Sisters Anna and Mariya Muzychuk are world chess grandmaster champions from Ukraine.
Just a few weeks ago, they secured gold at the 2022 India Olympics, a biannual chess tournament that pits national teams around the world against each other.
“We came, won and showed our strength,” Anna Muzychuk told EUobserver on Thursday (29 September).
“We will not give up anywhere … in any area,” says the 32-year-old, indicating opposition to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Russia was originally supposed to host the Olympics. But the organizers moved it to India after the invasion of Moscow. Teams from Russia and Belarus were also banned from the event.
The rift has led some top Russian players to speak out against the war, including 44, who wrote an open letter to President Vladimir Putin in April.
But others, like the Russian grandmaster Sergei Karjakinsupport Putin and the war that has so far forced millions of Ukrainians to flee and killed thousands of civilians.
Karjakin had previously won the Olympics representing Ukraine before turning to Russia. In June, Putin awarded him the Medal for Services to the Fatherland.
Former world champion of the 1970s and 80s Anatoly Karpov, who now sits in the Russian State Duma, was also among those sanctioned by the EU after he voted to recognize Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics.
But it’s not the first time the Ukrainian sisters have faced nationalist-led adversity.
In 2017, Anna Muzychuk refused to defend her titles in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia in protest at the treatment of women.
She gave up two world championship titles. Her sister Mariya also boycotted the tournament.
Both are among the 10 best players in the world.
War is omnipresent
On Thursday they played an exhibition event against several dozen amateur players in Brussels.
Under which was quickly crushed this reporterwho resigned after 30 moves in a match against Mariya.
But while the Muzychuks demonstrated their prowess on the chessboard, the war lingered in Ukraine and what they had to leave behind.
Both had fled after Russia’s invasion at the end of February, leaving loved ones and relatives behind. Both have not returned yet.
“We haven’t seen them and we don’t know when we can see them,” said Anna.
When they play chess, you can’t ignore the war with all its horrors, she says.
“You can’t stop thinking,” she says, making concentration even more difficult for the gameplay.
With the team scattered, the war also made it logistically difficult to train and prepare for tournaments.
“We have to do what we can, and we’re doing it,” she says.
Her gold medal win at the Olympics is all the more extraordinary.
Thursday’s chess exhibition was organized by the EU institutions’ chess club, Europchess.
The club has held similar events in the past but with grandmasters from EU countries. The decision to extend the invitation to the Muzychuks is a sign of solidarity with Ukraine, said club president Johannes Bertram.
Other attendees at the event included Thomas Weischede from the Germany-based Emanuel Lasker Gesellschaft Foundation.
“This year’s success of the Ukrainian women’s team reminds me of the spirit of the freedom-loving Grace O’Malley,” he announced ahead of the exhibition.
Weischede gifted the sisters a €6,400 bottle of Irish whiskey, named after Grace O’Malley, a 16th-century “pirate queen” who led a successful attack on the Spanish Armada. Then he asked her to eventually sell it to start a European chess school for girls and women in Ukraine.
“That is our suggestion and our promise is that we will help you as best we can,” he said.