Meet Zhan Beleniuk, Ukraine’s Olympic wrestler and first Black MP

Beleniuk says he is the ‘best example’ of how Ukrainians perceive people of different race.

Zhan Beleniuk
Beleniuk is Ukraine's first Black member of parliament [Courtesy: Zhan Beleniuk/Al Jazeera]

While President Vladimir Putin justifies his invasion of Ukraine by saying that Russia must rid its neighbour of neo-Nazis, Zhan Beleniuk paints his home country as one that welcomes all races.

“My aim is to show that Ukraine is a tolerant country,” Beleniuk, Ukraine’s first and only Black MP, told Al Jazeera.

“I think I am the best example of how Ukrainians perceive people of different skin colour,” said the 31-year-old, who identifies as Afro-Ukrainian.

Beleniuk, who is with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s liberal Servant of the People party, was born in Kyiv in 1991 to a Ukrainian mother Svitlana Beleniuk and Vincent Ndagijimana, a Rwandan.

Ndagijimana, a pilot who studied in Kyiv where he met Beleniuk’s mother, died in 1994 during the genocide against the Tutsi people in Rwanda.

At nine years old, wrestling became Beleniuk’s main pastime.

Zhan Beleniuk
As well as being Ukraine’s first Black MP, Beleniuk is also the nation’s first Black Olympic Gold medallist [Courtesy: Zhan Beleniuk/Al Jazeera]

At 15, he started training at the Olympic Centre in Koncha Zaspa in Kyiv, looking to become the Ukrainian champion in Greco-Roman wrestling.

And from 2006, he was training on an almost daily basis at the ground.

But after February 24 this year, he started visiting the centre for different reasons.

Working as a politician, rather than a sportsman, for the first two months of the war he helped feed, support and relocate thousands of people displaced by Russia’s invasion from the site.

He organised transport for many trying to reach western Ukraine, away from the heavy Russian shelling.

“Before this escalation on February 24, I didn’t think Russia would invade Ukraine. Now we have been in this war for eight months, and acting logically has not been the Russian Federation’s strong point. But we hope,” he said.

“It’s not only Kyiv under missile attack, but Zaporizhia, Dnipro and Kharkiv too. Most of the people from these cities are talking in Russian. Russia says: ‘We need to save Russian people’ and they attack territory where people live who speak to each other in the Russian language. This doesn’t make any sense.

“We still hope rational thinking and logic will prevail.”

Meeting Zelenskyy

In 2010, Beleniuk began winning medals at the European Wrestling and World Championships.

As the young athlete’s profile grew, he appeared on television, which is how he met Volodymyr Zelenskyy, then an actor and television producer who would become Ukraine’s president.

Zelenskyy warmed to Beleniuk’s views. The two men got on well, and in 2019 Zelenskyy approached Beleniuk about running in the election as a member of his newly-formed liberal Servant of the People party.

“I told him about my main goal in wrestling,” Beleniuk said. “I was second at the Olympic Games in Rio [de Janeiro] and I needed to try to outdo myself in the next games in Tokyo. And this conversation was in 2019 and next year, we thought that Olympic Games will start, but the games were postponed because of COVID and pushed back to 2021.”

INTERACTIVE - Who is Zhan Beleniuk_

Beleniuk joined Zelenskyy’s team and was elected deputy to the Verkhovna Rada in July 2019. He managed to keep up the wrestling, too.

“I was a politician and a sportsman. It was so difficult, there were a lot of challenges. I didn’t have time for anything, only for politics and for the gym with my coach, who was preparing me for the Olympic Games.”

The hard work paid off, and Beleniuk ended up winning Ukraine’s only gold medal in Tokyo in 2021.

But now with Russia waging war on his home country, the stakes are much higher – and there are no second chances.

Being a sportsman and politician couldn’t be more different, but some principles Beleniuk learned as an athlete have proven useful in politics.

Zhan Beleniuk
Beleniuk was elected to Ukraine’s parliament in July 2019 [Courtesy: Zhan Beleniuk/Al Jazeera]

“Sport teaches me to keep calm because when you have a huge fight, you need to concentrate on all activities in the right way. So that’s why I don’t begin to panic and instead try to help those who need it.”

Wrestling also taught him to stay strong and never give up, even when the going gets tough.

It got particularly tough when Russian forces reached Kyiv. Beleniuk kept three guns under his desk for protection.

The weapons are now stored in a safe, but he still regularly attends shooting training classes in case the Russians return to the Ukrainian capital.

African neutrality

As Russian bombs rained down, Beleniuk visited African nations in a bid to shore up more support on the continent for Ukraine.

“We need to start closer communication with different countries from Africa,” he said.

He met officials in Rwanda, his father’s homeland, in mid-October and legislators in South Africa.

In the interview, he draws comparisons between Ukraine’s struggle against Russia and South Africa’s fight to break away from the racist apartheid government in 1994 and calls on countries that did not adopt an October UN resolution condemning Russia to change their mind.

Several African nations, including South Africa, abstained.

While many African countries have called for peace, they have stopped short of directly condemning Russia.

Some have strong relationships with Moscow because Russia has had a presence on the continent “for a long time”, since the days of the Soviet Union, Belenuik said.

Although Ukraine supplies 12 percent of Africa’s wheat imports, as well as crucial commodities like fertiliser and sunflower oil, the eastern European country only became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, so it might seem like it has not been invested in Africa for a long time, Belenuik said.

Zhan Beleniuk
Born in Kyiv in 1991 to a Ukrainian mother and a Rwandan father, Beleniuk identifies as Afro-Ukrainian [Courtesy: Zhan Beleniuk/Al Jazeera]

He said Russian officials have airbrushed history in a way that makes it seem like only modern-day Russia helped African countries during Soviet times, despite Ukraine being part of the Soviet Union at that time.

His father would have never met his mother if it was not for the Soviet Union’s immigration policy towards Rwandans, he said.

“It’s like how they [Russia] spoke about the Second World War – Russian officials said that only Russia won that war, but they forgot about a coalition who helped do this which tried to grab this victory only by itself,” the legislator said.

Source: Al Jazeera