The history and development of the game will always play a significant part in the future of football clubs the width and breadth of the globe. It is hugely interesting to consider the growth of the game and how conflicting ideologies and beliefs have created such vast differences in traditions even when the clubs in question are separated by all but several hundred yards. In the case of Moscow’s development as a footballing city, the conflicts breach social and political barriers and are a perfect expression of how sport can both unite and divide.
Nikolai Starostin is a man who helped to transform the face of Russian football in the Soviet era, and a man whose legacy still remains intact to this day. As the founder of Spartak Moscow, Starostin experienced the highs and lows that only football could possibly produce.
During his playing career Nikolai Starostin became a well known and respected sportsman as his exploits on the football pitch, as well as ice hockey rinks, earned him a reputation as one of the nation’s top athletes. To have such a high profile in the domestic sporting world meant that, for Starostin, generating a wide range of political and sporting contacts came with relative ease.
It was through these contacts that Starostin, accompanied by his three brothers, were asked to form a football club within Moscow which could represent a strong ideological identity which was separate from Dinamo and CSKA, who were run by the political militia of the secret police and the army.
It was this perception of Spartak Moscow being a ‘people’s club’ in direct opposition to their state controlled rivals that has served as one of the defining aspects in the development of Moscow’s footballing rivalries. The direct opposition of Spartak Moscow to the ruling of the Soviet Union left the club, and the Starostin brothers, in a precarious state. Spartak was viewed by many communist political figures as an institution that sided with the bourgeois values and commitments held by western civilisations, which was a belief structure that went against the common values of the communist state.
As a consequence the Soviet Union government attempted to stagnate the growth of Spartak and undermine its development by trying to force the club to replay matches that they had previously won in order to make the side appear weak, while enhancing the opportunities for those club’s under state control. The perception of Spartak as the club of the bourgeois society ultimately led to the arrest and imprisonment of Starostin and his brothers during the Great Purge orchestrated by Joseph Stalin between 1936 and 1938.
Such a punishment for a man who was instrumental in gaining support for the formation of the country’s first national championship and a sportsman who was admired for his vast wealth of skill and knowledge led to Nikolai Starostin becoming the Soviet Union’s first great sporting martyr. An unintended consequence of the government’s jealousy and underhanded measures of punishment.
Spartak’s exciting, attacking style of play made the team a pleasure to watch, especially in comparison to the dull, unimaginative football sported by CSKA and, especially, Dinamo. This flamboyant approach to the game ultimately led to a great deal of suspicion within the communist ranks. During this period such a style of play was viewed as derivative to the bourgeois ideologies that followed and plagued Starostin throughout his career with Spartak.
However it was this possible transformation of footballing perceptions that could have served to change the course of Soviet era football for the better, especially if CSKA and Dinamo had been permitted to emulate the foundations laid by Spartak in terms of creating an exciting form of sporting grandeur.
Starostin’s release from imprisonment and political exile ended upon the death of Stalin, and the consequent ‘destalinisation’ that became rife among the governments that followed. With his sentence deemed illegal, Starostin set about creating a lasting legacy within Soviet football that remains intact to this very day.
Within the corridors of Spartak Moscow the name Nikolai Starostin will forever be welcomed with a sense of pride, in the knowledge that the club’s sporting achievements would not have been possible without the work of Starostin and his brothers. The social and political histories of Spartak, Dinamo and CSKA may have become somewhat clouded to the average fan in the modern era but the rivalries remain as fierce and volatile as ever. There are few matches across the footballing landscape which can match the passion expressed by Moscow’s giants and it is in Starostin’s memory that Russian football continues to escalate.