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Among the civilians who enlisted in the military reserve to defend the capital Kiev from the Russian invasion of Ukraine are also the Klitschko brothers. Until a few years ago Vitali and Wladimir were known all over the world as successful boxers, among the best heavyweights not only of their generation, but in the history of professional boxing. Since they stopped fighting, however, they have returned to Ukraine: the major, Vitali, has entered politics and has been mayor of Kiev since 2014, while Wladimir joined him at the beginning of the year to join the defense of the city.
In one of his latest interviews from Kiev, Vitali Klitschko reiterated what with his brother he has been saying to televisions all over the world since the beginning of the conflict, exploiting their popularity: «I am certain of only one thing, that we will never leave Kiev. For every building, every street, every roadblock, we will fight even to the death. Nobody wants to die, but if necessary we will defend our children and our families. They are destroying our homes, they want us prisoners, but this will never happen. I am grateful to every patriot who is ready to defend his home and our future ».
Their history reflects in a certain sense that of modern Ukraine and the direction that a part of the country would like to take, in break with the Soviet past, towards the Western world and in particular Europe.
Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko were born in the seventies in two different countries of Central Asia. The first in 1971 in Belovodskoe, a Kyrgyz city on the border with present-day Kazakhstan; the second five years later and further north, in Semej, a Kazakh city on the border with Russia. Their family used to move frequently between the countries of the Soviet Union because their father was an aviation colonel: their origins, as they always want to specify, are however Ukrainian. After spending the first few years moving from one corner of the Soviet Union to another, and beyond, the Klitschkos were eventually moved from Prague to Kiev, which became their city.
The two brothers were given a purely Soviet education, including self-defense and the use of weapons. Then, in 1986, his father was among the first to be sent to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant to contain the damage caused by the explosion of one of the reactors. Together with hundreds of other soldiers he was exposed to radiation, in his case not immediately lethal, but which over the years contributed to the onset of a tumor that in 2011, at the age of 64, caused his death.
The two brothers’ careers in combat sports began around that time, first with karate and kickboxing, martial arts then banned in the Soviet Union because they were considered Western. In 1989, however, kickboxing was made legal, and Vitali quickly became Ukrainian and Soviet heavyweight champion. Thanks to the victories, the two brothers were invited to compete in the United States. For them it was a fundamental experience: grown up under the Soviet regime, the time spent in America from then on completely changed their perception of the world, so much so that they still describe the education received in the Soviet Union as a “brainwashing”. .
Back in Ukraine, Vitali got into boxing with the Army Sports Club, and Wladimir followed suit. In the early 1990s, however, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the ensuing confusion threatened to hamper their careers. Fortunately, a German boxing club looking for new athletes spotted Vitali at the Berlin Amateur Championships and hired him. A few days after his debut with the German team, however, Vitali had to stop due to a previously accrued disqualification: it was thus that his place was momentarily taken by Wladimir, who got away with it anyway.
Germany became something of an adoptive country for the two brothers, who from there began two of the greatest careers in contemporary boxing. According to many, their true strength, in addition to natural gifts and others acquired over years of training, was the fraternal bond, so evident as to unite them in a single career: that of Klitschko, rather than Vitali and Wladimir. For a promise made to their parents, they never faced each other in combat. Yet for those who trained them they have always been two very different boxers: Vitali more resistant but less malleable, Wladimir more strategist and less resistant.
Across the various boxing federations, Vitali was heavyweight champion for a total of 7 years and 5 months. He is the boxer who got his first world champion belt in the shortest time: on June 26, 1999 against the British Herbie Hide he took two rounds, less than Mike Tyson took in 1986. Wladimir, on the other hand, had the longest career and famous between the two. He was Olympic champion in 1996 and was world heavyweight champion longer than any other boxer: 12 years in two different intervals.
Their interest in politics arose while they were still boxers. In 2004, after the so-called “Orange Revolution” born from accusations of fraud against the pro-Russian majority party, they publicly supported Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-European candidate. When new elections were called, the latter won them against Viktor Yanukovych, the president who had been accused of fraud, and who years later would return to power before being finally deposed with the 2014 revolution.
In 2005 Vitali became Yushchenko’s adviser. In the same year, coinciding with his first retirement from boxing, he ran for elections in Kiev denouncing the corruption of the main candidate, financier Leonid Chernovetskyi. He received 26 percent of the vote and went to the opposition. He ran again in 2008, hiring former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani as a councilor, but was still beaten by Chernovetskyi, against whom he started a protest. occupying the city council.
He later founded the center-right Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) party, which received the support of several European parties for its role as a barrier to Russian influence in Ukraine. In 2012, with about forty candidates from his party, he was elected to parliament; the following year he was involved in the protests known as Euromaidan, born from the suspension of the alliance agreements with the European Union wanted by the then president Yanukovych. Together with his brother he became one of the most prominent figures in the protests, during which he retired for the second and last time from boxing. After Yanukovych’s deposition, he took part in municipal elections, where he was elected with 57 percent of the vote.
He has since been re-elected mayor of Kiev twice, in 2015 and 2020, making the fight against corruption and rapprochement with Europe his main points. In recent years, together with Wladimir, he has been a supporter of the presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko – considered Yushchenko’s successor – in office from 2014 to 2019 and then defeated by the current president Volodymr Zelensky in the last elections. These days Poroshenko is as busy as the Klitschko among the volunteers in the defense of Kiev. In addition to the two brothers, among the volunteers who have enrolled in the last month are the current Ukrainian world heavyweight champion, Oleksandr Usyk, and another internationally renowned boxer, Vasyl Lomachenko, one of the strongest amateur athletes. longtime and former lightweight world champion.