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Russian figure skater makes comeback for country

Evgeni Plushenko rises from retirement to maintain Russia's reputation at the top of men's skating.

Evgeni Plushenko of Russia reacts after performing during the Men's Free Program at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Cup of Russia in Moscow, Oct. 24, 2009. (Grigory Dukor/Reuters)

BOSTON — During the second half of the 20th century, figure skating had an unambiguous power divide. America revered the men’s and ladies’ events and produced a string of Olympic kings and queens, while the Soviet Union — honoring the collective over the individual — put a primacy on pairs and ice dancing and had a stranglehold on those gold medals.

But as the Soviet Union and its sports empire crumpled, some extraordinary skating talent began to eschew partnership ties and drift into those less politically correct singles events. The Soviet Union had not won a single gold medal in Olympic ladies' or men’s until, in the 1990s, Viktor Petrenko, Alexei Urmanov and Ilia Kulik all won Olympic men’s golds in succession.

Those triumphs launched what was the golden era in figure skating for Russian men. Two skaters who trained together in St. Petersburg as teens, Alexei Yagudin and Evgeni Plushenko, would emerge as surpassing talents to dominate the sport for almost a decade. Between them they won seven consecutive world titles and two Olympic crowns.

Yagudin and Plushenko were not comrades in skates, nor friendly rivals off the ice. The tension played out in contrasting styles. On the ice, they were the proverbial fire and ice. Yagudin, older by a couple years, was the Russian man of action, given to macho posturing. His performances were passionate, replete with big gestures, broad emotions and powerful strides and jumps. Yagudin’s aesthetics leaned to the populist; he skated to themes from movies — “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Gladiator” and “The Man In the Iron Mask” — that cast him in grand, heroic roles.

Plushenko, pale-complected with a helmet of long, thin, wheat-colored hair, didn’t look like he’d ever stepped outside the rink let alone battled the forces of evil. He was arty — balletic and, at times whimsical — and often appeared emotionally distant. He had a taste for the abstruse, almost as if he were French. Still, his lines were unparalleled, at least outside the Bolshoi, and his physical power always came as a surprise. His biggest jumps, including quads, appeared effortless; not a single hair slid out of place as he floated above the ice.

After Yagudin, at 18, won the first of his three successive world championships, he left Russia to train in the United States. And though Yagudin still trained with a Russian coach, there was some contention about whose skating was more authentically Russian and who truly reflected their nation’s soul.