Soviet Football Rivalries Got Very Serious

‘Monument to the Starostin Brothers at Okrytie Arena.” From

Though the early Soviet government promoted sport and physical fitness (a healthy population was considered reflective of a healthy society), they generally considered organized competition to be against socialist ideals of cooperation. International competition especially was avoided; the Soviet government refused to take part in the ‘capitalist’ Olympics until the 1950s. Instead they held the Spartakiad, an event only for communist states. Internally, however, spectator sports were very popular, especially football. Sports Clubs were founded all over the country, with one of the most popular being Spartak Moscow.

Spartak was known as “the People’s Team” largely due to it not being associated with any government agencies. In the late 30s, Spartak was led by an excellent footballer named Nikolai Starostin and sponsored by Alexander Kosarev, head of the Komsomol youth organization. Spartak was very successful in the early days of the Soviet football leagues, winning a couple of championships under Starostin. They also developed a fierce rivalry with the sport club giant Dinamo, which had many teams in several different cities. Unfortunately for Starostin and his three brothers, Dinamo was headed by Levrentii Beria; a man who was also chief of the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police.

‘Lavrentii Beria’. c. 1920. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Beria, angered by Spartak defeating his favorite team, had all four Starostins arrested in 1942 and sent off to labor camps after a stay in the Lubyanka. Luckily for Nickolai, many of the camp overseers were football fans and had him coach local teams, making his punishment far more bearable. He was later requested by none other than Stalin’s own son to coach an Air Force team. After Stalin’s death, Starostin was pardoned and Beria ended  up on the wrong side of a Kremlin power struggle. Starostin returned to be the president of Spartak Moscow, remaining with the club until his death in 1992. More details of the story can be found here.

The story of the Starostin brothers is so interesting to me not just because it involves the ridiculousness of the head of the NKVD using his powers against a rival football team, but also because it contains so many of the same contradictions present in Soviet society as a whole. Sport clubs and leagues are such a lucrative (read: capitalist) feature of our own society, and they were not only present in the USSR, but they were extremely popular. Sport and top athletes became symbols of national pride (certainly later on), but they were also subject to the petty machinations of Soviet elites. It’s fascinating to see the familiar sports team rvalry played out in the early USSR- complete with secret police and gulags.

10 thoughts on “Soviet Football Rivalries Got Very Serious”

  1. You picked a very interesting topic to focus on. It is interesting to see how strong sports rivalries could get in the Soviet Union. The story of the Starostin brothers and how they shaped football in Russia is not one I have heard before. Good job on the hyperlinks, they helped provide a lot of extra detail.

  2. This is one of my favorite topics of this period of Soviet history. As you stated, spectator sports led to players being idolized, but it also transitioned sport from a promotion of physical fitness to entertainment (subject to Soviet regulation). Great post!

  3. I love the topic that you picked! I find it really interesting just how seriously the Soviets took their sports. Particularly on the Olympic level, the Soviets took extreme national pride in the achievements of their athletes, and the soviet training system was well known for being strict and rigorous, which ultimately did produce great results. Great post!

  4. Agree with all of these comments. Very cool topic! There’s a book about Spartak you might like: Robert Edelman: Spartak Moscow: A History of the People’s Team in the Workers’ State (Cornell 2009). Also, for some reason the NKVD’s sponsorship of a soccer team always reminds me of the police sponsored trade unions from the Imperial period.

  5. What a fun topic to blog about! You’re totally right about sports within the USSR — how convoluting! Sports teams are very symbolic of capitalism now, but as you said a lot of the teams were associated with government agencies. Funny how government and Stalin’s secret police were so closely tied to SO MANY aspects of society. The story of the Starostin brothers is very interesting, which source led you to that story on the BBC?

  6. I’m surprised that Starostin would return to the sport after all of that. I thought it was interesting that the Soviets would pit different segments of society (NKVD, Air Force, Komsomol) against each other.

  7. In the beginning of your post I found it humorous that Russia did not want to take part in the “capitalist” olympics or international sports but then they went and made their own type of olympics for communist states…a little hypocritical in my opinion. I also loved the research you found on the treatment of Nickolai in the labor camps, super cool! I feel like there should be a movie about this. Great job!

  8. I found this post very interesting. I never thought of sports being influenced by socialist ideals, but your post proved that sports and competition were influenced. I found it especially interesting how the Soviet Union opted out of the Olympics because of the competition’s supposed capitalist ideals.

  9. I wrote about a sports last time we posted and really enjoyed your post. I knew that Russians took their sports seriously but never suspected that they people would get imprisoned b/c they beat another team.

  10. This was a very interesting topic. I like that it was a different aspect of Russian life that we generally don’t talk about. I also thought it was amusing that they didn’t like the idea or organized sport, yet held their own competitions. Very interesting post!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *