Cross-country Skiing in Russia

Cross-country Skiing in Russia

Hello fellow instructors! I am Igor Gesse, an 80-year-old RM Trainer and instructor at Keystone Nordic. I teach Telemark and skate and classic cross-country skiing. I emigrated from Russia to the USA with my family 40 years ago. I lived and skied in Russia until 1978 and want to share with you what it was like then and what I know about it now.

Russia in 1960s-1970s

At that time, cross-country skiing was a mass sport in Russia, like downhill skiing in the USA. I lived in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), worked at an engineering company, and skied on weekends. To get to a ski place at a village near Leningrad, I had to take a bus with my backpack, skis and poles and kids in tow, and then take a subway train to a terminal with trains to the suburbs.

On Sunday mornings, the terminal was alive with a dense but enthusiastic crowd of skiers with their skis sticking up out of the crowd, noise, laughter, occasional singing in small groups, long lines to the ticket windows, and announcements from the loudspeakers. When a train was announced, skiers rushed to the platform and stormed the train car to grab a seat, or they would be standing for about an hour. Skiers exited from the train at their favorite station and walked for about a kilometer, again with their backpacks, skis and kids to their rented shacks in a peasants’ village or directly to the ski track. Groomed ski tracks were free for all.

I skied then on:

  • wooden skis with 3-pin bindings
  • black leather boots, which gave me blisters on my toes
  • Swix green kick wax applied to the full length of the ski
  • Jarvinen bamboo poles, which were top notch at that time.

On coming to the US in 1978, I experienced culture shock when I saw the modern ski equipment of that time:

  • plastic skis with strange serrations in the middle of a purple glide surface
  • bright yellow Salomon boots with a steel bar in front and a long groove in the sole
  • Salomon Profile bindings with long ridges that matched the boot grooves
  • aluminum poles with plastic baskets.


Russia Now

In modern Russia (official name is the Russian Federation), sports are regulated by the government Ministry of Sports. Cross-country skiing is one of many sports included in official documents of that Ministry.

There are three skill levels for general public racers and three levels for elite racers; here is a list of official skill levels, same as in the 1960s-1970s in the Soviet Union:

  • 3rd level (lowest)
  • 2nd level
  • 1st level
  • Candidate Master of Sports
  • Master of Sports
  • International Master Of Sports (highest)

Pasted below is a partial table of race times for the general public, MEN category, Classic style. These race times are for years 2015-2018, updated every three years. In that table, I highlighted 10km time norms for classic styles. There are similar tables for women, boys and girls, for classic, skate, and pursuit races. The norms are for any age, any weather, any track condition. It is up to the athlete to select a race with favorable conditions.


Classic style

Distance Level  1 Level  2 Level  3
5км 15:41,1 17:26,5 19:37,7
10км 32:35.9 36:24.5 41:12.0
15км 50:20,2 56:24,7 1:04:06,9
20км 1:08:39,2 1:17:09,1 1:27:59,9
30км 1:46:27,0 2:00:07,7 2:17:45,2
50км 3:04:40,5 3:29:30,5 4:01:53,5

(This is an excerpt from an official table published by Russian Ministry of Sports, available for free downloading at The first row of the excerpt is translated by me.)

For elite racers, there are no time requirements, but a skier must win one of the leading positions in major competitions, like the Olympic Games, or the World championship, or the Russia championship in order to earn an achievement pin.

As we know, Russians are and have been for years strong skiers at the international level, especially at long distances. Unfortunately, lately some successful skiers were banned from major international competitions.

For Russian ski instructors, there is National Russian League of Instructors. There are three levels of instructors called Beginners, Base, and Experts. However, that organization serves only downhill and rollerblade instructors (!), but no cross-country or snowboard instructors.

My races and goals

I raced in Russia from 1959 to 1969 in classic style; skate style was not official then although I used it in my own skiing. A new race track was usually created by a local team of 10-20 decent skiers who skied in fresh snow in a long procession. After the 20th skier, the track was perfect!

My best time in Russia, at the age of 29, in 10 km classic race was 42 minutes in a local competition between several engineering companies, and I earned a level 2 pin which I proudly wore on my jacket for few years.

My best time in the USA at the age of 65 in 10 km classic race was just 37 minutes, wow! My mentor Jim Sanders, a PSIA examiner, yelled to me at the finish line: “Igor, your technique is perfect!” At that stage of my life, I was a better skier, had better race equipment, and the Gold Run, Breckenridge, race track was faster than the one back in Russia years ago.

My life goal now is to ski many more years and improve ski techniques in many more people by giving ski lessons and clinics. I continue to learn to ski more efficiently, with the least energy spent for each glide. I go to PSIA and other local clinics which I take at least two times a year.

My role model is a Canadian Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen (1875-1987); he still skied past his 100th anniversary and lived until 111.Can I get close to his record? Time will tell.

p.s. If you want to contact me, please send me an email at

Copyright © Igor Gesse 2018

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