The following is an extract from Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the USSR by Robert Edelman (1993)- reproduced without permission.
More selections from this book will follow...
Soccer—The Game of the Working ClassThe history of Soviet soccer before the Second World War can be divided into two clear phases, before and after the organization of the league in 1936.
It took nearly two decades for the Soviets finally to adopt the pattern that had been established throughout Europe. But soccer in the USSR throughout its entire history would continue to differ from the Western European experience in one fundamental way. The relatively mild winter in much of Europe allowed the soccer season to begin late in the summer and continue through the spring. In the Soviet Union, soccer was, of necessity, a summer game, and the fact that soccer revived in the spring gave it a special meaning and poignance for the average Soviet fan.
Much like American baseball, the beginning of the season was a sure sign of spring and renewal. The special harshness of the Russian winter made this pleasure all the more intense. Opening day of the soccer season was always a joyous "holiday" with ceremonies, marches, bands, and other games. Newspaper and memoir accounts of the first day of the soccer season are always filled with emotion, nostalgia, and an atypical romanticism. From the first days of Soviet power, soccer was number-one in the affections of sports fans.
From the Revolution to the Formation of the LeagueWhile the various contenders for cultural authority were debating the proper role of sports, the working classes of the major cities, even in the midst of the Civil War, began to play and watch soccer in increasingly large numbers. As early as October 14, 1918, the tradition of the Petrograd-Moscow game was revived. In the conditions of civil war, the Petrograd team could not send its best players to Moscow, and they lost this tenth renewal of the rivalry by the lopsided score of 9-1, a rare victory for the Muscovites.
In the wake of the revolution, many of the prerevolutionary clubs were taken over by proletarian members, and with the end of the Civil War, other new organizations were formed as well. The prerevolutionary OLLS came under the control of the military's Vsevobuch organization. It was renamed OPPV (Opytno-pokazatel' naia ploshchadka vsevobucha), and in 1928, it would become the primary sport club of the Red Army. Moscow's Union would come under the sponsorship of the Moscow soviet.
As mentioned above, one of the first acts of the newly formed Dinamo Society (1923) was the creation of a topflight soccer team, and in 1925, the Dinamo branch in Tblisi also formed its own team of "masters."
In 1922, the party committee in the Sokolniki region of Moscow had taken over two prerevolutionary
clubs, the RGO (Russkoe gimnastisticheskoe obshchestvo) and the OFV (Obshchestvo fizicheskogo vospitania). The two groups were combined and renamed Krasnaia Presnia. The Komsomol was among the first sponsors of this new team which was led by the four soccer-playing Starostin brothers: Nikolai, Alexander, Andrei, and Petr.
Nikolai Pashintsev, president of the Party's Krasnopresenskii Region Executive Committee, became the team's chief patron, and it followed him as he moved to other organizations. Thus the Starostins came under the wing of the Dukat tobacco factory when Pashintsev went to work at that firm. In 1926, the team switched its sponsorship to the food workers' union (the team was called Pishchevik). In 1931, Starostin's team came under the control of a wealthy group of self-financing (khozraschetnyi) retailing enterprises, called Promkooperatisa, but two years later they switched back to Dukat.
In 1934, at the urging of Alexander Kosarev, head of the Komsomol, the team came under the umbrella of a new sports society that was to be funded by Promkooperatsia. This multisport organization was to be called
Spartak. Throughout the various phases of its existence, Spartak (as well as its earlier incarnations) had been the chief opponent of Dinamo for the leadership of Moscow soccer. After 1935, when the Spartak society was formally founded, the rivalry between these teams became even more spirited.
The Starostin brothers all assumed leading roles in what quickly became a powerful organization, and Promkooperatsia's resources enabled Spartak to attract many top athletes in a number of the more visible sports. The new organization quickly won the sympathy of much of the Moscow public. Precisely because it was tied neither to the army nor to the police, and it soon was the most popular team in the capital.
Domestic soccer competition before 1936 took place on two levels. As many as a hundred or more clubs participated in city championships that stretched out over the entire summer season. National championships, however, were contested only by select, all-star teams from each city, the same approach that had been followed before 1917. Intercity games took place throughout the season, with the best two teams meeting in Moscow for a national final that always filled the largest stadium available. In keeping with the haphazard structure of the game, these championships did not take place every year. The first tournament was held in 1922, but it was not repeated until 1928, when it was part of the Spartakiad. The championship was then
renewed in 1931, 1932, and finally in 1935.
The various local club competitions quickly attracted a sizable audience. According to Mikhail Iakushin, a star for Dinamo in the 1930s and later a highly successful coach, matches of the leading teams had already become "great events" in the early 1920s: "From the earliest morning on weekends, a great 'tramway' movement began in Moscow, with players and fans travelling toward the numerous stadiums and fields of the capital. On the average, the leading teams attracted five to ten thousand spectators."
In 1924, Krasnaia presnia played a game against MSFK (Moskovskii soiuz fizkultury) that overflowed the 5,000-seat capacity of the former Zamoskvoretskii Stadium. Thirty extra trolleys had been added to handle the crowds, and all windows of the box office were opened hours before the game.
While gates of this size were not uncommon during the 1920s, only the most pivotal games between the strongest teams were able to attract this many paying spectators. Games between less-popular clubs rarely brought more than a few hundred customers into the stadium.
Konstantin Beskov, who would also become a successful player and coach, described the audience at these games: "The public was the simplest possible—working people. They were dressed very simply and pretty much the same, wearing Russian-style blouses and jackets, with their pants stuffed into the top of their boots."
During this period, the clubs had to be profitable under the semicapitalist conditions of the NEP, but by 1927, ticket prices had risen beyond the reach of the average worker, leading to a drop in attendance. The next year, the various trade union teams lowered their ticket prices "several times," down to fifteen and thirty kopecks a game.
This change was made in response to reports in Krasnyi sport that tickets had become too expensive for the "workers' pocket." Since workers made up "the mass of spectators who were most interested in football," the sport ran the risk of losing its mass base. The new prices did have the desired effect, and soon games between such Moscow favorites as Pishchevik and Dinamo were attracting as many as ten thousand fans. By the standards of contemporary Western Europe, audiences of this size were still quite small,
but in comparison to pre-revolutionary Russia, it was clear that soccer had struck roots with the working class and was becoming a mass phenomenon. Intercity matches became fixtures on the calendar, as Moscow and Leningrad continued a rivalry that had begun in 1907. Before the revolution, Petrograd had regularly won. They would continue this success in the first half of the decade, but, predictably, Moscow came to dominate. Kharkov and Odessa also had strong teams, and any game with the visiting Moscow selects was a big attraction in the provinces. The Spartakiad added the element of republican all-star teams after 1928, and these confrontations, especially between the Russian and Ukrainian republics, proved hugely popular.
Spectator sports are, of course, not possible on a mass basis without arenas and stadiums that can accommodate sizable crowds, but until the construction of Dinamo Stadium in 1928, soccer was played in relatively small venues. Originally Dinamo had 35,000 seats. Constructed in Petrovskii Park in the northwestern part of Moscow, it initially had a horseshoe configuration, with a bicycle track extending out the east end. During the Spartakiad, however, spectators would stand on the field as well as the running and bicycle tracks, allowing as many as 50,000 to take in the finals of the competition.
In 1935, the track was removed and the arena enclosed, and in 1940, lights were added to permit night games. Today, Dinamo's official capacity is 55,000 seats, but over the years as many as ninety thousand fans have been stuffed into its every cranny for truly big events.
The opening of Dinamo Stadium allowed soccer to become a mass spectacle on the scale it had achieved in other countries. During the 1930s, this arena was filled on numerous occasions, not only for soccer games but for a wide variety of other events, some of them more political than sporting. Until 1928, however, Soviet soccer was played in much smaller facilities, inhibiting its chances for greater popularity. The largest arena in Moscow before 1928 had been built in 1926 by the food workers' union. Originally called Pishchevik, it had 15,000 seats around a running track. Renamed Tomsky Stadium for the Spartakiad, it still stands today, near Dinamo stadium, but is now called Young Pioneer Stadium. Before 1926, clubs had to play in the small stadiums, inherited from the various pre-revolutionary clubs. The largest of these, ZKS (Zamoskvoretskii klub sporta), had five thousand places on rickety wooden bleachers. Most fields were only partially covered with grass. Scoreboards and public address systems were nonexistent, while toilets and
food concessions were minimal. Dressing rooms, when they existed at all, were primitive. In fact, for the players, the greatest achievement involved in the construction of Dinamo Stadium was not the huge number of places for fans. They were pleased, instead that, for the first time, a Soviet locker room had showers with hot water. By the middle of the 1930s, however, sizable stadiums (of more than 20,000 seats) had been constructed in Leningrad, Tblisi, Baku, Erevan, Odessa, Kharkov, Stalingrad, Kiev, and several other
cities. This construction represented the first great wave of stadium-building.
In all, 650 "stadiums" (capacity over 1,500 places) were built during the decade.
The larger arenas would eventually be the homes of the club teams that would join the league in 1936 and later.
From the very earliest days, Soviet players, coaches, and fans were enormously interested in the chances of their best teams against foreign clubs.
The new Soviet republic believed that the principles of socialism, especially collectivism, could contribute to the development of a specifically Soviet style of play that could be as good as, or superior to, that of the bourgeois teams of the West. The USSR's diplomatic isolation, though, hindered the possibilities for topflight international competition in the period before 1936.
The Soviets were not members of international sporting organizations. As a result, it proved difficult to arrange games. The only ready opponents were drawn from foreign workers' clubs. Even the Social Democratic Sport International refused to allow its representatives to play Soviet teams on a regular
basis; but despite these roadblocks, a number of matches were arranged both on the club and on the national levels.
Any international game proved highly attractive to Soviet fans, regardless of the caliber of the opposition. Eventually it was the large crowds that came to these matches during the 1920s that created the demand for the construction of as large an arena as Dinamo Stadium. The first international meeting took place in September 1922, when a Finnish workers' team was defeated by two Moscow club teams and the Moscow selects. The next year, the selects of the RSFSR toured Sweden and Norway, where they played "bourgeois" amateur teams from the Swedish and Norwegian leagues, winning eleven games and tying three. The only opponent willing to meet Soviet ning eleven games and tying three. The only opponent willing to meet Sovietning eleven games and tying three.
The only opponent willing to meet Soviet teams on the national level, however, was Turkey, which sent its team in 1924 to play two games against the Moscow selects, one against Odessa, and a final match against the USSR national team. The Turks lost all four matches, but great numbers of spectators flocked to these games, filling the trams and making the collection of fares impossible. The Turks would return
in 1931, 1933, 1934, and finally 1936; and in 1925 and 1932, the Soviets went to Turkey.
Soviet specialists were quick to admit that these opponents were not among Europe's soccer powers. One-sided victories over German, Austrian, and French worker teams attracted large crowds, but these games were unsatisfactory as a strategy for improving the level of Soviet play.
After the 1927 season, Krasnyi sport complained that the performance of Soviet teams had actually gotten worse in the last year. The reason was the Soviets' isolation from the rest of the soccer world: "How can we explain this situation: the halt in development and the decline in class? We are stewing in our own juice. We have no one to study from, and no one teaches us the newest tactics and techniques. There are no games with the strongest of opponents who can enliven our play."
The diet of games versus worker teams, plus the occasional match with Turkey or Norway, continued through the early 'thirties. After 1933, however, with the Nazi takeover in Germany, the quality of possible proletarian opponents improved, as the Comintern shifted from its disastrous policy of confrontation with Social Democratic parties to one of cooperation in the anti-fascist Popular Front. As a result, it became possible to play teams associated with the larger Lucerne Sport International. But even here, difficulties cropped up. In August 1934, the Moscow selects were to play in Basel against a mixed Swiss squad composed of what Krasnyi sport described as "seven class players from bourgeois teams and four from reformist workers' unions." But the Swiss government, not yet in the spirit of the Popular Front, refused to grant the Muscovites visas, and the match was then moved across the nearby border to the small French town of Saint-Louis where Nikolai Starostin and Mikhail Iakushin led their team to a 5–2 victory before
The breakthrough came a few months later, when the Moscow selects were invited for a tour by the workers' sports union of Czechoslovakia. Not only were they to play the usual proletarian teams, but a match was promised with one of two Prague professional teams, either Sparta or Slavia. At this time, Czech soccer was among the best in Europe. That spring, the Czechs had barely lost to Italy in the World Cup final played in Rome. After the Moscow team arrived in Prague and had beaten six trade-union teams by
enormous scores, the Czech federation announced its refusal to allow the Prague teams to play the Soviets because the USSR was not a member of international soccer's ruling body, FIFA. Instead, a game was hurriedly arranged with the weaker Zhidenitsa team of Brno. On October 14, 1934, ten thousand fans jammed into the small local stadium to see the first game between a Soviet and a first division professional team. Moscow won 3–2.
The next pivotal moment came less than a year later. In the late summer of 1935, the team of the Ukrainian Republic was invited to Paris to play the first-division team Red Star. Soviet teams had a large advantage in these friendly or pre-season exhibition games. While Western teams were just rounding into shape and looking ahead to their league seasons, their Soviet opponents were in midseason form and had trained for these highly exceptional moments in their schedules. Despite these advantages, no one expected the Ukrainians to win so convincingly (6–1). This was the moment Soviet soccer had waited for. A. Bukharov's description of the game in Krasnyi sport spared nothing:
Victory, victory brilliant and incontrovertible. . . .In the thirty years of my sporting life I have lived through many of the difficult moments and hours that every athlete does, but the struggle between the Ukraine and Red Star was the maximum I have experienced in the emotional sense. . . . Appearing against one of the strongest Parisian bourgeois professional clubs, we established not only the success of Ukrainian football, but passed a test defining the level of Soviet football on the world stage. . . . There they were, Red Star, the hope of the bourgeoisie. There they were, professionals of whom we had only heard until a few minutes ago. . . . The examination is over. Bourgeois Europe must take notice
In the wake of the Paris victory, a visit by a Prague select team of professionals in late September 1935 attracted enormous attention.
Forty thousand filled Lenin Stadium in Leningrad, and the game was sold out days in advance. Seventy-five thousand crammed into Dinamo Stadium for the match against Moscow, and the stadium in Kiev was similarly filled. The first two games were broadcast on radio, still a rarity, and matches were attended by the highest Party officials, who witnessed elaborate ceremonies before each game. The Czechs tied their games in Leningrad and Moscow and won in Kiev. As far as the Soviets were concerned, this was a satisfactory
result. Their best city selects had played on even terms with a strong team from one of Europe's leading football nations. Highly sought-after selfrespect had been won. The Soviets now had a sense of the possibility of ongoing and normal sporting relations with the outside world. Krasnyi sport reported after the Moscow match: "The teams played a tie. The fans left the stadium never ceasing to discuss the game. They leave so that they can return many more times and take in these international meetings; so that they can
see how world records will be beaten in our stadium. They return to watch foreign sportsmen who much more often will be the guests of our hospitable republic and its capital"
The successes against Red Star and the Prague selects led to an invitation in December 1935 that would fundamentally change Soviet soccer. The Communist sporting union of France invited Spartak and Dinamo Moscow to tour against several worker teams in January 1936. To make the trip more attractive, a Moscow select team was also invited to play one of the leaders of the French league, Racing Club de France.
Recently purchased by the Parisian businessman Bernard Levy, Racing included players from many countries. It was considered equal to the better English teams and had just played a 2–2 tie with London's Arsenal. The Soviets were uncertain if they should accept the invitation. Their season had been over for two months, and most players were out of shape. It was also feared that the Soviet teams would have
difficulty in handling what was then the newly fashionable attacking formation, the "W." Until this point, all Soviet teams had played in the more conventional style of five attackers in a line, and some Soviet coaches had gone as far as to dismiss the "W" as a "bourgeois" style.
Finally, it was decided that a combined team of Spartak and Dinamo players would represent Moscow in the match, set for New Year's Day, 1936.
Sixty thousand filled the Parc des Princes to see the Moscow selects with Iakushin and Il'in from Dinamo and Alexander and Andrei Starostin from Spartak lose 2–1. Brother Nikolai noted in the press that under the circumstances this was a fully respectable result.
Nevertheless, the loss provoked a discussion at all levels of Soviet soccer that finally convinced its leaders
they should follow the example of the Western professionals. A league now had to be formed.