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.
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.