Somewhere on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, Russia, a giant man lies down and prepares to bench press as a demonstration for us, his American onlookers.


Written By Jake Bronstein | Photos by Nitin Vadukul

Somewhere on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, Russia, a giant man lies down and prepares to bench press as a demonstration for us, his American onlookers.

Somewhere on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, Russia, a giant man lies down and prepares to bench press as a demonstration for us, his American onlookers. It's unclear just how much weight is on the bar, as few of the mismatched weights in the dank, mildew-stained gym are labeled, but the strain on his face leaves little doubt. Jarring this many plates into action could wake the dead.

He doesn't speak English, but some clichés transcend language, such the corny high-energy techno blaring from a boom box as he lowers the bar to his massive chest. He pauses, but before he can press the load back up, the power cuts out. Everything dies -- the music, the lights, movement . . . everything. For most bodybuilders, this would be a terrifying moment, the epitome of helplessness. But for Alexander Fedorov, arguably the most promising Russian bodybuilder ever, the man who trains in a cemetery and wins competitions despite massive injuries, it's all in a day's work.

A Grave Decision

Alexander Fedorov's private gym is hidden from view deep inside one of Russia's largest graveyards. In fact, the gravediggers' locker room is directly across the hall from the padlocked entrance. The smell of their sweaty clothes, soiled boots and the insoles most of the men leave on the radiator would probably carry over into the gym, only the gym exudes an odor all its own. Mildew as thick as mud cakes the walls. And the haggard equipment, most of which is 15—20 years old, is rarely cleaned.

But to understand why Alex chooses to remain here even as offers to pump iron elsewhere pour in, you must first hear the story of Anatoliy Fedorov, Alex's father. Sure, the men share eyebrows, drive similar cars (black four-door BMWs) and have a penchant for silly ring tones (his father's cell phone blares MC Hammer, while Alex has too many tunes to track), but there's more to it than that. Much more.

Born is 1952, Anatoliy was raised in St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad. He worked as a bus driver and, thanks to the lowered expectations of Soviet-style Communism, thought he had everything a man could want. That is, until he met Vladimir Dubinin, a Russian bodybuilder who today pretty much runs the sport in Russia. "It was the demonstration he made," Anatoliy explains by way of Mikhail Gouliayev, Alexander's manager and translator. "It was very impressive. I'd never seen anything like it."

Soon Anatoliy had convinced several friends to pool resources and build a gym. But the gym was located in a basement, poorly ventilated and not up to code. It had to be moved. Next, the growing collection of equipment was set up at a "sport base," a complex of buildings designed to house children and adults training in 20—30 different sports. But when the base was closed a few years later, the gym had to be relocated yet again. For Anatoliy, who'd recently gotten a job placing markers on graves, the cemetery, with its endless labyrinth of sheds and workshops, seemed an obvious choice.

In 1978, Anatoliy had his first of two sons, Alexander. "I had dreamt that he might be a bodybuilder, too," says Anatoliy, fixing his gaze on Alex as the men prepare for a back workout amongst the gym's homemade cable systems. "But I would never insist for him to become a bodybuilder. He would often come to watch. Then, one day, he asked me to show him how. He chose for himself. It made me very happy." He was happier still when Alex began winning competitions. To this day, the two men couldn't be closer. In fact, not only does Anatoliy train Alex, he works out twice a day alongside him, often doing the very same exercises with the very same weights. And Alexander still lives in the tiny Communist-era apartment in which he was raised. It was his father who moved out, leaving to his oldest son the home so small that Alex can barely fit at the miniature kitchen table.

Though both men refute it, it's hard to imagine that Anatoliy's love of bodybuilding hasn't factored largely into Alexander's decision to pursue the sport as a career. Still, Anatoliy rarely watches his son compete; it's simply too emotional. "He gets extremely worked up if he thinks Alex isn't being judged fairly," Gouliayev explains. "Once he nearly had a heart attack. It's just better this way."

Back From the Grave

It's easy to look at the cemetery and view the dilapidated equipment as a hurdle for Alex to overcome, but nothing could be further from the truth. Alex is fond of the place. He's on contract with another local gym, one stocked with Cybex and other new machines, but he only trains there once a week, just enough to fulfill his obligations. Likewise, on his first and only visit to the States, he was unimpressed with Gold's Gym in Venice, California, known as bodybuilding's mecca. "Everyone flexes, nobody lifts," he says.

That's not to say he hasn't had his share of obstacles to overcome, though. As he drives the road from the cemetery to the sushi spot he frequents after workouts, he grips the wheel tightly as he explains how he was disqualified at the European Championships in 1999 for doping. He denies any wrongdoing but was so disillusioned that he abandoned not only the sport but also the gym completely. He leans on the accelerator while explaining that his father stopped lifting as well. Alexander got married but had to go work for his father-in-law's oil company to make ends meet.

"It was like walking in someone else's shoes," he says, as he swerves into oncoming traffic to pass the car ahead. "He's a mean man; he never has anything nice to say." This is still a sore subject as Alex and Natalia, his wife, just had their first child a month ago. With Alex's schedule being so demanding, it was decided that Natalia should spend this time at her parent's home an hour away. Because of this, Alex is forced to see her father more often than he'd like, but he refuses to discuss their interactions. Instead, as he slides off the road onto the shoulder to pass another car at high speed, he shifts the conversation to Sergey Nikeshin, the man who got him back into the gym.

It was late in 2002 and Alexander hadn't touched a weight in almost three years, losing 70-something pounds in the process. Nikeshin, a local politician and bodybuilding enthusiast, talked him into training once more. In addition to encouragement, he offered financial support, allowing Alex the opportunity to get out from under his father-in-law's tyrannical thumb and reconnect with his own father in the gym. Things seemed to be looking up. Then the unthinkable happened.

"I still remember it like it was yesterday," Alexander begins. "It was a great day, my first day of serious training for my first competition since leaving. I wanted to bench press as much as possible, just for myself. Surprisingly, that day everything was very easy. I did 200 kilos [480 pounds] eight times and felt like I could do more. Before that, my highest was 245 kilos, but today I wanted to do 250 [550 pounds]. I'm not a powerlifter, but I wanted to try it. I got it down on my chest; then, as I pushed up, somewhere in the middle of the movement I heard a sound like a rubber band snapping, and the barbell fell. My father tried to catch it and injured his arms."

When they got to the hospital, doctors couldn't see through Alex's massive chest with an X-ray, but since he still had full range of motion, they assumed the injury wasn't that serious. It wasn't until they opened him up that the damage was revealed: Alexander had torn his right pectoral muscle in four different places. All would need to be reconnected in a delicate operation so intricate that personnel from a Moscow medical journal flew in to document the affair.

"It's a major injury that's not uncommon in bodybuilders," says Nicholas DiNubile, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. "It's a big surgery and very debilitating for anyone who needs their upper body for power activities. You typically wouldn't be allowed to do any kind of significant weight training, other than simple rehab exercises, for three or four months." But instead of taking it easy, in the interim between the injury and the operation, Alexander continued to train his chest, continued to go onstage in his posing trunks and continued to win. He took first place at five amateur competitions and third at the Russian Grand Prix, behind Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler.

The difference between the two sides of his body -- the forearms, the pecs and the massive scar protruding from his armpit -- are hard not to notice, even to this day. Only recently has he been able to work his chest out again without screaming. And he still must visit a doctor every few weeks for the go-ahead to continue lifting. It's a harrowing process that scares Alexander and leaves him agitated as he awaits the results, like he is today.

On top of that, he faces many of the same challenges confronted by bodybuilders the world over. Only for Alex, living in a country just starting to embrace the sport compounds the challenges. Take his clothes, for example. Before his trip to the States, the only clothing Alex could find to fit his massive body when he reached competition size was from stores catering to the obese. Dress shirts might fit him in the shoulders, but they were baggy at the waist and ugly to boot. Even today, most of the clothes in his closet are from his lean years. Tomorrow is the "naming" of Alex's baby daughter; he'll have to see his father-in-law, it'll be formal, and he fears he may have to wear a track jacket.

Flying coach is nearly impossible as well. Gouliayev recalls the Paris-to-New York leg of the flight for their Stateside visit in hushed tones when Alex is out of earshot: "I fell asleep at takeoff, and when I woke up Sasha (as friends call Alexander) was standing in the back by the lavatories, hunched low to get his head under the luggage carrier so other people could get past. He just couldn't fit comfortably in his seat. He'd been there for most of the flight." Approximate flight time from Paris to New York? Nine hours.

Six Feet Deep

"Everybody likes to paint the picture that Alex is some kind of Russian monster," Gouliayev says as we watch the father-and-son team train. "But there's so much more to him. He's a man, a regular man like anyone else." He's right in certain respects. Sure, when he's pushing iron Alex's blue eyes flash with an intensity recalling Ivan Drago, but he has a quirky side as well.

In addition to the gold cross around his neck, Alex wears a golden muscleman. When he catches us looking, he frowns. "I'd given them my picture so they could make the face look like mine," he says while studying it. "I don't think it does. I just ordered a new one though -- a little gift to myself -- that's going to be my head on Flex Wheeler's body."

And then there's his choice of music for his posing routines. "I used to use Kenny G and Bon Jovi," he announces. "I like to surprise people and be original, but I rarely know the music. I'll walk into a music shop and say, 'Give me this, the music you're playing now.'" Kenny G sounded like a strange choice, but Alex insists it was always well received. As for Bon Jovi, though he couldn't recall the name of the song he used, most would assume it was something along the lines of "Dead or Alive" or "Living on a Prayer." It's not until later that we realize the song in question is actually "Runaway," the chorus of which repeats the lines, "Ooh, she's a little runaway . . . Daddy's girl learned fast."

His true love, however, is his prized BMW. Both of the Fedorovs are obsessed with the German carmaker, but Alexander's passion borders on the bizarre. He has it washed daily, sometimes twice, in a strange ritual that involves loaning the men at the car wash the special cleansers he keeps in his trunk, then getting down on all fours to show them how he likes the tires detailed -- by doing at least one himself.

Still, he is extremely flexible in the gym, his mass of muscle notwithstanding. While his father likes to crush the hands he shakes, Alexander's grip is delicate and warm. Ask him if he'd ever consider moving to the States, and he replies with a smile, "Only if my sponsors will also pay for my family, my friends and their families to all come as well."

A Final Resting Place

"Americans come here and they see what they want to see," Gouliayev sighs. "They write about how Sasha's dad was bothered by the KGB, and how the mob funds him today. It's just not so."

It's easy to see how such mistakes are made. On our first day with the group, Alexander's father had explained that the gym might one day have to move again. The cemetery has come under new management recently and is constantly expanding, so space is at a premium. Furthermore, when we'd asked if we could shoot Alexander among the graves, we were met with resistance. Russian law says that you can't photograph in a cemetery and today a local authority will be making an inspection.

Because of this, we're understandably concerned when, while Alex sits on the floor, lifting kettlebells above his head to work his shoulders as Gouliayev drives his knee into his back to keep him upright, a neatly dressed man enters the gym unexpectedly. He stands almost toe-to-toe with Gouliayev, studying him before saying something. No one responds until he touches one of the weights Alexander has high above his head. Gouliayev shouts and the man wanders off. But was this the authority? Was that the inspection? Will the gym have to move? "No, just a drunk," our translator explains. "One of the workers who drank too much with lunch."

"Sometimes, being a champion means keeping your eye on the prize, tuning the rest of the world out," Alexander says when asked if he has a secret, a little something that could give him the edge at this year's Mr. Olympia. Suddenly, something else occurs to us. What will Alexander do when his father is gone, when the senior Fedorov lives on only as a name on one of the stone markers in the cemetery? Our translator repeats the question, shouting above the music in the gym, but before Alexander responds, his father moves over and intervenes. "A father always has more to teach," he insists. "I will always have more experience than him, experience that I can pass on. Our only concern is to be better tomorrow than we are today." Sometimes, being a champion means keeping your eye on the prize, no matter what. M&F

Jake Bronstein was one of the founding editors of FHM's U.S. edition. Additionally, he has written for Rolling Stone, Details, Maxim and Complex.