Photo: Alex Burd.
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Mr. Caucasus

Iron Men behind the Iron Curtain.

 

Walking through Gorky Park in the first week of March one can see Moscow transition. The climate is no longer hostile to human life and Muscovites begin to emerge from the subterranean city of art deco metro stations and shopping centers. On the weekend, they descend upon the park to skate on the remaining ice. A hammer and sickle adorn the triumphal gate that stands at the park’s eastern entrance, serving as a reminder of the politics of the past and a Cold War mentality that remains. The sound of songbirds, celebrating a spring that has yet to arrive, emanate from speakers hidden among the pillars. Cultural glasnost has not spared Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure. Once a prominent setting for the Cold War’s dead drops and gruesome murders, it is now enjoyed by the Muscovite middle classes parading designer Western handbags and enjoying strange approximations of American fast food. The northern edge of the park runs along the Moscow canal, one of the Volga’s thousands of tributaries. This, by no fault of its own, was the location for the Moscow Iceman 2016 Strongman Competition.

It summoned five of the largest men the Caucasus has recently produced, as well as a crowd of several hundred spectators. The onlookers were arranged into an ad hoc circus ring, amounting to four circles around the proceedings. A utility pole stood in the center, surrounded by a pyramid of hay bales, which had been colonized by dozens of the youngest spectators, eager to get as close as possible to the mountainous men. As we arrived, the contestants were receiving their final instructions for the penultimate event.

 

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Varying in style from brutish to colossal, they were assembled side-by-side at one end of the ring, bearing little resemblance to the Victorian image of striped leotards and waxed moustaches. Each had an enormous tractor tire before him, and was tasked with moving it to the end of the course and back again. An air horn sounded and off they went. The contestants dealt with the seemingly straightforward task in different ways, amounting to two schools of thought: two contestants tried to wear the tire’s giant rubber handle over their shoulder like a satchel and pull it along, whilst the remaining three bent down, reached under the tire flipping it along the course. The latter method was quicker but more anarchic, its proponents zig-zagging up the course ahead of their rivals. The win was eventually claimed by a man who had seemingly been poured from concrete himself earlier that morning. His face resembled a clenched fist and was framed by a mohawk and large beard. He roared with victory, beating his chest, ready to climb the nearest skyscraper.

As groups of mere mortals rolled the tires away, a master of ceremonies took to a microphone to explain the final Herculean labour. Three days in Moscow had done little to improve my Russian, aside from being able to say ‘thank you’ and recognise the nearest metro station on a cyrillic map. However, just as French lacks its own word for ‘Wi-Fi,’ Russian seems to lack a term for this final event. My ears caught the English words ‘Super Yoke’.

 

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A metal bar was placed across each man’s shoulders, metal stirrups hanging from each end. Without any warning, four children bounded off their hay bales and climbed aboard, taking their place as human ballast. In fairy tales of yore, these kids would’ve been under serious threat of being eaten by the giants around them, but they looked delighted at their sudden involvement. The giant’s task was made all the more difficult by their young charges’ unwillingness to stand still, constantly adjusting their balance in a bid to cling on. The MC doubled as referee, a stopwatch keeping time as the Russian golems lumbered against the clock. One man stumbled, sending his cargo scrambling; everyone emerged unscathed, with only his chances of victory hurt. The best performance came from a man I hadn’t previously paid much attention to. He was the shortest of the group, but the widest; less an athlete than a four-limbed cannonball. A thick leather belt around his waist was straining against his gut, with fat and muscle forcing its way through every notch. He was close to the ground as he scurried along the track. His absurd torso stood on pillars rather than legs, yet they carried him surprisingly quickly, the child-bearing harness travelling only inches above the ground, but over ten seconds faster than his closest opponent.

That marked the end to the competition and the start of the prizegiving. There was no podium and the competitors stood together while the announcer conferred with a couple of his colleagues. Results were tallied and totals calculated on a whiteboard. The locals seemed to have a favourite, revealed to us when the mohawk man, who was victorious in the tire race, acknowledged them. Completing their adjudication, the coven broke up. The announcer addressed the crowd in Russian. He summoned the contestants to him, and the crowd cheered them as they assembled to learn their fate, standing side by side, dwarfing the announcer as he reeled off the results. He stopped in front of the cannonball who’d performed so well in the final event. The announcer grasped the man’s paw, needing both hands to do so, and just about managed to lift it above his head, announcing him as the winner.

 

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Recognition looked to be the only reward. Though the local favourite had lost, the crowd seemed delighted and people began to pour into the circle to congratulate the competitors. The champion’s victory had sated his appetite only temporarily: he was already looking for a new world to conquer. Blondes hung off the biceps of the runner ups, posing for pictures and exchanging phone numbers. Russia may have the latest iPhone, but metrosexuality has not yet broken through the tattered Iron Curtain. In the West, expectations of male beauty may have moved towards the slender, toned, and impeccably groomed, but, in Moscow, being hairy and the size of a small car really works with the ladies. As the crowd began to disperse, I spotted my chance to grab a picture with the champion. I tapped him on the shoulder and made the universal symbol for ‘camera.’ The granite face almost broke into a smile, apparently in the assumption that I was offering up my girlfriend. This quickly disappeared as I stepped forward instead and leaned in to claim my prize. In a country still ruled by strongmen, I had claimed Mother Russia’s strongest son.

 

Photos by the author.