Dan Brennan looks at the shifting rivalries in Moscow, heavily influenced by the secret policeman taking his ball away
Moscow is probably second only to London in its surfeit of local derbies. The Russian capital currently provides six premier league sides and, one blip aside, has been the home of the champions of the national league since it was formed a decade ago. There is a generally accepted hierarchy among the city’s teams, based on success, tradition and support, that reads: Spartak, Dynamo, CSKA, Torpedo-Luzhniki, Lokomotiv and Torpedo-ZIL. But this does not tell the whole story, which is one of ever-changing fortunes influenced by political machinations.
Historically, the main Moscow grudge match was between Spartak and Dynamo, who together have won 30 Soviet and Russian league titles. The depth of their enmity owed much to their respective origins, and was underpinned by a clash of ideologies.
Dynamo (like their namesakes elsewhere in eastern Europe) were a creation of the Interior Ministry, then essentially a euphemism for the secret police, however much revisionists might try to deny the fact. The de facto founder of Dynamo was Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the OGPU (forerunner to the KGB). One of his successors, Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s executioner-in-chief from 1938 until 1953, was Dynamo’s honorary president, and he took a very hands-on role in influencing the fate of his team and their rivals.
Spartak, meanwhile, acquired the tag of “people’s team”. Unlike all of their rivals, they were created as an independent football team, with no affiliations to one or other part of the state machine. They were founded in 1922 by footballer Nikolai Starostin, who together with his three brothers Alexander, Andrei and Pyotr formed the spine of the team. Their neutrality made them a natural focal point for football purists, unhappy that the Communist Party had commandeered sport for its own ends. Supporting Spartak became a relatively safe way of expressing political dissent.
Unlike playing for them. Spartak’s success was soon viewed as a threat by the establishment, not least by Beria. The secret police chief’s grudge was fuelled by a personal vendetta. As left-back for a Georgian side in the early 1920s, Beria had turned out against Nikolai Starostin, who had completely played him off the park. He was not a man to forgive and forget.
Consecutive titles in the late 1930s and one victory too many over Dynamo were enough to seal the Starostins’ fate. In 1942 they were suddenly branded “enemies of the people”, with Nikolai and Andrei init ially accused of plotting to kill Stalin. Even by the grotesque standards of the time, this was absurd. Eventually, together with their other two brothers, they were charged with stealing a consignment of clothing and were shipped off to the Siberian gulag. They were only released 13 years later, after the deaths of Stalin and Beria. In an ironic twist, it was Stalin’s son – a Spartak fan – who brokered their release. Nikolai went on to run Spartak until his death in 1996.
Despite the best efforts of Stalin and Beria, CSKA and (the original) Torpedo also enjoyed periods of dominance. CSKA’s came in the 1940s when Dynamo were in decline and Spartak had been stripped of their backbone. CSKA were the Red Army team, and in a bid to compete they finally ditched the practice of fielding regular soldiers who could play a bit and instead started recruiting real footballers who were given nominal jobs in the military. However, their ascendancy was brought to an abrupt end through more Machiavellian ruses on behalf of Dynamo. Just before his death in 1953, Stalin ordered CSKA’s best players to be transferred to Dynamo on the basis that they weren’t real soldiers.
Torpedo’s heyday came in the Sixties and coincided with the emergence of Eduard Streltsov, dubbed “the Russian Pelé”. He is still regarded as the most skilful outfield player Russia has produced, but his success came at a price. A decade earlier, his refusal to sign for Dynamo led to seven years in the labour camps, on trumped-up charges of rape, and it was only after his return that Torpedo won their first league title, in 1960.
Dynamo have paid for their past associations. Known by rival fans as the Musor (which means “scum” but is also slang for the police), they carry a stigma which has seen their support dwindle. As a visit to their dilapidated old stadium at Petrovsky Park confirms, they are now a team surviving on memories. Their last league title came in 1976, and they have had no real heroes to cheer since the days of the Black Cat, Lev Yashin.
Spartak have their own ghosts. In their case it is an absent adversary that haunts them. The demise of the Dynamo of Moscow in the Sixties coincided with the rise of their Kiev namesakes. For three decades, Spartak v Dynamo Kiev was effectively the main Soviet derby, and the various Moscow duels were reduced to mildly diverting sideshows. Aside from being clashes between the USSR’s two real heavyweights, the games carried a spicy subtext of Ukrainian-Russian antagonism.
Since the USSR’s collapse cast the two teams apart, Spartak have enjoyed almost unchallenged domestic dominance, but there has always been a lurking sense that their victories have been empty, particularly as Kiev have outshone the Muscovites in Europe.
Moscow’s derby fixture schedule became even more crowded in the mid-nineties, when a Wimbledonesque schism saw Torpedo split in two. In 1996, the club was bought out by a business conglomerate and ran off to share Spartak’s gargantuan Olympic Stadium at Luzhniki; this prompted a supporters’ consortium to carry the flame and form Torpedo-ZIL (the name of a Soviet limousine, a nod to the team’s origins in the state car industry). Having somehow managed to claw their way into the top flight with negligible resources, Torpedo-ZIL have, ironically enough, now themselves “sold out” to Russian metal giants Norilsk Nickel. More ironically still, given that they balked at a move across town, ZIL may now be forced into Siberian exile, as their new owners are trying to engineer a US franchise-style relocation of the team to Krasnoyarsk, 3,000 kilometres away.
With Dynamo blighted by their past and Spartak now viewed by many as an arrogant, mafia-run outfit whose support base is increasingly tainted by groups of fanati, the Russian equivalent of ultras, new generations have started shopping elsewhere for their football. The main beneficiaries of the shift in allegiances have been Lokomotiv, traditionally regarded as the capital’s “fifth wheel”, and the only Moscow team without any real pedigree. But having reaped the benefits of several years of European football, including a fantastic new 30,000-seat stadium, they have quietly established a platform for success.
This year it finally came good for Loko. With a team built round CSKA and Spartak cast-offs, and a couple of talented Africans and a Brazilian (now viewed as de rigueur by most Russian teams), they at last clinched their first title, beating CSKA in a dramatic play-off finishing level on points. With Spartak ending up third, but way off the pace, there are hints that Moscow’s wheel of fortune is turning again.
From WSC 192 February 2003. What was happening this month