By Jonathan Gault
September 22, 2020
“In Russia,” David Walsh writes, “if a couple has no children and no property then divorce is a simple administrative matter. The unhappy couple present at the registry office. Both sign a form…If one or both returns and signs the form again one month later then the couple are divorced.”
Around Christmastime 2012, Vitaly Stepanov and Yuliya Rusanova completed step one. Hastily married in 2009 — Vitaly had proposed after just two weeks of dating — it was a minor miracle they had lasted even three years together. Vitaly was hopelessly devoted to Yuliya. Yuliya cheated on him with multiple men. Vitaly, an amateur runner, was devoted to clean sport and had worked at RUSADA, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency. Yuliya, a professional runner, was one of hundreds of Russians doping to win as part of a state-sponsored cheating ring. They signed the papers at the registry office on a cold day in Moscow and were assigned a date to return to finalize their divorce.
That date, February 8, 2013, turned out to be one of the most pivotal in the downfall of Russia’s state-sponsored doping apparatus. Instead of heading back to the registry office that day, Vitaly drove Yuliya to the office of Alexei Melnikov, the coach of the Russian national track & field team, where she secretly recorded their conversation. She would do the same with several prominent Russian athletics figures over the next two years, stockpiling evidence that would ultimately form the backbone of Hajo Seppelt’s 2014 documentary that blew the lid off the Russian doping scandal.
If you followed the Russian doping saga at all, you’re probably cursorily familiar with the Stepanovs (after recommitting to their marriage, Yuliya changed her last name to Stepanova in 2013). But until you read The Russian Affair, the latest book from Irish sportswriter David Walsh, you don’t know close to the full story.
The book is not an attempt to recap and rehash the entire Russian doping system. Doping is a significant topic, but at its heart, The Russian Affair is a story about the relationship between two people: Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanov. It’s a love story. Though, for much of the book, it’s a very one-sided love story.
The Stepanovs’ names became known for their willingness to tell the whole, ugly truth to Seppelt, and they pull no punches in the account of their relationship to Walsh, the dogged Sunday Times reporter who helped bring down Lance Armstrong (Armstrong called Walsh “the little troll” and even sued him). At times, the portrait he paints is not flattering — as their marriage crumbles, Yuliya comes across as cold, Vitaly as pathetic. But the book’s unvarnished honesty is worth it; the Stepanovs’ journey becomes all the more remarkable after learning the difficult path they had to navigate.
By framing The Russian Affair around the Stepanovs, Walsh also forces the reader to confront the human side of a massive doping conspiracy and the difficult choices they had to make to fully expose it. Even as he sends emails about Russia’s malfeasance to WADA, Vitaly wrangles with whether to include the full details of his wife’s doping, knowing it carries the potential of ruining her career.
“You have ruined my life, Vitaly,” she tells him during one of their low points. “Because of you I always have more problems. Always.”
Yuliya, in turn, struggles to turn on Mariya Savinova, the 800-meter star who won gold at the 2011 World Championships and 2012 Olympics (and eventually lost those medals once her doping was exposed). Yes, Savinova cheated. But she had also shown the Stepanovs’ kindness, lending a sympathetic ear to Yuliya on walks in the park, Yuliya pushing along her son Robert as Savinova walked her Labrador, Joy.
You may not feel sympathy for Savinova, but it’s hard not to empathize with Yuliya, who ultimately decides to record Savinova for the documentary, sacrificing one of her few friends in the running world to bring down a system she knows in her heart is corrupt.
The story of Russia’s doping scandal has been (and will be) told many times in many ways, including by former Moscow anti-doping lab director Grigory Rodchenkov in the similarly-titled The Rodchenkov Affair, which was also released this summer. So if you’re looking for the definitive story of how it all happened, The Russian Affair is not for you.
But that is not what this book was meant to be about. It’s a story of two people, and how they made the choices that would alter the direction of their lives, as well as the direction of the very sport that united them in the first place. It’s a story worth telling, and in Walsh’s hands, it gets its proper treatment.
This one is definitely worth a read and would make an interesting movie.
Want to know more about the Stepanovs? They will be the featured guests on this week’s LetsRun.com podcast.
Other book reviews by LetsRun.com can be found here.