nobody has ever seen him or her.
Are you afraid of ghosts?
No – maybe of fire.