Martina Navratilova Dishes on Her Iron Curtain Youth, Putin and Ukraine

In the first episode of Newsweek's latest podcast, Declassified, host and Editor-at-Large Naveed Jamali sat down with Hall of Fame tennis great Martina Navratilova, winner of 59 combined majors titles, considered one of the greatest players of all time.

Martina grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia before she was granted asylum in the U.S. at age 18. Newsweek talked to her about life behind the Iron Curtain, her thoughts on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and much more.

This interview has been lightly edited for length.

I think for most of us, we would say our childhood is impressionable, but you've had a really interesting experience in terms of where you grew up. Can you try to paint a picture a little bit for people, what it was like to live and grow up behind the Iron Curtain?

I was lucky enough because I had a really fantastic childhood that I wouldn't change anything about. The only thing I would change is the system under which I lived. My parents would tell me stories from the war. My grandmother would tell me stories from the war. I grew up 11 years after the end of World War II. And so it was still pretty vivid in everybody's memory. And maybe that's why I always appreciated what we had, even though it wasn't much thanks to the communist system. It was just how things always were. I didn't know any different.

And then at 12 years old, I was playing a tournament in the Czech Republic. Actually, I was 11 at the time, not quite yet 12, playing a tournament in Pilsen, a junior tournament. My dad took me there on a motorcycle, and in the morning he called the house and said, "Don't go outside. Russian tanks are outside." So of course we went outside, yelled and screamed and threw rocks. Then my dad took me home on a motorcycle, and by then the roads were destroyed by tanks. So our country, overnight, whatever hopes we had to become a democracy were squashed. After that, we were really careful about what we said, what we did.

Was there something, on a day-to-day basis, that shifted under Russian rule? Was there something you became aware of that changed, something fundamental you could point to?

What changed was the hope for the future. Everyday life didn't change that much, but fundamentally what changed was the hope of people to become a democracy, to have freedom of speech, to be able to travel abroad without being put in prison. It wasn't a massive change of how everyday life was, but it was a massive change in fundamental freedom and hope for the future.

I imagine democracy and systems of government are not something most 12-year-olds are readily understanding. As you grew up, when did you become aware of this idea that you were behind this Iron Curtain?

You were born into it, so it was just a way of life. You became aware of the fact that there's only one party, and there's only one person to vote for. That was pretty clear by like 7 or 8. You just grew up with it, and you knew there was no possibility of change. So when it did happen in '89 it was such a shock to most people.

I was very aware of what the world was like. I read the newspaper everyday, even though of course I knew there was propaganda, but you still absorb the culture and some reality of what life was like outside of the Iron Curtain.

Tennis is obviously a big thing for you. Was there any shift between the Russians coming and before that in terms of what tennis meant to you, what you could do?

Tennis changed for me not because the Russians came in as much as just the possibility of tennis getting me out of the country was really crystallized. If you were a top athlete, you would automatically get the visa to travel and compete outside of the country. So that was the best way out.

I was exposed to the Western culture early on, so we knew what was out there and what the possibilities were. And playing tennis I knew, if I was good enough, would allow me to get outside of the country. I remember being in high school at like 14 years old taking English lessons. Lesson 5 was about America, and there was a picture of New York City, of the Empire State Building, and I told my classmate, "See this, I'm going to go there one day."

Martina Navratilova Wimbledon 2019
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, in the Royal Box on Centre Court talking with Martina Navratilova and her spouse Julia Lemigova during the Serena Williams of the United States match against Simona Halep of Romania during the Ladies Singles Final on Centre Court during the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club at Wimbledon on July 13, 2019 in London, England. Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

And four years later, of course, you defected.

I didn't want to defect. I only defected because the federation wouldn't let me play where I wanted to play. That's the thing, not very many people want to leave their country for good. Many want to leave, maybe travel the world or study abroad, but most of them, probably 99% of them, want to go back and make a difference in their home country. So I defected by necessity not by want. That was never my wish.

You have ties to your home. But for me, it was an existential question in that I wasn't going to be in control of travel and setting my schedule as a professional tennis player. If the government didn't want to let me out of the country, I couldn't get out of the country. So that was a big chance to take, and I wasn't willing to take it.

So again, people don't become refugees by choice. Anyhow, I wasn't a refugee. I was granted asylum overnight, I got my green card in a month and citizenship six years later. I was already speaking English, making money, so I didn't have to worry about most things immigrants have to worry about. But I couldn't go back. That's the difference between refugees and immigrants. Immigrants have a choice to go back. I was an immigrant, but I couldn't go back. I did not go back for 11 years. If I had gone back, the communists would have put me in prison.

So tennis gave me a way out. I knew it would be a way out, but it didn't make me try any harder. I always loved competing. And incidentally, one year after the Soviets came, I played a junior tournament in Prague. I beat a Russian junior, and when we shook hands I said, "See, tanks can't beat us."

First of all, what a fascinating story. And you see what's happening in Ukraine, you think about your own life, what does it make you feel? What do you see as the parallel there?

By pure luck it wasn't war, but the end result was the same in that we did not have autonomy over our country. And Putin wants autonomy over Ukraine. It's a much more dire situation for the Ukrainians in that it's literally do or die. For Czechs it was like, 'Oh, we had hope, and now we don't.' So it's much more severe in Ukraine.

But of course I can completely empathize with what the people are going through and what they're feeling and how desperate it feels, because Russia is so much bigger. But they're doing a hell of a job fighting him off. A bully will be a bully, but Ukraine is standing up to this massive bully and winning by just slowing him down. And maybe they'll be forced to turn around. I'm hoping that's the case.

You're right to call Putin a bully, and I'm sure the Soviets you would feel were the same way. Do you think there is a generational divide, that people are waking up to the threat that Russia has always posed?

I think so. When the Soviet Union broke up, we thought, 'Okay great, democracy is here to stay, and better days are ahead.' And here we are walking backwards. And the older people must be just devastated, especially the ones who are still alive who lived through World War II. But the younger generation is like, 'No, no, no. We're not going backwards. No way.'

You're absolutely right. To that point, I have to think about your time in tennis, how that desire to play is really what propelled you forward in many ways. Currently there is this young woman, Brittney Griner, who has been detained by the Russians. It feels like such a statement. What do you want people to know about that?

I think all of those things – gay, Black, woman, successful – that's not helpful in how the Russian government will be dealing with her. I think they saw a chance to make her into a pawn, and that's what she is. What I'm hearing right now is May 19, she will be there until then, but it doesn't mean she will be let go at that point.

That's right. And she was targeted, right? It feels like those attributes that are her were what targeted her.

I think they targeted looking at her stuff hoping they would find something, and they did. Now I don't know if there's any question whether it was planted or not, I don't know enough about that. But whether it was planted or not, the fact is they were after her and they were hoping to find something and they did, allegedly.

I think this is the case for Black women for the most part, they don't get a pass. They're used to it, because it just happens all the time. And timing. Her timing was horrible, unbeknownst to her.

When you talk about Russia's perception on the world stage, there are so many places Russia is going to have issues being readmitted to that global stage, but also the athletics. What do you think this means going forward? Is there going to be a chilling effect?

Absolutely. I think I would be nervous going there. You don't want to go to a country that is doing what's happening, even though it's not the people's fault what's happening in Ukraine, it's just the one guy. That doesn't really make a difference to people about the feeling of going there. There won't be any team competitions for a long time. No Russian teams can go anywhere.

And the communist countries, Russia and China particularly, make sports into a political expression and use it as propaganda and also to kind of normalize their country. Qatar did the same thing with the World Cup. China should have never probably had the Olympics. I actually did a speech about this like 15 years ago at the UN saying that we should not be rewarding countries that have horrible human rights records to hold these major sporting events.

Sports and politics have always been intertwined, and now the athletes from Belarus and particularly Russia are going to struggle, are going to suffer and pay the big price for this. Because if they speak out against it, they can't go back to Russia. And if they don't speak out, then they're like ostracized. So they're really stuck between a rock and a hard place, and it's difficult for them.

But of course, the ones that suffer the most are the Ukrainian athletes who, many of them, are going back to the country. We have three former tennis players, Sergiy Stakhovsky, he's gone back to Ukraine to fight. So did Alexandr Dolgopolov and Andre Medvedev, who played back in the '80s and' 90s. And female athletes, maybe some will go back to fight too, I don't know. I don't know how I could play tennis. Usually the tennis court is an escape, but this is too much. You can't escape this.

To kind of bring this to a close, you really had this interesting experience that is, I'm sure for a lot of people, is new to even hear about. When you look at the future of Europe, when you look at the future of Russia, do you think there could be this moment – just as you had when you were 14 – perhaps with the Russian people, that they might wake up to a similar sort of 'aha moment'?

It has to come from the people within that country. You can't go into a country and change those people's minds. They need to come to that resolution and that aha moment themselves. I'm hopeful. It's probably a 50/50 proposition at this moment.

If you could speak to that younger generation, and you could talk a little bit about what is at risk, what is being threatened, as someone who grew up for a big part of her childhood behind the Iron Curtain. Can rights change and be taken away overnight?

Yes, they can and they have been. And we need to remember that. And we need to remember it when we complain about having to wear a mask. That's not a problem. When you lose the freedom to move around the county as you wish or leave the country, when you lose the freedom to vote or freedom to vote for two different people of different views, not when you have to wear a mask in a public place to protect people around you – that's not the loss of freedom. True freedom loss would mean that all your rights are taken away.

Look at what's happening in Ukraine. And it just takes one person to flip it. It takes a lot more people to flip it the right way. People need to be aware of that and need to speak out and organize and help out wherever they can, and maybe run for office. Just get involved, any which way you can.

Declassified is an exploration of what it means to be secure — and of the people all over the world who are quietly working to keep us safe. Hosted by Naveed Jamali, a former double agent and intelligence officer, Declassified covers stories of national security, intelligence, and everything in between.