Make Soap from the Ref!

Simon Kuper

  • Spartak Moscow: A History of the People’s Team in the Workers’ State by Robert Edelman
    Cornell, 346 pp, £21.95, January 2010, ISBN 978 0 8014 4742 6

One night in 1942, Nikolai Starostin, founder of the Spartak Moscow football club, woke to find a torch shining in his eyes and two pistols pointed at his head. He had spent years waiting for his arrest; Lavrenty Beria, head of Stalin’s secret police and director of Dinamo Moscow football club, did not like him. He was taken to the Lubianka for long interrogations. Among other things, he was accused of conspiring with the German Embassy to assassinate Stalin and set up a Fascist state. In the end he and his three brothers were convicted of theft, swindling and bribery. They each got ten years in Siberia – such a mild sentence that it was practically a let-off. ‘The future seemed not so gloomy after all,’ Starostin wrote in a memoir. He knew why he’d been so fortunate. The Starostins ‘personified Spartak. Beria had to deal with the hopes of millions of fans, ordinary Soviet people.’

Starostin and the club he created easily outlived the Soviet Union. He died in 1996 at the age of 98, and ran his club until the end. Spartak was not merely the most popular team in the USSR, but perhaps the most popular semi-autonomous institution in the state: the ‘people’s team’, as Robert Edelman calls it in this revealing and often funny microhistory. Thanks partly to the Starostins’ imprisonment, Spartak gained an aura of independence that still persists. For many, supporting the club was a small way of saying ‘no’ to the USSR. Edelman uses the club as ‘a small piece of history to answer a big question … What did ordinary Soviet people think of the system under which they lived?’

Edelman disentangles the story of the Starostins from the several unreliable memoirs of Nikolai and his bohemian brother Andrei. There were four brothers in all, the sons of a successful hunting guide who had moved to Moscow around 1900. Like many boys in Russian cities at the time, the four Starostin brothers fell for the recent British import of football. In one of his accounts, Andrei describes taking a tram to a game when he was ten years old, across a drunken and rapacious pre-Revolutionary Moscow, his ten-kopeck piece to pay for his ticket safely hidden in his mouth – until he swallowed it. Nikolai was an excellent footballer – he captained the Soviet national team – but he was also a schmoozer, entrepreneur and survivor. In 1975, when there was talk of making Andrei president of Spartak, Nikolai spoke out against him: ‘Andrei is a dramatist. He drinks, goes to horse races and hangs out with Gypsies. I worship only one god: football.’

Soon after the Bolshevik revolution, Nikolai and some friends set up a football club in Krasnaia Presnia, an industrial suburb of Moscow. In 1935, helped by some influential Soviet officials he had wooed on a hunting trip, he made the club into something bigger and called it Spartak. As Edelman notes, Nikolai could ‘speak Bolshevik’ fluently. Returning from a trip to Paris in 1937, he announced: ‘All hail the great Soviet homeland. All hail the great Stalin.’ One admirer recalls ‘standing at the service entrance of Dinamo Stadium during the late 1930s and seeing Nikolai, wearing a fur coat, majestically emerge from a giant Packard limousine.’ At times the Starostins must have imagined they were beyond even Stalin’s reach.

Between 1936 and 1940, as Russian peasants moved to the cities, the club’s average home attendance nearly doubled to 53,900. Among the photographs Edelman has unearthed is one of supporters literally standing on each other’s shoulders in the scrum to buy tickets at Dinamo Stadium in the late 1940s. Spartak’s 6-2 victory in 1937 over a Basque touring team – visiting the USSR to raise funds for the Republican cause in Spain – was a marker in Soviet football history. ‘Not before or since has there been that much excitement around football,’ Nikolai later wrote.

Yet Spartak was defined largely in opposition to Dinamo. From the 1930s until at least the 1960s, the Spartak-Dinamo rivalry was a big part of Soviet popular culture. Spartak had different patrons at different times – a bloodthirsty Komsomol bigwig, then the body that controlled services and retail trades, and later the Communist Party itself – yet the public always thought of the club as having some independence. CSKA Moscow was the army club, and Dinamo was the KGB’s, but Spartak was above all the Starostins’. It was hardly a dissident club, but in almost every way it seemed less Soviet than Dinamo. Even during the worst years of the 1930s, Spartak toured the West (a lot of shopping was involved), hired a Czech head coach and copied Western football tactics. It also stood for an un-Stalinist body culture: where Dinamo exuded discipline, Spartak preferred spontaneity. Spartak’s fans were generally rougher than Dinamo’s, and Spartak cared about selling tickets, while Dinamo got most of its funds from the state.

A match like Spartak-Dinamo, which might be attended by 100,000 people, was a public stage on which the country could act out its internal tensions. Games between Rangers and Celtic, or Barcelona and Real Madrid, used to have a similar function. A football crowd seldom turns into a political movement, however, because it usually dissolves as soon as the match is over – although in some Soviet republics around 1990, the crowd sometimes marched into town after the game chanting nationalist slogans.

Dismissed elsewhere as a distraction encouraged by the state to keep people docile, in the USSR football was forever getting on the authorities’ nerves. ‘Sports officials and Party ideologues constantly complained about the bad behaviour of fans, players, team officials, journalists and even referees,’ Edelman writes. The state preferred Olympic sports, which purveyed the ideology of the disciplined body and didn’t generate drunken, uncontrolled male camaraderie. Most sports fans preferred football. The football ground was the only public place where you could chant what you liked. Other Soviet authority figures were beyond criticism, but on Saturday afternoons a fan could join with thousands of others, chanting: ‘Sudyu na mylo!’ – ‘Make soap out of the ref!’

The Starostins ‘were heroes, but heroes not created by the state’. That inevitably caused irritation, especially to Beria, a decent footballer as a young man. In 1939, after Spartak had won the Soviet cup final, Beria managed to force a replay of their semi-final against his fellow Georgians of Dinamo Tblisi because of a disputed refereeing decision. The second time around, Spartak beat Tblisi again. ‘I knew then we would be going on a long trip,’ Nikolai said later.

The Starostins’ conviction in 1943 was for paying bribes of food and alcohol to keep themselves and other Spartak members out of the military, and for trafficking on the black market. As Edelman notes, the accusations were plausible. Once in the Gulag, the Starostins had more fun than most and Nikolai was quickly appointed camp football coach. All four brothers survived in relative comfort, and were treated as celebrities. ‘Even inveterate recidivists would sit quiet as mice to listen to my football stories,’ Nikolai wrote. As for the camp bosses, ‘Their unlimited power over people was nothing compared with the power of football over them.’

One night in 1948 Nikolai was asleep in a camp in the Soviet far east when an official shook him awake: ‘Stalin is on the phone!’ The caller wasn’t Stalin père, who had no interest in football, but his son Vasily, a drunkard who ran the air force football team and wanted Starostin to coach it. Nikolai flew to Moscow, where Beria visited him and gave him 24 hours to leave town. According to Starostin, Vasily then insisted that the two of them share a bed for protection. He sensibly slept with a loaded revolver under his pillow. Like so much else in Starostin’s memoirs, it’s a good story, but as Vasily’s widow inquired decades later, ‘just where was I supposed to be at the time?’ The brothers were eventually released in 1954, after Beria’s demise. They returned to their old apartments, and were readmitted to the Communist Party.

After Stalin died, the state gradually stopped micromanaging football and Spartak joined the Soviet establishment, an adopted child of the Moscow Communist Party. Edelman’s account of the later years swings uneasily from an academic history of Soviet popular culture to a fan’s almanac of Spartak’s fortunes. Yet the story of Nikolai Starostin’s passage through Soviet and post-Soviet life is compelling throughout. During the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years he procured cars, apartments and childcare for his players. Then, in the glasnost era, he burnished the club’s now dated outsider image with more mythmaking memoirs. In 1989,sensing the way things were going, he encouraged his players to choose their own coach, though he steered the election and in the absence of state support helped turn Spartak into a fully professional club, which made its own money.

Around that time, football was ceasing to matter all over Eastern Europe. One unforeseen consequence of the fall of Communism was the fall in attendance at football matches. In 1989, Ceausescu’s last year in power, the average crowd at a Romanian first division match was officially 17,000, nearly as many as in the English top division at the time. This past season the Romanian average was 4700. Russian crowds collapsed too. For a time you could walk off the street into some matches in Moscow without paying. A disappointing average of 12,700 spectators now turn up to Premier League matches there. The second tier of English football, the Championship, is more popular, and in fact outdraws every league in Eastern Europe.

It isn’t just that Eastern Europeans found other sources of entertainment. Rather, football has lost much of the significance it had under Communism. In Russia today a Spartak-Dinamo game is merely a clash of rival oligarchs and their playthings, most of them second-rate foreigners who would rather be turning out for Bolton Wanderers. The game has lost its political meaning, and with it much of its appeal. Almost everything in Russian football has changed, and yet the corruption and underperformance survive intact, as if they were facts of nature. Spartak’s average crowd this season was around 22,000, about the same as Leicester City’s, and barely 40 per cent of the attendance in 1940, when Spartak drew bigger crowds than any club in England. Not all of the fans have forgotten these years. ‘During one particularly dispiriting run of failure,’ Edelman writes of post-Soviet times, ‘fans unfurled a large banner with Nikolai Starostin’s portrait on it. It was inscribed with the words: “He sees all.”’