More Than Just A Game: Football Behind the Iron Curtain

Article by Tom Hercock. Edited by Zara Barua. Additional Research by Liz Goodwin.

Lavrenty Beria

Lavrenty Beria, KGB head and Honorary President of Dynamo Moscow

In theory, Communism and football should not have mixed at all. Communist leaders initially believed football to be bourgeois and anti-revolutionary, a means used by the ruling class of dividing the working class among themselves and thus weakening their class consciousness. However, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks took control of Russia, they knew that banning football completely would lose them support – so like so many other aspects of life, they attempted to control it.

By the mid-1920s, the Soviet Union’s four leading football clubs were all based in Moscow, and all were controlled by a state organ. Lokomotiv Moscow, as their name suggests, were controlled by the Rail Ministry, while the state carmaker, ZIL, owned Torpedo Moscow. CDKA Moscow was the Red Army’s team, and most notoriously, Dynamo Moscow was run by the Soviet secret police, the KGB. Lavrenty Beria, the KGB head and one of Stalin’s most feared henchmen, was a keen football fan and former amateur player, and took an active interest in the running of Dynamo. If the idea of a leading football team being owned and staffed by the secret police sounds amusing today, it was no laughing matter to many of Dynamo’s opponents.

In 1934, a comparatively minor club, Presnya Moscow, changed their name to Spartak Moscow, their name alluding to the Roman slave rebel Spartacus. They were led by Nikolai Starostin, a natural athlete who was also captain of the USSR national teams at both football and ice hockey, and played for Spartak alongside three of his brothers. Led by the Starostins, Spartak, the people’s club, increasingly challenged the dominance of the government-run clubs during the 1930s.

By the middle of the decade, the two top teams in Russia were Spartak, and Beria’s KGB-run Dynamo. The rivalry between them therefore came to symbolise resistance to the state’s control. Jim Riordan, a British Communist and footballer who later travelled to Russia and played for Spartak, felt that “there’s no doubt that a lot of the Spartak supporters were actually genuine oppositionists, who didn’t perhaps dare show their opposition in other areas of life. The football stadium was really the only location where you could be yourself. Where you could shout, smile, laugh, cry. Where you could call the opposition – and that often meant the government, party, police chief – all the names under the sun”.

A further element to this already explosive mix was the personal enmity between Beria and Starostin. They had met during Beria’s career as an amateur player, and Starostin had made some comments about the dirtiness of Beria’s play – perhaps not the wisest thing to say about a secret police chief!

The rivalry between Starostin’s Spartak and Beria’s Dynamo reached its peak in 1939, when Spartak, on course to win a first “Double” (winning the League and Cup) faced Dynamo in the Cup semi final. Spartak won the first game to advance to the final, before Beria voided the result and ordered the game to be replayed. Refusing to take the not-so-subtle hint, Spartak won again. Starostin later recalled looking up at the dignitaries’ box after the game and seeing Beria throwing chairs around, in uncontrollable rage about the result. Even so, it was only three years later, when the Soviet Union was fighting for its life against German invasion, that Beria felt safe to take final revenge on Starostin. In March 1942, he, his brothers and other Spartak players were arrested in the night by the KGB, charged with “lauding bourgeois sport” and sentenced to ten years in the Gulag work camps. Riordan thought it was notable that only in the midst of war did Beria feel able to settle his score with Spartak and the Starostins – “you could arrest any poet you liked, you could arrest any artist, musician, any composer – but you couldn’t with impunity arrest a footballer. That was the power of football”. Nikolai Starostin himself later attributed his survival to his popularity and the broader popularity of football.

Nikolai Starostin’s period in the Gulags was far from typical – as a sporting star, he was admired by many fellow prisoners and even the guards. Camp commandants even sought to have him transferred to their camp so he could serve as coach of the football team.

Matyas Rakosi

Matyas Rakosi - Communist leader of Hungary

After World War II and with the beginning of the Cold War, football along with all other international sports became a tool of proving the superiority of Communism over capitalism (or vice versa). As early as 1952, it even figured in the dispute between different forms of Communism. Josip Broz Tito, the leader of Yugoslavia, was recognisably Communist, but had angered Stalin by loosening Yugoslav ties to Moscow and pursuing a different path of government. When the Soviet Union was drawn against Yugoslavia in the first round of the 1952 Olympic football competition in Helsinki, Stalin expected his team to exact revenge. Unfortunately for him, Yugoslavia won. Stalin was so enraged that he ordered the army team, CDKA Moscow, for which most of the team that had let him down so badly played, to be immediately disbanded (they later reformed and play today as CSKA Moscow).

In the mid-1950s, Hungary, a more loyal Soviet satellite in Eastern Europe, developed the world’s leading football team, and in Ferenc Puskas one of the greatest players of all time. Again, the football team’s successes were lauded by the country’s Communist leader, the hard-line Stalinist Matyas Rakosi. Rakosi hoped that international success in the football world would distract the Hungarian population from the repression of Communist rule and justify the regime’s existence. After beating England 6-3 at Wembley and going 44 matches unbeaten, Hungary was the clear favourite for the 1954 World Cup, but sensationally lost in the final to West Germany. This was not the propaganda coup for Hungarian Communism that Rakosi had hoped for – the evening of the final was marked by an anti-government demonstration in Budapest. On their return to Hungary, the players were assured by Rakosi that they would be no consequences from their defeat – after which they were doubly certain there would indeed be consequences. The goalkeeper Grosics was blamed by the regime for the defeat, and accused of spying for the West – a crime for which the penalty was death if found guilty. Even for a Communist bloc country, this was a ridiculous claim, and the charges were eventually dropped, although Grosics was still exiled from Budapest.

Budapest Museum

Museum in Budapest celebrating the achievements of the Hungarian team of the 1950s

Whether Communist leaders sought to stop internal opposition, or justify their ideology to the wider world, football was one of the tools in the armoury of propaganda. Throughout Communist rule in Russia and Eastern Europe, football was always more than just a game.

***

In the 1950s the Hungarian national team was nicknamed The Golden Team or Mighty Magyars. Many of the players refused to return to Hungary after the 1956 European cup, with the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution which forced them to disband.

Dynamo Moscow were often referred to as Garbage- a criminal slang term for police- by opposition supporters.

The Yugoslav win against Russia in the 1952 Olympics was not reported in the Soviet press until after Stalin’s death the  following year.

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