posted by Geoff Andrews at Sunday, June 29, 2008

Il Manifesto 27/06/08

It is 1963 in Soviet Russia. A period of mild liberal reform, under Nikita Khrushchov’s leadership in the decade following the death of Stalin. Though the ‘swinging sixties’ hardly penetrated its barren cultural landscape, poets and writers were offering alternative voices and jazz was becoming popular. The previous year Alexander Solzhenitsin had published ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch’, of an account of the daily rituals and oppressions of a worker imprisoned in one of Stalin’s labour camps.

Football, however, was regarded as a potentially more dangerous form of dissent, deeply embedded as it was in the psyche of Soviet society where ordinary Russians gathered together and expressed their feelings in support of their teams. And the Moscow teams had profoundly political histories. Moscow Dinamo was the secret service team founded in 1923, while their rivals, Moscow Spartak, had been formed in 1935 on the initiative of Nikolai Starostin, who had played against a German worker team named after the communist Spartacus League founded by Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht. In contrast to Dinamo Moscow and the Red Army team formed in 1928, Spartak attracted civilians and intellectuals, and from its origins had more autonomy from the state, though it had the support of Komsomol, the young communist league.

Therefore if any dissent was to take place in Soviet football, then it was likely to come from Spartak. Thus it was Spartak, at a time of Cold War tension, which invited the first Westerner ever to play in the Soviet football league; a tall, British centre half who made two appearances in 1963. Jim Riordan had been trained as a British spy during his National Service, where he got to know Russian soldiers in Berlin. However he soon became a convinced communist himself and joined the small Communist Party of Great Britain. In 1961, he left Britain for the Soviet Union where he was to attend the Higher Party School in Moscow, the successor to the Lenin School, and attended by the leading cadres from communist parties around the world. Among his student contemporaries was Alexander Dubcek, who was to lead the Prague Spring in 1968, while guest lecturers included Yuri Gagarin, Leonid Brezhnev and Dolores Ibarurri, otherwise known as ‘La Pasionara’.

Riordan was a football-loving lad in his mid 20s from Portsmouth on the South Coast of England. He had childhood memories of the Moscow Dinamo team that had played a few matches in 1945. Like the current Hiddink squad, they were technically and tactically advanced of their British opponents and provided a lesson in skill that was only later surpassed by the great Hungarian team of the 1950s. While he was attending the Higher Party School (and later when he worked as a translator), Riordan, a tall, lanky centre half, took part in a weekly kickabout with diplomats and assorted communists, including the barefooted Kenyan Ambassador whose manservant was the referee. At one of these impromptu ‘Britain and Ireland v Rest of the World’ matches, he was called over by Gennardy Logofet, Spartak’s international right back and Nikita Simonyan, the chief coach. He was invited to ‘bring his boots’ to Spartak’s next training session.

One week later he received a call from Simonyan and was asked to report to the Lenin Stadium (Spartak’s home ground) that afternoon. Here, he found himself replacing the legendary centre half Valery Volkov, who was suffering from a severe hangover. Riordan was announced as Yakov Eordahnov to avoid attention as a foreigner. The captain was Igor Netto, a loyal communist, whose pre-match speech amounted to ‘upholding the honour of Soviet football and the heroes of socialist labour’. Straight from the kick off, in front of 50,000 supporters, Riordan received the ball and hoofed it up field in typically British style. ‘Pass to a man. Not the crowd’, was Netto’s riposte.

This first match against Pakhtakor from Tashkent, ended 2-2 with Spartak coming back from 2-0 down. He played one more time, in a 1-0 victory over Kairat and Spartak ended that season second in the league to Dinamo. His experience of being the first foreigner to play in the Soviet league gave him an appreciation of the way football was incorporated into the wider system of Soviet power. He also began questioning his own communist beliefs as he got to know more about the way in which the Soviet Union treated its dissidents, including footballers.

According to Riordan, in his recently published autobiography*: ‘Soviet football as I saw it and understood it, also offered an insight into the power of football in a relatively closed and often autocratic society.’ This was emphatically made clear to him as he got to know Nikolai Starostin, the former captain, founder and General Manager of Spartak who had earlier spent ten years in a labour camp along with his three brothers during Stalin’s purges, after being accused of ‘propagandising bourgeois sport’: a crime of peculiarly Stalinist proportions, namely promoting ‘individualism’ and free expression rather than socialist collectivism on the pitch. Starostin was luckier than some of his contemporaries who were executed in the purges. He was only released following the death of Stalin in 1953.

The person responsible for Starostin’s imprisonment was Laventry Beria, the head of the Soviet security services who was also President of Dinamo Moscow. After Spartak won the double in 1938, Beria sought revenge on his rivals over the following years, arresting, executing or sending numerous players to labour camps. At the time of Stalin’s purges, football itself became embroiled in the power and repression enacted by the Soviet state, and Beria, a football fanatic and useful wing half in his day, even ordered replays of matches lost by Dinamo.

Beria was himself executed in 1953 following Stalin’s death and his replacement by Khrushchov. Starostin lived until his mid 90s and his story is told for the first time by Riordan in his book. Starostin believes he was spared a worse fate because of the popularity of football in Soviet society and was treated as a hero in prison. According to Riordan, this was evidence of the ‘immense power and vitality of football, its ability not only to engage the popular consciousness, but to restrain the arbitrary actions of brutal tyrants’.

Riordan left the Soviet Union disillusioned in 1965, helped on his way by an interrogation by Soviet authorities after he had published an article entitled ‘The Growing Pains of Soviet Youth’. On his return to Britain he survived an attempt by his local communist party branch to expel him for ‘bourgeois bohemianism’ and remained a member of the British communist Party until it dissolved in 1991. Both he and Starostin remained loyal to their left wing ideals if unhappy with the Soviet system. Starostin believed that it was impossible to separate football from wider culture and that ‘football cognoscenti should be cognoscenti of literature and the arts as well’. When Alexei Smertin was on loan at Portsmouth, Riordan, now back in his home town, got to know him well and they would share their dismay at ‘the lack of culture in modern footballers’. Smertin, the first Russian to play in British football, and Jim Riordan, the first Brit to play in the colours of Spartak Moscow, the ‘people’s team’.

Jim Riordan: Comrade Jim: The Spy Who Played For Spartak (Fourth Estate, 2008)