The real-life superhero who saved 20 people and ruined his career

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A champion is someone who certainly exceeds expectations–a person of tremendous motivation striving for victory. The term applies not only to sports but also to fields such as science, human rights, and politics. There are many champions in the history of civilization.

Then there’s Shavarsh Karapetyan.

Even though this lavish introduction sounds a tad exaggerated, bear with me, for when you learn about this man’s achievements, you will certainly agree that he deserves it.

After all, Karapetyan, an Armenian-born Soviet finswimmer, won the world championship 17 times.

He is also a 13-time European champion, and a seven-time champion of his homeland, the USSR. Apart from this, Karapetyan broke the World Record 11 times.

One might say that he is the embodiment of finswimming itself.

However, what makes Karapetyan more than a champion fin swimmer are not the medals on his wall, but his relentless sacrifice for others.

In 1976, he personally saved 20 people from drowning after a trolley bus flew off the road and into a frozen lake near Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

But in order to understand his act of courage, we first need to take a peek into his life and career.

Perhaps the crucial experience that led Karapetyan to turn to professional swimming was his narrow escape from death as a 15-year-old. He was beaten up by a group of hoodlums who tied him to a rock and threw him into a nearby lake.

By strength alone, he managed to tear the ropes off his hands, liberate himself from the stone that was dragging him to the bottom, and swim out victorious. After this incident, he took up swimming, but due to petty rivalry was denied the right to compete on his national team.

So he switched to finswimming and quickly rose to prominence, winning a number of state-level competitions. By the age of 18, he was already the champion of the Soviet Union and just two months later, he became the European champion by breaking the World Record.

Envy followed him wherever he went, and there was even an attempt on his life by a fellow competitor who sabotaged his oxygen tank during a championship in Kiev. Even with this handicap, which nearly cost him his life, Karapetyan won the race.

He had another brush with death in 1974, when a bus he was riding on almost fell off a cliff. In the midst of panic, the swimmer took the steering wheel and carefully rode the bus into reverse, until reaching safety. Thirty lives, including his own, were saved on that day, thanks to his initiative.

But what followed defined the rest of his life. Two years after this incident, Karapetyan was conducting his usual morning exercise of running beside Yerevan Lake when a trolleybus hurtled past him and fell right into the frozen reservoir.

Due to the sheer power of the impact, most of the 92 passengers aboard lost consciousness, while their transport-turned-death trap was sinking to the bottom of the freezing lake. Without hesitation, the professional diver knew what to do.

He jumped into the water, broke the glass window of the trolleybus with his bare feet, and started pulling the people out.

The bus settled on the lake bed, 33 feet underwater and 80 feet from the shore, and Karapetyan had to make 30 consecutive dives in order to pull out as many people as he could. In the end, 20 of the passengers were saved. He managed to pull out more, but for some, it was already too late.

Even though the incident was a complete disaster, if it weren’t for his heroism, it would have been much worse. As for Karapetyan, the price was high. After his 30th dive, he lost consciousness himself, as a result of a lack of oxygen.

Later, the consequences of such a superhuman effort took hold─the swimmer was diagnosed with pneumonia and blood contamination from the polluted industrial water.

After a 46-day coma, the hero of Yerevan Lake finally woke up. Still, his career was over due to the extreme nervous exhaustion which took hold.

Even though one would expect that instant recognition was the least he deserved, the story of his heroism remained largely unknown until 1982, when an article was published in the state-wide newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, to commemorate his extraordinary feat.

Until then, the fact that it was the champion himself who saved all those people was known only to the locals of Yerevan.

After the article titled The Underwater Battle of the Champion, Karapetyan received 75,000 letters of praise and thanks and became a household name in the USSR.

Modest by nature, he never saw it as heroism. Rather, he was frustrated by the fact that so many others died in the crash that day. When asked in an interview about the event, he replied:

“I knew that I could only save so many lives, I was afraid to make a mistake. It was so dark down there that I could barely see anything. On one of my dives, I accidentally grabbed a seat instead of a passenger… I could have saved a life instead. That seat still haunts me in my nightmares.”

Since then Shavarsh Karapetyan had been celebrated and awarded a number of times, including two medals bestowed upon him by his own government, a UNESCO “Fair Play” award, and the honor of having an asteroid named after him: 3027 Shavarsh.

In 2014 he carried the torch for the Winter Olympics in Moscow, where he currently resides as the owner of a shoe shop called The Second Breath.

Karapetyan leads a quiet life below the radar, but the memory of his heroism remains as vivid as ever, for people never forget a champion.

 Nikola Budanovic


Nikola Budanovic is a freelance journalist who has worked for various media outlets such as Vice, War History Online, The Vintage News, and Taste of Cinema. His areas of interest include history, particularly military history, literature and film.

In the 19th century, Lithuanians smuggled books in an act of rebellion against Russian control

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There was a dangerous and scary job to do in 19th century Lithuania. The first obstacle was a dense line of soldiers banded along the border. Then came a second line spread a little more thin. Lastly, in town, were Russian Empire policemen on horseback riding around and questioning civilians.

What sort of scandalous contraband were daring smugglers risking their lives to carry across the border?

Books.

If they were caught, they could be whipped or shipped to Siberia. If they resisted too vigorously, shot on the spot. Unsurprisingly, their books were burned.

The situation was this: After the majority of Lithuania fell under Tsarist Russian control in 1795, the Russians tried to force assimilation on the Lithuanian people. In their Russification project, they demolished Catholic churches and shrines. They closed schools. Russian scholars proposed that the Lithuanian language—which is written with Latin letters—be translated into Russia’s Cyrillic alphabet. Lithuanian children were forced to read the Cyrillic alphabet in school.

Lithuanians rebelled in violent uprisings in 1831 and 1863, but the tiny population—1 million—was no match for Russian military might. As a consequence, the Russians cracked down harder than before.

In 1864, the Russian-appointed Governor-General of Lithuania, Mikhail Muravyov, issued a proclamation prohibiting the use of Lithuanian Latin primers. That was followed two years later by a total ban on all books printed in Lithuania. The press was forbidden. It was illegal to print, import, distribute, or possess any publications in the Latin alphabet.

Though they were oppressed, the Lithuanian intelligentsia was not quashed. They began printing books outside the country—which wasn’t illegal—and smuggling them in, which was dangerous.

Knygnesiai, or book carriers, would conceal their illegal wares in sacks or covered wagons, and deliver the goods at night to safe houses across Lithuania. By the late 19th century, all walks of life participated in book smuggling. Women would dress in peasant clothes and hide books in market baskets of bread, cheese, or eggs. Some dressed up as fat workmen, stuffing newspapers inside their clothing. Doctors hid books in their medical kits, farmers in their crops, organists in their instrument cases.

In 1867, Bishop Motiejus Valančius helped get a printing press set up in neighboring Prussia, and asked his priests to smuggle religious texts back to Lithuania. He made every effort to undermine the Russification project. Later, in a bid to preserve Lithuanian culture, Valančius printed up and distributed journals and almanacs. It is estimated that he was responsible for printing more than 19,000 books.

But his resistance came with a cost. At least 11 of his smugglers were caught; many were banished to Siberia.

Valancius died in 1875, but his book-carrying operations carried on after him thanks to a young friend who was a recent university graduate, a newspaperman, and an ardent nationalist.

Jurgis Bielinis assembled the largest network of book carriers, called the Garsviai knygnešiai society, who pooled their money to buy and distribute books. Bielinis came to be known as the “King of Knygnešiai,” and is said to be responsible for delivering half of Lithuania’s books during the 31 years he operated. The Russian Empire caught and imprisoned Bielinis at least five times.

Some historians estimate the number of books smuggled in to total in the millions before the ban was lifted in 1904. Lithuania declared independence in 1918, though it would take until 1991 for the Soviet Union to recognize the country.

In 1928, a statue was erected in the then-capital of Kaunas to commemorate “The Unknown Book Smuggler.” Today in Lithuania, March 16, the birthday of Jurgis Bielinis, is celebrated as Knygnešio diena—the day of the book smugglers.

In 2004, Jonas Stepšis wrote of his father’s and other Lithuanian countrymen’s heroic book-smuggling efforts in the English-language Lithuanian paper Draugas News. He cites the smuggling as a reason why Lithuania was able to regain independence.

According to Stepšis: “The struggles of the book-carriers have been praised in modern times by Father Julijonas Kasperavicius who said ‘The work of restoring Lithuania’s independence began, not in 1918, but rather at the time of the book-carriers.

With bundles of books and pamphlets on their backs, these warriors were the first to start preparing the ground for independence, the first to propagate the idea that it was imperative to throw off the yoke of Russian oppression.’ ”

Who says books can’t change the world?

 E.L. Hamilton

(E.L. Hamilton has written about pop culture for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Rolling Stone, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. She lives in central New Jersey, just west of New York City)

When her husband was killed by the Nazis, she bought a tank and went on a rampage on the Eastern Front

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World War II devastated families and separated countless lovers. In some cases, the ones who lost their loved ones hurried to avenge them. Mariya Oktyabrskaya was one such person. As news of her husband having died on the Eastern Front reached her, she decided to sell everything she owned and invest in the production of a T-34 tank. Then she went a step further and applied for training to receive her tank driving license. The following step was vengeance like no other.

But let’s get back to the beginning. Mariya Oktyabrskaya was born on the Crimean Peninsula to a poor Ukrainian family which nurtured 10 children. Before the war, she worked in a cannery and was at one point a telephone operator.

She met her husband, the future Red Army officer, in 1925. The two married that same year. Mariya became very interested in her husband’s line of work and joined the Military Wives Council and acquired training as an army nurse. Soon after, she learned how to use weapons and drive, which was very uncommon for women at the time.

When asked about her unusual interest, she reportedly replied: “Marry a serviceman, and you serve in the army: an officer’s wife is not only a proud woman but also responsible title.”

As the war closed in on the Soviet Union in 1941, she was evacuated to Siberia, where she spent the next two years. It took a long time for the news of her husband’s death to reach her, but as soon as she got the letter, she knew what to do. Oktaybrskaya was so enraged by the death of her beloved husband that she wrote a letter to Stalin directly:

“My husband was killed in action defending the motherland. I want revenge on the fascist dogs for his death and for the death of Soviet people tortured by the fascist barbarians. For this purpose, I’ve deposited all my personal savings–50,000 rubles–to the National Bank in order to build a tank. I kindly ask to name the tank ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ and to send me to the front line as a driver of the said tank.”

Stalin felt he had no choice but to accept. The State Defense Committee advised him that the move could have a positive effect as a morale booster on both the desperate population and the troops. It wasn’t uncommon for citizens to donate money for war production in the Soviet Union, but usually, those making the donations were men.

Nevertheless, in dire times every bit of help is welcome, and so Mariya received five months of training in order to master the skills of operating the T-34.

This too was uncommon―during the Great Patriotic War, as WWII was dubbed in the U.S.S.R., tank crews received shorter training, as they were needed almost immediately on the front. In Stalingrad, tanks would enter combat unpainted.

The five-month training was also part of the propaganda effort―the Soviet government didn’t just want to send Oktyabrskaya to battle. They wanted to make sure that she would be effective.

After training, the 38-year-old Oktobrskaya got transferred to the 26th Guards Tank Brigade in September 1943 and soon participated in the Second Battle of Smolensk. Even though other tank crews looked at her as some publicity stunt, she got the chance to prove them wrong.

During her first battle, Oktobskaya showed some extraordinary maneuvering skills and assisted in neutralizing machine gun nests and artillery positions, while under heavy fire. Her tank, “The Fighting Girlfriend,” pushed through enemy lines, but was badly damaged.

Under intense fire, she rushed out of the turret to repair her tank. Her fellow crewmen provided covering fire while she fixed the tank and jumped back in. Everyone in the unit was amazed, and she was promoted to the rank of Sargent.

A similar situation happened a month later, when “The Fighting Girlfriend” was raining fire around the town of Novoye Selo in the region of Vitebsk. Her track was hit and the tank was immobilized. Sargent Oktobrskaya rushed out and, with the help of another crew-member, managed to put the T-34 back in running condition.

But just two months later, her courageous tactic would prove to be the last. As the tank once again suffered damage after destroying entrenched positions and an enemy self-propelled gun, Oktobrskaya tried to pull the trick once again. She managed to fix the damaged track but was hit in the head by shell fragments and lost consciousness during her return.

Mariya Oktobrskaya was transferred to a military field hospital near Kiev, where she spent two months in a coma before passing away on March 15, 1944.

Her actions did not go unrewarded, nor were they in vain. She was declared a Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously, as her bravery inspired thousands of women to join the fight and make their contributions.

 Nikola Budanovic

Mammoth tusk haul seized by Chinese customs

Picture of mammoth tusks seized in Heilongjiang province in China on 11 April 2017Image copyrightCHINA NEWS SERVICE
Image captionThe haul of mammoth tusks, rhino horns and jade reportedly came from Russia

Chinese customs officers have seized more than a tonne of tusks from animals that have been extinct for thousands of years – mammoths.

State media are reporting that the massive haul came from Russia and was seized in north-east China in February.

The largest piece of mammoth ivory seized was more than 1.6m (5ft) long, a customs officer was quoted as saying.

There is no international ban on the trade but Chinese officials said the haul was not declared.

Millions of mammoths

The stockpile is part of a booming trade between Russia and China in ivory taken from the skeletons of mammoths found in the Siberian tundra. The effects of global warming in the Arctic has made it easier to collect tusks preserved in ice for thousands of years, researchers say.

More than 100 woolly mammoth tusks were seized at the port of Luobei in Heilongjiang province, in addition to 37 woolly rhino horn parts and more than a tonne of jade. They were hidden in concealed compartments in a truck, according to reports.

Picture of mammoth tusks seized in Heilongjiang province in China on 11 April 2017Image copyrightCHINA NEWS SERVICE
Image captionThe tusks were seized in February but were shown to media earlier this week

The truck driver is alleged to have claimed he was only carrying soybeans, and to have fled the scene when the truck was inspected.

He and another person were later arrested.

Listen: The growing and legal trade in mammoth ivory (BBC Radio 4)

DNA clues to why woolly mammoth died out

There are estimated to be around 10 million mammoths that “remain incarcerated within the permafrost of the Arctic tundra”, according to Douglas MacMillan, a professor of conservation and applied resource economics at the University of Kent.

The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), or tundra mammothImage copyrightSCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Image captionMost of the world’s woolly mammoths had died out by about 10,500 years ago

Some mammoth experts have suggested that the trade in mammoth ivory should be banned, even though the animals are extinct. They argue that their tusks are often sold as elephant tusks, and thus encourage overall demand for ivory.

It is estimated that more than 50% of the ivory sold into China, which has has the biggest ivory market in the world, is mammoth ivory. Hong Kong is a major destination, and the ivory is used to make jewellery and other objects, including ornamental tusks.

But other experts like Prof MacMillan say that a ban would not halt the trade but rather “drive it underground and attract the attention of organised crime groups”.

Most of the world’s woolly mammoths had died out by about 10,500 years ago. Scientists believe that human hunting and environmental changes played a role in their extinction.

China has announced a ban on all elephant ivory trade and processing activities by the end of 2017.

Media captionWoolly mammoths died out because of “mutational meltdown”, Dr Rebekah Rogers tells The World Tonight

The Bouquet of Lilies Clock Egg: One of the most dazzling Fabergé eggs was Tsar Nicholas’s Easter gift to his wife

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To say that Fabergé eggs are among Easter’s most elegant decorations doesn’t come close to describing their historical and artistic significance. These gem-encrusted items represent so much more than other forms of decorative art.

The story of these pieces, decorative art at its finest, goes back to the 19th century, inextricably linked to Imperial Russia and the Russian royal family. It is a story about power, glory, luxury, prestige, revolution, tragedy, and, above all, exceptional craftsmanship. Here is how it all began.

Easter of 1885 was a day of great significance for the Russian royal family because it marked the twentieth anniversary of Tsar Alexander III and Tsarina Maria Feodorovna’s engagement. A special occasion like that deserved to be marked in a special way and that is exactly what Tsar Alexander III had in mind when he placed an order for an egg from Fabergé as an Easter present for his wife. At first, the gift seemed to be just a simply decorated piece, but it had a hidden surprise. Inside was a golden yolk. And inside the yolk was a plump golden hen. And inside the hen, there was a diamond-set crown and a tiny ruby pendant.

Maria Feodorovna liked the gift so much that the Tsar decided to turn this into a yearly tradition, which was apparently taken quite seriously by the royal family in the following years. The Tsar’s successor, Nicholas II, followed the tradition, presenting eggs to both his mother, Maria Feodorovna, and his wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, every year.

Around 50 Easter eggs were made for the imperial family between 1885 and 1917, but only 42 have survived. Each of the eggs is unique in its own way, having an original design and containing a different hidden surprise. One of these Imperial Easter Eggs is the Bouquet of Lilies Clock Egg, also known as the Madonna Lily Egg.

Presented by Tsar Nicholas II to his wife for Easter 1899, the Bouquet of Lilies Clock Egg is among the largest of all Fabergé eggs ever produced.

Workmaster Michael Perkhin, who worked on this particular egg under the supervision of Peter Carl Fabergé himself, was clearly inspired by the design of French Louis XVI-era clocks, but what makes his creation unique is that he cleverly used the egg as a face of the clock.

In the creation of this egg, Perkhin apparently made a good use of the symbolic language of flowers. He combined roses (symbols of romance, love, beauty, and perfection) and white lilies (symbol of the Virgin Mary’s purity and innocence) with burning torches that ultimately emphasize the significance of family love.

Two eggs planned for gifts in Easter 1917 were never delivered because of the Russian Revolution, and the royal family being overthrown. Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children were all killed.

Today, the Bouquet of Lilies Clock Egg, along with nine more Fabergé eggs, resides in the Kremlin Armoury Museum in Moscow, one of the oldest museums in Russia. Many of the other Imperial Easter Eggs can be seen in different museums across Russia and some are housed in museums in the United States.

Nine of them are owned by Viktor Vekselberg, an oil and gas tycoon who bought the eggs for around $100 million in 2004. His collection can be seen at the Fabergé Museum, located in the Shuvalov Palace in St. Petersburg.

 Goran Blazeski

‘Death Island’: Britain’s ‘concentration camp’ in Russia

‘Death Island’: Britain’s ‘concentration camp’ in Russia

Marina Titova lays a carnation on a grave stone on Mudyug IslandImage copyright ALEKSEY SUHANOVSKYImage caption Marina Titova lays a carnation in memory of her great-great-uncle who died on Mudyug

When British soldiers were sent to Russia after the Russian Revolution their main enemies were the Germans – their opponents in World War One – but they also found themselves fighting and imprisoning Bolsheviks. In the process they opened what Russians regard as…

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