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Come On You Reds

A new book on the beginnings of football in the Soviet Union reveals how the Bolsheviks first regarded it as an opium of the people – and then tried to build a game of their own.

For Mass Football, Soviet Poster, 1960s.

Carles Viñas’ latest book is not a history of football in the Soviet Union. It’s the story of how the sport gained a foothold in the Russian Empire and how the Bolsheviks decided it could be useful to them. As Viñas puts it in the introduction: ‘There were members of the Tsarist court who rejected the game for its foreignness, and revolutionaries who defined it as an instrument of the bourgeoisie.’ Certainly, football was imported into Russia by wealthy British émigrés, who played a role in the country’s industrialisation and organised teams for themselves and, soon, for their Russian employees, whose health they hoped to improve. Despite the suspicions of the Russian elites — who thought the game would be likely to incite violence — there was a Football League in the imperial capital, St Petersburg, by 1901, with local teams challenging the control of foreigners over it, and a Russian club winning control for the first time in 1908.

Around this time, football was also gaining popularity in Moscow. The motivation for setting up competitions, writes Viñas, was that employers could keep their workers away from revolutionary activity after the failed Revolution of 1905. A rivalry grew between Moscow and St Petersburg, with each city’s teams characterised by differences in tactics: the Muscovites used a British-style long ball game, while the capital’s sides preferred short passing. Many Moscow clubs were formed around a factory, which left-wing organisations and trade unions understood as attempts to derail efforts to unionise and radicalise workers. They could not stop football becoming more popular across Russian society: by 1911, Moscow had women’s teams and had hosted the first international match, against Slavia Prague of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1912, the Russian Football Union was set up to administer a team for the men’s football tournament at the Olympic Games in Stockholm. Viñas effectively draws out the political complexities around Russia’s entry: a team made up exclusively of players from Moscow and St Petersburg hoped to challenge the industrial powers of Great Britain and Germany, but went out after a humiliating 2-1 defeat to Finland, then part of the Russian Empire. The humiliation was compounded by the Swedish organisers allowing the Finns to parade with their own flag. Russia then played Germany — eliminated by Austria — in a play-off and lost 7-0, making the Olympics an embarrassment to the Empire.

The first national championship was swiftly curtailed by the war, during which military sports committees were formed across Russia, and in which several of its Olympic footballers died. By the time the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917, football was established across the country — Viñas quotes organisations who stated that football ‘sent the proletariat to sleep’ and ‘depoliticise[d] workers’. Viñas argued that the Soviets saw football’s popularity as a problem to be managed, first by discouraging its ‘capitalist spectacles’, and then by reproaching the counter-revolutionary facets of organised sport, withdrawing from the Olympics, and setting up new football clubs linked to the military and key industries. Viñas notes that, in hindsight, it’s not surprising that few footballers supported the Bolsheviks and fewer still joined the Party, given how it shut down their teams and the personal ties that those teams had built between them and their employers, most of whom left during the post-revolutionary Civil War. The life of Olympic footballer Pyotr Sokolov, who became a British spy and was then part of a White Russian network in independent Finland, before collaborating with the Germans in the Second World War, is one of the most fascinating individual stories in the book. Viñas’ narrative ends, however, before we get to the war, during which several more Olympians died in the siege of Leningrad. A comprehensive English-language history of Soviet football to rival Raphael Honigstein’s book on Germany or John Foot’s Calcio (on Italy) remains to be written.

That said, this is a fascinating look at the changing position of football either side of the October Revolution, and a succinct exploration of the political complexities that shaped the sport in the Soviet Union. The book is strongest when outlining how discussions between Komsomol (the Party youth division), trade unions, Proletkult, and the Supreme Council of Physical Culture concretised the communist sport model, with efforts to resist a competitive model fading as Stalin consolidated his grip on power. Viñas covers the USSR’s difficulties in joining FIFA, which did not happen until 1946, in a strong chapter on the intrigues of setting up a national team in the 1920s, with the establishment of the Soviet championship in 1936 covered only in the epilogue. At a time when international capital obviously has football in a vice-like grip, making it less competitive and less accessible to fans, and the deaths of thousands of workers is an acceptable price for its global spectacles, this reminder that alternative and more equitable methods of organisation were once seriously considered is very welcome.