I was born near Vinnitsa in Ukraine. My mother was a primary school teacher. I cannot remember my father so well: he came back from the war and died soon thereafter. There were three of us, three girls. I was the youngest. My two sisters were eight and ten years older. I was two when we moved to the Krasnodar Region. I finished school there and enrolled in the Krasnodar University’s philology department. Math and physics were not my favourite subjects. I had a lot of trouble with the tangents and cotangents. I didn’t get it. The Russian language and literature were easier and more enjoyable. The way they teach kids these days, judging by my grandson, they propagate what’s given naturally. I like that. When I graduated, I moved to Volgograd. My older sister’s husband was a military man, serving in East Germany. Their flat in Volgograd was empty. Instead of renting, I lived there while they lived in Germany. I got a job as a kindergarten teacher. Then I got married.
There is a place called Heroes’ Vista in Volgograd. When I was young, everyone used to go walking there, climbing down to the Volga esplanade, walking all the way to the Eternal Flame. That was the city’s “happening” spot, in today’s parlance. We would buy some soda and ice-cream, sit down on a bench, and just watch people passing by. That’s how I met him. I was sitting there with my girlfriends, and Viktor and a friend came along. I was twenty. He was a lot older, sixteen years older. That kind of age difference was highly uncommon in those days, and it scared me. Viktor’s family was in Odessa. His father was a handsome man, well built. He headed the city communist party committee in Odessa. Viktor’s sister lived in Grozny, and her husband chaired the regional executive committee. It was a well-to-do family, although this didn’t occur to me at the time. I just fell in love and I was afraid of everyone’s disapproval. I was afraid to tell my mother or my sisters. It also didn’t augur well for me that Viktor had been married before, and had a son from his prior marriage, named Dima. So, he was a lot older, divorced, and with a child. Looked pretty hapless. Viktor was an athlete, a professional boxer, but had quit professional sports by the time we met. He worked as a school gym teacher, then became a coach, like my Leonid. He taught kids boxing.
We lived well and peacefully. We both worked. We bought a cooperative society flat, three rooms. I don’t know how we did it, it was so expensive. Our flat stood empty until we finished out payments. We slept on a mattress, on the floor, then we bought a basic couch. It wasn’t like we just went and bought it. You couldn’t just buy things, even if you had the money, back in those days. You had to know someone to “get” things. We were friends with some furniture loaders. Actually, I handled all that. Viktor, like Lyonya, didn’t care about home-making. When a bulb had to be replaced, he would go, like: “It’s too high, I can’t reach that high. Here’s three roubles, call an electrician.” But me, I would do everything: replace bulbs, nail down some baseboards, wallpaper, paint. I did a good job, too: neat, fine and delicate. Perhaps my professional calling had something to do with it.
Viktor and I got married in 1969, and Lyonya was born two years later. My husband wanted a girl, and for some reason thought she would be wearing bows in her hair right out of the womb. Being from an all-girl family, I wanted a boy. The result was Leonid Viktorovich. We picked a gentle sounding name. Leonid was my husband’s idea, and I agreed. Leonid was not a very popular name then. I didn’t know a single person named Leonid.
Viktor fell ill… lung cancer. We went to Moscow to see a medical luminary, who said: “Looks like you may have suffered a severe external impact on your lung at some point.” They had been treating him for something he didn’t have, and for a long time, too. He complained of pectoral pains in the left side, so they thought it was his heart. My husband became bed-ridden. He was pretty moody through his illness, like all ailing people. My mother moved in with us to help, because I had to work a lot. Viktor died, and Lyonya turned seven less than two months later.
My husband was not with us anymore, but life went on. I had to pay 120 roubles a month for our cooperative flat when I was making 95. I also received a survivor’s benefit. My salary plus that benefit paid for the flat, while we had to live on my mother’s pension. Lyonya and I have recently recalled those times. I told him: “Remember how we were always, always short of money.” I woke up earlier and walked to work instead of taking the tram, saving three kopecks, which was the tram fare back then. Three kopecks there and another three back, six kopecks total I saved every day. Times were hard. Now Lyonya tells me: “Mom, you know, I always thought we were okay financially, comfortably well off.” I guess I was doing everything right, if my child had never figured out we were in need.
I was a good-looking lady, so of course men were courting me. But I lived with my mother. I couldn’t bring a man home with me, so how could I hope to remarry? I guess I could have invited myself over to his place, but somehow that didn’t seem right to me. I would have preferred to bring someone to my place instead. And I couldn’t… not with my mother around. So, with my husband dead, there were just the two of us left to raise my son. He still fondly recalls his grandmother’s pancakes, made with kefir. She had her own recipe. I make them, too, but Lyonya says mine never taste as good his grandmother’s tasted.
Lyonya took his father’s death rather calmly: he was small then. Now he recalls numerous episodes from our life when his father was still alive; he recalls things I had never thought he would remember so well. We talk about the past with him often during the small hours. He never sleeps after a game, he just lies there, brooding. He recently told me how jealous he’d felt, as a kid after his dad had died, that Sashka the boy upstairs had a dad. Even though that dad was a horrible drunk, Lyonya was still jealous, because that dad would sometimes take Sashka fishing. Never mind that he lost Sashka a couple of times while fishing drunk. But he took him fishing, that was what mattered.
Lyonya was a docile child growing up, never got in trouble and never gave any trouble to anyone. He was a perfect child, just altogether perfect! He raised himself. No one ever had to lecture him, or punish him, let alone beat him. There was simply never any reason to. I never admonished him. It wasn’t customary to admonish kids back in those days. Didn’t even occur to anyone. Nowadays he tells me, referring to my grandson: “Mother, why are you teaching Dimka all these things? You didn’t teach me like this when I was kid.” I tell him: “I was young then. No one had taught me. Now that I’ve worked as a teacher for so many years, I feel I have a few things to teach.”
I don’t think his dad was any influence on Lyonya at all, as regards sports. Viktor never even brought him to any of his boxing practices. I think sport must be in Lyonya’s genes. We sent him to a music school first, and he hated it. One day he said to me: “Mummy, you can kill me if you want, but I’m not going back to the music school.” And he went and signed up for a football team.
Lyonya did very well in school, and he always did his own homework. One time I come home after work, and his grandmother is talking to him, sounding disappointed: “how did you get this “4” today? why?”, and she bangs her fist on the table. That’s because he was a straight “5” student, and we never expected anything less than a “5” from him. He went to school #93, a regular school. There were no fancy schools back in those days, everyone just went to the nearest one. He’s still fiends with some of his classmates. He travels to Volgograd every year, and they organize a kind of a reunion. Kids from his class were always milling about at our place. My mother made these dry bread croutons, so as not to throw bread away, and there was always a bowl of them on the table, and the kids would sit around, crunching. I asked her not to do it because of the crumbs. I liked my place clean, I couldn’t stand all this litter. And when somebody went walking on those crumbs, it was the death of me. I can’t recall a single day when we didn’t have guests: boys and girls. Girls would fall in love with Lyonya, Lyonya would fall in love with the girls.
He was always the leader in his class, even though he was a straight “5” student. Straight “5” students are not usually very popular. But Lyonya was, and other kids really listened to him, gravitated to him, wanted to be his friends. For one thing, he didn’t do so well because he crammed. Just recently he recalled: "I remember coming to class not having done my homework, the teacher calls my name, I go to the front and just start telling what I know. The teacher wouldn’t let me finish. She would send me back to my place, knowing that I would just keep talking straight from the book.” And let me say this again: no one made him do his homework at home, and he would read whatever he liked. Me, I would just work day and night. When I became kindergarten principal, I took a second job cleaning some offices. I went to wash those floors under cover of night to make sure no one saw me. I was ashamed of that job. But I had to have it. We just didn’t have enough money, we never did. We caught a break when Lyonya got this job coaching Olympia.
Surely I was opposed to his plans of a football career initially. How could I not have been against it? Lyonya finished school with a gold medal. We debated two options for him: either the school of journalism, or school of law. The institute of physical culture (IPC) did not occur to anyone. I had the impression that all IPC male graduates worked as porters at the furniture shop. I would buy assorted couches and cupboards from them through the back door.
Now, for Lyonya to get enrolled in law school, he needed a letter of reference from local detectives. My sister worked there. I brought Lyonya, and they talked to him. They gave him that letter and a detective told me: "God, I wish he would come work for us! We could really use a bright kid like that!” He didn’t want to talk about it. Or else he would say: “I’m not going there!” Then one day he announced: “I filed for admission to physical culture institute.” I was in shock and I could feel my blood pressure acting up. And Lyonya just kept rubbing it in: “OK, I go to their admissions office, and I’m getting these looks from people, like, gaping in disbelief. They’d never seen a gold medal holder wanting to enrol in the institute of physical culture!” And I’m thinking to myself: “I’m going to get you, Vasily Vasilievich!” Vasily Dergach was the football instructor at Volgograd institute of physical culture. He was my arch-nemesis at the time. But eventually we would talk again and even became friends.
I don’t think I had any hope of changing anything, I just needed to vent my anger on Dergach. I needed to talk to someone, but not Lyonya. I realized then and I realize now there was nothing anyone could do to change his mind. He was always fond of the game, and he was always the goalie. They would play ice hockey in winter – there was this box in our yard, which they made into a rink – and, again, he would be the goalie. I don’t know what it was about him. Maybe it had something to do with his personality. He was always the leader and a reliable person from when he was little. People trusted him and respected his opinion. So, he went to that institute and started playing as goalie for Zvezda. And then came that accursed day, October 13th. The story is well known. He climbed a tree to save a neighbour’s cat and fell down. It was a weekend, he was going to his training, and I had left to go to my brother-in-law’s birthday party. My mother called me there, telling me Lyonya had been taken to a hospital. He was in surgery when I came. His operation took two hours. They had to reassemble his kneecap piece by piece. We were fortunate the doctor on duty that weekend was a good doctor. His face… he barely had a face left. His whole face was a black bruise, a huge hematoma, all bloody, and his nose was broken.
Quitting sports was out of the question for him. He said, right from the get-go: “If I cannot play, I’ll coach.” He wasn’t out of the institute yet when he started drumming up a young boys’ team. I would go paste up ads for him on lampposts near some schools. He and his college mate Laptev went to see the principal of one school, a Mr. Chuvalsky, and offered to teach boys football in his school. That’s how Olympia started. His injured leg was in business again by then, but months before, it had been flat as a plank, wouldn’t bend at all. The doctor in the hospital had told him to work his leg and do wax wraps to warm up his leg and make it more pliable. We did as the doctor ordered, first in the hospital, where he stayed for three months, then at home. I did everything myself. There were no massage therapists then, and no physiotherapists one could ask to visit a patient at home. We did the warming-up wax wraps every day, and we tried bending that leg, millimetre by millimetre. We did that procedure twice daily, in the morning and evening, on a strict time-table. It was painful for Lyonya. He groaned but he tried his best. He really wanted to put all that behind him. Eventually we got his knee to bend normally. No trace remains of his injury today, except that sometimes, when he squats, he’ll shift his weight onto his other leg.
Lyonya and Chuvalsky fell out at some point. Resentfully, Lyonya picked up his boys and took them to the village of Poltavskaya near Krasnodar. They were friends with the local team there, which was in 2nd league, I think. That was too much for Chuvalsky. Lyonya took all the best players with him. A new Olympia had to be recruited and trained from scratch. We received threats. This big guy came to our house and told me: “I’m here to ask you to tell him to bring all the boys back, and we’ll be even, or else…” I grabbed his chest and pushed him against the wall: “If anything happens to my son…” He got scared, I still remember those eyes… “Do you have a mother?” I asked him. “I am a mother. And I will destroy you.” I surprised myself there. I guess, when you're protecting someone you love, this energy, this power flows to you, you don’t know where it’s coming from, and you feel no fear at all.
So, Lyonya was gone with his boys, and I stayed home, going to work as usual. In Poltavskaya, as I would find out later, they shared some room at the football club, which wasn’t very nice. Meanwhile, Lyonya’s 30th birthday came. He didn’t expect us, but there we were on May 4th: me, a friend and his wife. We drove down. We had a whole show script planned, with music, singing and dancing. We had rephrased some pop songs to tell about him, his life and his football team, and we’d recorded a soundtrack. It sounded good. It wasn’t the first time I staged something like that: I’d done similar surprise parties before. It was fun and everything, but I could tell he was suffering there. I told him: “Come on, son! Give it all up and come home!” He came home and didn’t know what to do with himself. Forced idleness was killing him. Lyonya is the kind of guy who cannot be idle. He’s got this itch to work all the time.
The coach of Uralan, the football club from Elista, was at that time Sergey Pavlov, another former pupil of Vasily Dergach. Pavlov took Lyonya on as the head coach of the “backup” team. The club took off, started winning gold medals and prizes. Then funding problems arose. Pavlov left, and Lyonya was made head coach of the core team, but without any pay or any footballers to speak of. One time they went to play a match in the Urals, and there were only nine players on the team. Nine! Then Lyonya worked for FC Moskva, first as a second coach, but later on he replaced Petrakov as head coach, and right after that Moskva played Spartak and won. Lyonya was with Moskva for two years. They were aiming at a national bronze, but something went wrong, and they ended up fourth. Lyonya got fired. He didn’t take it lightly, not at all. He thought his career was over, and he would never get a job again doing what he loved to do. There was no life for him outside football, outside coaching. I told him: “It’ll pass. Everything will be alright.”
Lyonya met Ira in Rostov. She was a political science graduate there. He was thirty two. I thought it was the right time for him to get married. He comes home and tells me: “you’re going to get your wish, Mom.” And I happened to have met Ira on my own when Lyonya worked in Elista. He had to go to Moscow one time, and he told me: “Irina is coming to stay with you for the weekend.” I went to pick her up at the station. She’d told me on the phone what she was going to be wearing, describing her sheepskin coat and hat. We took to each other right away. She’s a lot like me in her home-making routines: good cook, likes her place clean, she’s neat in everything she does. If she takes something, she will put it back exactly where it was, just how I like it. She quickly learned to keep the house my way. A smart girl, she watched silently and learned, and did everything right. She immediately understood the important role I played in Lyonya’s life, and accepted it. We talked about it. I’m an older, intelligent woman with a wealth of experience, and I’m a good psychologist, probably owing to my job. I know people, I’m on to them at a glance. Irina and I, we established a heart-to-heart relationship from the start. They got married in 2004, and we’ve lived together ever since. And since Dimka came along, Irina and I have been working together as a team. He was born in March. The following December we all moved permanently to Moscow.
Lyonya said right away: “my son will never play football.” He was referring to Dimka’s personality, not his physique. Physique is changeable, but his personality destines him for something else. Lyonya doesn’t seem to mind, he knows his son. Dimka is into “daredevil scooting.” They do some scary tricks there. I don’t see a lifelong career in it for him. He also does tennis and swimming. We have tennis courts and swimming pool in this health complex next door.
I never go to see any football matches, and I’ve never set foot in a stadium. I don’t think I could take it. You know how I watch football on TV? I put it on mute, I go about my chores, and sometimes I will look up to see what the score is. Everybody knows how edgy I get on game days. My blood pressure’s up. Everybody knows to leave me alone on those days. When Lyonya was awarded this “Coach of the Year” title in 2013, I didn’t feel like I had anything to do with it, and I don’t now. But I’m proud of my son, and probably a little proud of myself, too. When he said on TV: “this win is for you, Mom!” that was so sweet, I cried. People started calling me. I always get phone calls from people congratulating me on matches won, and it feels like I won them. My girls in Volgograd tell me: “Gee, we had never cared for football before Lyonya got involved. Now we watch every game, when Lyonya’s boys play, religiously. Our husbands think we’ve lost our minds to watch football, and at such an advanced age!”
He comes home after a game, lies down on the coach, and we never talk. No one will be talking. Ira leaves. I go to my room or I do something with Dimka. Later on, we will send Dimka quietly on a spying mission: “go see how your dad is.” When we feel he’d like to talk, we start talking. But we will never try to comfort him or pep him up after a game. He doesn’t need it, and it wouldn’t help. When his team wins, he will come home with a song in his heart and a joke at the tip of his tongue. He likes to sing, especially 80s songs. He and Dimka will turn music up really loud and start dancing here on the carpet, yelling at the top of their lungs. He has to get it all out after a game. But whether he won or lost, he won’t sleep the night. That’s just how he is.
As I remember, journalists were supportive of Lyonya at first, they seemed to love him, most notably when he got fired from Moskva. Then they changed their tune, for some reason. When he came to CSKA and the team lost, they were, like: “Slutsky is probably going to get sacked tomorrow. Giner may sack Slutsky tomorrow. Who’s going to replace Slutsky?” This offended me no end. So, they kept “sacking” Lyonya like that for maybe two years. We go skiing together every New Year’s Eve: Lyonya, Ira, Dima, myself, the whole gang. We rent a chalet, they ski, and I just “stick around.” We have brought Dima Fyodorov with us the last two years. I asked him: “Dima, you’re a journalist, tell me, why do they write these bad things about Lyonya? How come they never mention that he was an honours graduate in high school, that he’s a candidate doctor of education, an “honorary coach” of Russia, two-time coach of the year, and winner of numerous gold, silver and bronze medals and all kinds of cups?” And Dima tells me: “why would they? People don’t care about this stuff. People want to know about the seedy stuff.” Lyonya has this driver, who’s been driving him for ten years. This driver says to me: “You know, Ludmila Nikolaevna, in the early days, when I came home after work, guys from the neighbourhood would be sitting on the bench and they would ask me: “how did Slutsky celebrate his win today? got proper drunk? Come on, Kostya, tell us: did they have to carry him out of the restaurant? did he make a fool of himself?” And when I try to tell them Leonid Viktorovich does not drink alcohol, they won’t believe me." That’s right, Lyonya doesn’t drink and he hates to be around drunk people, he can’t stand it.
Or take his rocking in a chair habit. No one taught Lyonya this. They keep saying he emulates Lobanovsky, but the fact is, he does it unconsciously, he’s not aware of it. So when this video came out with him rocking in that chair, we didn’t even talk about it. We haven’t talked about these kinds of things for years. It’s not like Lyonya comes home and we all sit down and we go: “oh, how hurtful! how disgusting!” Years ago, when he was with Moskva, or perhaps with Krylya, we would talk about these things, but eventually we stopped. Firstly, it’s too much to talk about, and secondly, things got quieter somehow. But then Mostovoi speaks up… There must be something wrong with our mentality. When Lyonya got this job, the team won two games in a row, but Mostovoi goes: “what’s two games? let’s see how they do the whole set of four.” It’s undermining. Why can’t we just be happy for someone else’s success? You don’t even have to be happy for Slutsky. Be happy for Russia and the national team. Why do you have to wait and see what’s next before feeling happy? Tomorrow you’ll see what’s next, but today’s success should be enjoyed today.
I was on holiday in Turkey with my grandson Dimka when they said on TV Slutsky was one of the three hopefuls. I remember the day when he was appointed national team coach very well. There was this streaming line one morning, saying Slutsky got the job, and it went on all day. The people in my hotel found out. They brought me flowers, fruit and took me out to a fancy dinner. It was nice. I knew his life would change unrecognizably, but I didn’t know how. I don’t know what Lyonya is thinking, but he’s accustomed to working every day. How can you work every day with the national team? We discussed this yesterday. I asked: “So, Lyonya, what do you think?” He said: “I don’t know yet.” I took it to mean that he’s going to finish the season with CSKA in any case, and then he’ll see.
One day Lyonya told me: “Mom, when a match begins, and I go out there, all I want is for it to end. Now. I feel like there are huge 50kg weights attached to my arms, and I can’t lift them up. Every moment I feel that weight. It’s a kind of emotional torture.” I don’t think he’s ever going to lose those weights, no matter what his age is or how long he sticks with this career. Lyonya talked to a psychologist for a while, and that psychologist told him when the coach is out there and the game is on, the coach experiences the same emotional pressure as a miner would who has been buried in the mine for three days. What a comparison! I don’t think any of us can even imagine that.
Lyonya never holds a grudge against his fans, and he never did, not even when things didn’t go his way. That’s when the fans would yell: “Lyonya, out now! Lyonya, you …, quit!” The words they said… It’s best not to have heard them. He knows there are different kinds of fans out there. Some are cool, others aren’t. I know it, too. I read all newspapers without exception. I never watch football, but I know what’s going on. Lyonya and I will talk after some games: he doesn’t get rattled when fans yell things at him, although he may get an unpleasant aftertaste. Lyonya is a grown man, he knows these things are bound to happen and cannot be avoided. Can’t shut everyone up…
Lyonya adores his work. He often tells me: “I’m so lucky, Mom! My job is also my hobby, and my hobby is my job.” He loves his footballers and he’s friends with them all. I think this is definitive. He has a great sense of humour, and it probably saved the day for him more than once. The atmosphere is really good right now at their base, jokes flying around and people laughing. Lyonya said he would sometimes be walking around the base, signing some song at the top of his voice, runs into Berezutsky, Berezutsky chimes in, walks with him, Ignashevich comes and joins them, then others start poking fun. It must be fun working is this laid-back atmosphere. I don’t know how Lyonya does it, but that’s just the kind of guy he is. He’s well loved. Yes, “loved” is the right word to use here.
Lyonya is a responsible man. He looks forward to 2018 with confidence, without any fear. I could say right now, without exaggeration, that he believes in himself and in what he knows. Is this not the place where every coach wants to be? Is there a more desirable pinnacle in the sports coaching profession? One should feel very fortunate just to be there. But it gets even better if, by the grace of god, your team wins. When they broke the news that Russia had been awarded the 2018 FIFA World Cup, I told him: “I hope we live to see you coach the national team, what do you say, son?” I don’t think this occurred to Lyonya at the time, but it did occur to me right then. It wasn’t even a thought or a wish, just a phrase that flew out. I’m positive he’s got what it takes to lead our national team to victory in 2018. He’s so smart, he reads an awful lot of professional literature and talks with other coaches – truly great coaches, and he doesn’t rank himself among them. He loves his job, he knows how to do it well, and he keeps learning and getting better at it. Football flies for him, that’s just the way he is. Lyonya is the best, the most positive, the smartest, he’s my boy, and I love him so.