The Ukrainians, who control Russia, are going to conquer the glory of chess at the Jerusalem tournament | So Good News
In the cavernous halls of a five-star hotel in the hills of Jerusalem, impeccably dressed waiters float gently and serve delicious meals to well-heeled international guests.
It’s a far cry from the tin cans, muddy trenches and hellish war Igor Kovalenko found himself in as a soldier in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region a few weeks ago.
“I’m used to sleeping on the floor, and now the beds are a little softer,” he told The Times of Israel with a smile.
In peacetime, Kovalenko is a chess teacher and a church priest studying theology. But it’s his main occupation as a chess player that brings him to Jerusalem as part of the team for the World Team Chess Championship, which begins on Sunday.
Kovalenko, a chess grandmaster ranked 68th in the world by the World Chess Federation (FIDE), learned to shoot a rifle a few months ago when he was drafted into the Ukrainian army.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” he admits, explaining that even though he comes from a military family, he likes chess and other hobbies.
Kovalenko was living in Kyiv when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. He started volunteering, collecting supplies and raising money for the troops. In April, he was called up for active duty, and in July he was sent to the war-torn Donetsk region, where he was a few weeks ago.
“We work under very difficult conditions,” he says. “Sometimes we live in abandoned houses, sometimes under bridges, sometimes in trenches and dugouts.”
“The hardest part is there’s no rotation,” he says. “I was there for 70 consecutive days without a break. I spent fifty of those days on duty day and night. When this psychological and physical exhaustion accumulates, it turns you into a zombie. That’s the scariest part because you’re just in survival mode and you’re pissed off, pissed off, you’ve got to hold yourself together. That’s the hardest part—not having a single horrible day, but knowing you can’t rest and recover tomorrow and just keep going.
A team effort
Kovalenko is the only one from the group in the army, but his comrades participate in the war in other ways.
“As soon as the war started, I started volunteering,” says team captain Oleksandr Sulypa, describing his time as a volunteer unit of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, patrolling areas of Lviv and manned checkpoints. electricity generators and worked to help women and children leave the city.
Sulypa went to Latvia earlier this year after being asked to lead a chess delegation and has been living in Poland for the past few months.
Mykhailo Oleksiyenko said he helped his family from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv as soon as the war broke out to protect their three young children.
“A family from Kiev lives in my apartment now,” he says. Oleksienko helped others to escape before going to Poland himself. “A woman with four children was leaving Kharkiv under heavy shelling, so we helped her go to Germany, where her brother lives.”
Andriy Volokytin from Lviv also worked to help provide housing for refugees from Mariupol and Kyiv and now regularly sends money to the Ukrainian army.
Kovalenko is currently on medical leave from the army, he has recovered from knee surgery, which was repeatedly injured during his military service. “If it wasn’t for sick leave, I wouldn’t have come,” he says.
Mat in Israel
According to Kovalenko, playing in Israel is very important because there are strong personal ties between the two countries.
“Many Israelis and many Jews have given so much to the Ukrainian army with donations,” he says, describing the communities that have sent equipment and money to help with deliveries.
But everyone on the team agrees that Israel can do more.
“I know that Israel is providing humanitarian aid,” added Oleksienko, a teammate. “I know he has interests with Russia. However, Ukraine would be very happy if Israel provided military assistance as well. We can win this war – we showed it in the Kharkiv region, we drove out the Russians, we showed it in the Kherson region, where we pushed them out using the help we got from the West.”
These missiles and Iranian drones are threatening our country… We know that Israel knows how to deal with this effectively, and this could be a great military aid.
“These missiles and Iranian drones are threatening our country. Due to these terrorist attacks, ten million people lost electricity a few days ago. This, apparently, is Russia’s plan to intimidate us into submission. This is literally what terrorists do. And we know that Israel knows how to deal with it effectively, so this could be a great military aid,” he added.
Chaplain in the army
Kovalenko emphasizes the extent to which the Russian invasion and ongoing attacks against his country have united Ukrainians.
“Whatever problems we have in Ukraine, we know that if Russia moves forward, it will get worse. And that sense of duty, that historical significance and determination to survive, that need to fight for one’s family, that really helps. “If the enemy was not so immoral and evil, it would be more difficult,” he says.
Kovalenko serves in the army both as a soldier and as a chaplain when needed—there is no conflict between the two roles.
“It’s all about your goal,” he explains. “I’m not in the army to kill Russians, I’m there to save Ukrainians.”
As a priest, Kovalenko helps with religious duties and counsels those who are struggling to cope with all the hardships they experienced during the war.
“Soldiers come to me and ask about death, about the meaning of life, and sometimes about ethical and moral conflicts,” he says. “For example, if someone is forced to leave a wounded soldier on the field to save another person’s life or simply to follow an order. If you can’t save someone’s life, it tears people apart.”
Whenever Kovalenko has time, he plays chess and tries to relax a little.
“I also think about the future and try to make plans,” he says. “For me, my religious faith helps me a lot, but how do others cope? It is very difficult for an ordinary person.’
I would like everyone to live their lives in a way that they would not regret if they were on the front line.
“In the army, I realized one thing – life is so short,” says Kovalenko. “I saw soldiers who were there and they regretted what they missed – maybe one didn’t talk to his daughter, another didn’t talk to his parents, friends – they realized that they might not understand. may not be able to reach the end of the war and change it. That’s why I want everyone to live their lives in such a way that if they find themselves on the front line, they will not regret it.”
A dream among dreams
For now, players are focusing on their games.
Kovalenko: “Playing for my homeland has been my dream since childhood. “You see, I played for the national team for the first time and achieved this. It’s a very difficult time for the country, but it’s a very symbolic time for me.”
“It was difficult to collect the team,” says the captain of the team Sulypa. However, according to him, it is important to represent Ukraine in Israel. “If we win something, we will send it to the Ukrainian army.”