“Hopelessly Bad” – Prerevolutionary Russian Football and “Olympic Tsushima”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, football followed the British wherever they went. Settlers and soldiers introduced the game in the colonies, students brought it to Germany and sailors exported football to the Russian Empire. Today, we will examine the latter case, chiefly the twenty or so years immediately preceding the October Revolution. These were the formative years of Russian (and Ukrainian) football and they had a profound impact on the future development of sports in the empire as well as having a hand in shaping the perception of the game in the early revolutionary years. Moreover, this particular period illuminates the grave shortcomings of the tsarist approach (or lack thereof) to sports.

Russian football, infamously, hit its nadir at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, when the national team lost 16-0 to the German Empire. Although it happened more than a century ago, this game still occupies a place, albeit an exceedingly small one, in the collective memory of football fans in those nations seeing as though its ridiculous scoreline has stood the test of time and remains the biggest result in the respective histories of the two countries. Perhaps less well-known, however, is the fact that it wasn’t just the footballers who were completely out of their depth in Stockholm, but the entire Russian delegation.

The fortunes of Russian sports did not markedly improve until the establishment of Soviet power. Only the radical changes enacted under Bolshevik rule transformed the state of physical education, sweeping away the entire moribund tsarist apparatus and abolishing all privileges that had hitherto hamstrung a country with so much potential, while also freeing the formerly colonial peoples and encouraging the newly formed nations in Central Asia and the Caucasus to develop their own physical education. 

But back to the beginnings. Initially, football made inroads in the entrepôt cities of Saint Petersburg on the Baltic and Odesa on the Black Sea in the 1870s. English and Scottish sailors and workers would play amongst themselves or against the crews of ships arriving from their homeland. By the 1890s, the game had reached Moscow and was mainly played by British workers, engineers and managers employed at textile mills on the city’s outskirts.

The early football landscape was dominated by the British and other foreigners, and this is reflected in the names of some of the most prominent personalities of early Russian football, the biggest of which arguably being Arthur Davidovich MacPherson, the son of Glaswegian shipyard owners. Born in St. Petersburg, MacPherson headed the first organised league in his hometown, founded in 1901, which was also the first in all of Russia. Inaugural champions Nevka exclusively boasted foreigners (Scotsmen, to be precise) within their ranks. In Moscow, the first officially registered football establishment, Sokolniki Sports Club, was founded in 1905 by Robert Ferdinandovich Fulda of German origin and Andrei Petrovich Moussi of French heritage.

Fulda sitting next to MacPherson (bottom row; second and third from left, respectively) at the founding of the All-Russian Football Union in 1912 (Source)

In Kolumby moskovskogo futbola (Columbus of Moscow Football), Leonid Goryanov quotes a newspaper article from 1895, which reports that “English workers have started playing soccer. Muscovites are showing a great interest in this new pastime. Two hundred to three hundred people gather to watch how they chase the ball. Often one of the spectators will join into the game.” It was at these matches that Russians from all classes first came into contact with football.

Peter A. Frykholm, in Soccer and Social Identity in Pre-Revolutionary Moscow, echoes something I mentioned in my piece about workers’ club Dresdner SV: capitalists, like Morozov mill manager Henry Charnock, urged their workers to engage in physical exercise, not for the love of the game but to help them stay healthy – thereby raising productivity – and to keep them occupied in their free time and consequently, it was hoped, far away from alcohol and Marxist influences. Soviet sports expert James Riordan similarly surmised in 1972: “…some foreign factory-owners introduced football among their workers – especially after the shock [revolution] of 1905 – perhaps as an attempt to encourage a form of civil loyalty and to divert their employees from revolutionary and other disruptive actions.”

It, of course, didn’t quite work that way, particularly since exclusionary practices further stoked class divisions. Frykholm elucidates: “When Russian workers tried to join teams or form leagues of their own, they consistently found their path blocked by middle- and upper-class athletes unwilling to admit workers to this inner circle of culture.” Despite the sport’s skyrocketing popularity – it quickly became the most popular sport in the empire – playing it in any truly organized fashion was mainly reserved for those who could afford it, as Frykholm corroborates: “Members of the foreign community along with wealthy Russians able to pay the sizeable annual dues comprised these elite clubs.” Drawing on the work of Goryanov, he later concluded: “For many reasons, soccer remained essentially closed to Moscow’s workers.” And this wasn’t just the case in football, it was common practice throughout the entire Russian sporting landscape.

Outrageous material barriers – “The membership fee, for example, to the Vega club in 1911 was 15 rubles – the monthly salary of an average paid worker.” (Goryanov) – discrimination and police repression all cultivated a stark separation between a select few elite athletes, “mostly [university] students and high school students, children of wealthy parents,” and the mass of workers interested in physical recreation.

This, then, helps to explain why certain currents within the Bolshevik movement, such as the Proletkult or the Hygienists, rejected football as a harmful “bourgeois sport,” but I have found nothing to corroborate the claims made, for example, in The Scotsman that MacPherson had to pay with his life for introducing football – his 1918 imprisonment (during which he died of typhus) likely had more material reasons considering his family had a history of working for the Romanovs and his being an archetypal figure of bourgeois decadence.

Football continued to be played during the Revolution and the ensuing Civil War, and in those places where, for whatever reason, operations had ceased, local communist leadership generally sanctioned the resumption of activities. As a matter of fact, there was much more continuity than when East German football came under the Soviet aegis after WWII. Pre-revolutionary clubs were not uprooted and dissolved but simply changed leadership – moving into the hands of the workers – and often their names as well to reflect these modifications. Many leading figures were also allowed to continue working in the game, as distinguished Soviet footballer Andrey Starostin noted in his 1973 work Povest o futbole (the Tale of Football).

A charity match on the pitch of Zamoskvoretsky Sports Club in the winter of 1911 (K Sportu, December 3, 1911)

Back in pre-revolutionary times, football eventually spilled beyond city limits and into the so-called dacha towns, small rural localities where affluent city folk owned holiday homes. “On the eve of the Revolution,” reports Frykholm, “there were at least 57 dacha towns in greater Moscow competing in organized soccer leagues.” It was here, in the dacha town of Rastorguev, that one of the most influential figures of early Russian football learned to play the game. Valentin Sysoev, a mercurial forward, was picked up by Moscow outfit Zamoskvoretsky Sports Club (ZKS) after a trial game in which he impressed the English owner with two goals.

When a Moscow League was established in July 1910 by the aforementioned Fulda and Moussi, Sysoev and ZKS were one of the foremost teams but always fell short of the title against Charnock’s Morozovtsy (Sports Club “Orekhovo”) until 1914. On a personal level, however, few could match Sysoev’s performances. In 1914, K Sportu (To Sport) noted under the heading “Amazing Record” that Sysoev had not gone a single Moscow League game without scoring since the competition’s inception. It was not unusual for him to score four or five goals in a single game.

All the while, bourgeois clubs continued mushrooming throughout the empire. From Petersburg to Moscow and Odesa to Kyiv and Kharkiv, football had percolated from the coastal cities to every major urban, industrialized center in the country. Accordingly, the bourgeoning Russian game attracted foreign attention. In Serious Fun, Robert Edelman documents the first international matches involving Russians: “In 1910, a visiting Czech team, Corinthians, had attracted sellout crowds of four thousand spectators to each of three games in the capital, one of which was actually won by the Petersburg selects [a Moscow side also defeated the Czechs, 1-0]. The next year, the famed English professional club Bolton Wanderers played three games in Petersburg before similar audiences [the Russians lost all three games, conceding 32, scoring none].”

German side Dresdner SC, after a 36-hour train journey, also visited St. Petersburg in 1911, attracting 6000 and 5000 spectators, respectively, in their first two games. Meanwhile, in Moscow, Holstein Kiel and a team from Berlin took to the pitch against local sides and, much like Bolton, gave the Russians a first taste of what the next year would have in store for them, with the Berliners winning by such lopsided scorelines as 6-0, 6-3 and 4-2, while Kiel claimed a 10-1 victory.

The Moscow XI to face Kiel (K Sportu, October 6, 1912)

1912 proved to be a crucial year for Russian football – for good and bad reasons. The approaching Stockholm Olympics, wrote Goryanov, “awakened new forces to life.” These new forces were the aforementioned affluent foreigners. In January, MacPherson, Fulda and others established the All-Russian Football Union and decided to send two teams to Stockholm, one representing Moscow and the other, the capital St. Petersburg. They were, however, rebuked by the Swedes, according to Vladimir Falin: “Russia is not Great Britain, and therefore only one team can come.”

Thus, the Union decided to send a mixed team. Emblematic of the intense rivalry between Petersburg and Moscow – with the former representing the western-oriented tsarist high society and the latter traditional Slavicness (associated with backwardness) – some in the press derided the idea of sending a team composed of players from both cities. Falin, writing in 1995, quotes one reporter as saying: “Will [the Union] take measures to ensure that Russia is represented by a really good, well-trained team? The inclusion of Muscovites in the latter complicates matters even more.”

Who would ultimately travel to Stockholm was to be decided in a match scheduled for May 13. To prepare for this encounter, Moscow faced off against the autonomous Grand Principality of Finland (whom they would meet again in Sweden), while St. Petersburg initially tried to square up with Kyiv before having to eventually settle for a local English side (which they surprisingly beat 4-0) when the Ukrainians pulled out. Unlike the St. Petersburg Englishmen, the Finns were no slouches.

Quite the contrary, sporting development had made massive strides in Finland, and it showed: a team of Moscow Brits was brushed aside 7-2, before an all-Moscow side (Brits and Russians) was beaten 4-0. The following day, Sysoev’s ZKS got whacked 8-1, after which the all-Moscow team lost again (this time 5-1) and finally the reigning Moscow champions, Morozovtsy, were battered 7-1. An all-Russian Moscow side was the only team that came away from this series of fixtures with their heads held high, having managed a 1-1 draw.

Similarly, the May 13 encounter, played on an unusually scorching day in St. Petersburg, ended all square with both sides finding the net twice. This game wasn’t without controversy, however. It is said that Petersburg’s Pyotr Sokolov missed a potentially game-winning spot kick on purpose after referee Gartley had awarded the home side a penalty so suspect that even the partisan crowd did not approve of it – and Moscow’s goalkeeper apparently retired to the stands in protest! The following day, a preliminary first eleven faced off against the players that hadn’t made the initial cut as well as some Brits and a goalkeeper from Kyiv, but the starters struggled so much – the game ended 5-4 in the first XI’s favor – that more changes were made to the roster.

Though the Muscovites seemed to have had the upper hand initially, St. Petersburg ultimately boasted one more player than Moscow when the definitive squad was announced. Sysoev did not make the final squad for Stockholm, the commander of the division he was serving in at the time denied his application for a short leave and thus prevented him from participating in the May 13 decider. In the end, only one ZKS player, Vasily Zhitarev, made the final squad. Zhitarev, the record national team goalscorer of the pre-revolutionary period (with a breathtaking four goals!), would go on to become the first captain and goalscorer of Dynamo Moscow.

The Russian team in Stockholm. Zhitarev is the fifth from left, next to goalkeeper Lev Favorsky (Source)

The man supposed to captain the Olympic team, Sokolniki’s Mikhail Romm, was conspicuously absent from the final squad. In fact, he had been ousted and essentially banned for, according to the official version of the story, being late for the May 14 match. Romm, however, claimed in his 1965 memoirs that he was suffering from a knee injury and had informed the Union officials beforehand that he was in no condition to compete.

Romm further alleged that the Baltic German representative in the Moscow Olympic Committee, K. Bertram, and the Secretary of the St. Petersburg Football League, Georgy Alexandrovich Duperron, had conspired against him: “Bertram was an ardent anti-Semite. He easily found a common language with Dupperon…whose St. Petersburg football patriotism was hurt by the fact that [initially] seven Muscovites and only four St. Petersburgers entered the Olympic team. Replacing me with the St. Petersburg defender Markov significantly changed this situation. The fact that the committee sanctioned the disqualification of the captain of the Olympic team, without even asking him about the reason for not attending training, well characterizes the attitude of football leaders towards the players that existed at that time.” The following year, Romm played a few games for a Florence-based outfit in Italy before eventually returning to Russia, but he would never again line up for the national side.

Dark clouds were looming over the Olympic team and the Romm incident only aggravated the already tense atmosphere within the squad. Another bad omen was the team’s departure. Upon request from the tsarist government, the East Asian shipping company agreed to make the ocean-going vessel Burma available for the Olympic delegation. When they set off for Sweden, they were even personally seen off by Nicholas II and his family, but the trip actually started prematurely. The president of the Olympic Committee and several athletes were left ashore and had to be brought aboard the Burma with help from a high-speed tugboat. Moreover, the official Russian Olympic representative thought it expedient to travel with his own yacht. Inevitably, his ship got lost in heavy fog, but he eventually reached Stockholm safe and sound.

Due to a favourable draw, the Russians got a first-round bye and started the Olympic tournament in the quarterfinals, where they were reunited with the Finns, who had just beaten Norway the day prior. Surprisingly, the Russians, lining up in orange shirts and blue shorts, actually took the game to Finland and were the much better side. Unsurprisingly, however, they lost 2-1. Finnish right winger Bror Wiberg of IFK Helsingfors (Helsinki) impressed Russian officials so much during this tournament that they enticed him to come to St. Petersburg, where he later featured for the city’s all-stars. He was the first of several foreign imports in the wake of the Stockholm Games; unused Danish Olympian Christian Morville also turned up in Petersburg as did Thomsen and Sanders, two Dutchmen – already the following year, however, a foreigner limit was imposed upon domestic competitions.

As for the Russians, officially that was it. That was the swift and unceremonious end of their Olympic campaign. But to make the pill a bit easier to swallow for the losers, the Swedish hosts decided to stage a “consolation tournament” in which Russia squared up with Germany, who had been battered 5-1 by Austria after an outfield player was forced to deputize for their injured goalkeeper. Considering Russia’s respectable outing against Finland, nobody could have anticipated what would transpire in this fixture. On the contrary, despite the short turnaround of just two days and the disappointing exit from the tournament, people had high hopes for this game, seeing as though just a year prior, the Petersburg all-stars had managed to beat a strong Dresdner SC side 3-2, before a combined team drew the second match 2-2.

The German team in Stockholm. Sharpshooter Gottfried Fuchs is the third from left (Source)

Any pre-match enthusiasm was put to bed immediately. After just 10 minutes, the tsarist representatives were already trailing by three goals to a heavily rotated German side. By the end of the 90, the seven Petersburgers and four Muscovites had shipped an absolutely absurd 16 goals – 10 of which had been scored by Gottfried Fuchs. It was a defeat so mind-bogglingly ignoble that it came to be known as “Olympic Tsushima,” a reference to the 1905 annihilation of the tsarist fleet during the Russo-Japanese War. “The result is more than bad. Hopelessly bad,” lamented one astute reporter, as quoted by Yuri Korshak in Staryy, staryy futbol (Old, Old Football), before getting to the crux of the problem: “The Olympic Games took Russia by surprise, and it is not for her to compete with peoples for whom sport is the lot of not only a few lucky ones, but also the most important factor of the country’s physical development, encouraged by all.”

One Russian athlete noted in his memoirs that he and his compatriots were so hopelessly out of their depth and despondent that many were literally getting sick mid-tournament. At the end of the Games, little Finland, competing under the Russian flag, was fourth in the medal table with 26, including nine golds, while the mighty Russian Empire lingered in 16th with a total of five, only ahead of Austria and the Netherlands and even behind Greece, who had only won two medals in total but at least had one gold to their name. When the Burma returned to St. Petersburg, “there was no artillery salute, no flags to be seen, no orchestra to be heard. No one came to the pier to meet the losers.”

That wasn’t the end of the humiliation. The previous winter, the Russians had reached an agreement with Hungary to stage two games after the conclusion of the Olympics. Hungary were one of the better footballing nations in Europe at the time and generally considered to be close to the level of England, but when they actually faced off against the English at the Olympics, they were demolished 7-0. They did win the consolation tournament, though, and then showed all their class against the disgraced Russians, who only nine days prior had fallen 2-1 to Norway in their last match in Sweden.

The first encounter between an all-Moscow Russia and Hungary, played on June 29, ended in an embarrassing 9-0 loss for the hosts. Surely it couldn’t get any worse, right? It did get worse. Two days later, the Russians, now also featuring some players from St. Petersburg, were forced to recover the ball from their net 12 times without reply. Everyone had seen enough and the Russian national team did not play another game for the rest of the year. The unified national team had lost all of its four official matches, conceding 32 and only scoring twice. Thus ended 1912; in the space of just a few weeks, the entire Russian bourgeois sporting system – and its football in particular – had been so thoroughly humiliated and discredited that it was hard to bounce back from, and it never did properly bounce back.

But the bourgeois variety wasn’t the only football that was being played in Russia at the time. Despite repression and discrimination, the workers’ game had begun to flourish and a league was set up in Moscow in 1911, thanks to the ceaseless efforts of young Boris Chesnokov, mentor of many early Soviet footballers, first sports columnist of Pravda and the father of 1964 Olympic gold medalist Yuri. As James Riordan noted, “in the absence of a forceful pioneering bourgeois spirit in sports” and with “little room for concessions to working-class pressure for recreational facilities,” the urban proletariat defied the middle class and the state and organized itself “in militant workers’ druzhiny (fighting squads) and dikie (outlaw) groups, many of which were actually clandestine politico-sports bodies with sport often a cover for guerilla training.”

Chesnokov (standing in the center) at Novogireevo (Source)

At last, there was something to celebrate, as Frykholm tells us: “The most remarkable soccer event of 1912 was a victory by Chesnokov’s worker team against the Morozovtsy – a pillar of elite Moscow soccer.” They were not merely a pillar, they were the cream of the crop, the reigning, and at this point only, champions of the Moscow League. They wouldn’t relinquish their vice grip on the competition until the format was changed to a knockout system with the onset of WWI.

This was a massive victory for the vibrant grassroots “wild” or “outlaw” football scene over the bourgeois Moscow League, which, according to Goryanov’s scathing assessment, had become a “bureaucratic organization that fenced itself off from the people with a barrier of impregnability, pompous aristocracy. Its leaders, mostly representatives of those in power, openly and emphatically showed their class face, a clear unwillingness to allow objectionable elements, ordinary working people, into the teams.” Frykholm concurs: “This was a symbolic and historic first. While worker teams still suffered under makeshift playing conditions, “outlaw” soccer had made its successful debut.” Symbolic indeed and a small foreshadowing of the Russian proletariat’s world-historic victory over the tsarist elite and their bourgeois henchmen five years later.

As Frykholm further notes, this result also had the more questionable effect of stoking nationalist pride because it proved that Russians could play football: here was an all-Russian side beating an elite outfit relying on foreign talent (and money) – among the foreigners who had featured for Morozovtsy was Earl Wavell, future Viceroy of India – and this, too, was historic and unheard of. In fact, only in 1915 did an all-Russian team claim Moscow’s city title for the first time. Not coincidentally, this was achieved with the help of none other than Chesnokov. In January 1915, K Sportu announced that Chesnokov’s team, Rogozhsky, the biggest “wild” club in Moscow, had been essentially shut down by the authorities.

According to Goryanov, Chesnokov had, by this point, already started negotiations with legal outfit Novogireevo, originally a dacha team, over joining the club. Refusing to “defect” only with his brothers, Chesnokov instead demanded that Novogireevo take on the entire Rogozhsky squad. When they ultimately agreed to do so, it yielded immediate results: against all expectations, Novogireevo pipped the powerhouses of Morozovtsy and ZKS to the title.

The following year, reigning Petersburg champions Merkur travelled to Moscow to prove that Novogireevo’s championship was a fluke. Once again, Chesnokov’s side prevailed against the odds and inflicted a crushing 6-1 defeat on Merkur. Novogireevo repeated their 1915 success in the fall season of 1917, winning the Moscow championship with a goal difference of 39-3, but this proved to be Chesnokov’s final season due to a career-ending leg injury.

Matches between Petersburg/Petrograd and Moscow were not uncommon. As mentioned before, there was a heated rivalry between the two and, as Frykholm writes, “from as early as 1907, all-star teams from Moscow and Petersburg competed against each other to see which city had superior soccer.” After the Olympics, the two had faced off in the title decider for the first-ever national championship with Petersburg coming out on top (Kharkiv, the only other team involved, finished last after losing to Moscow).

Goryanov grudgingly acknowledged that “the advantage of the Petrograders was overwhelming,” but not in 1917 (Goryanov)/1918 (Edelman) when the two cities faced off on ZKS’s pitch. In a shocking turn of events, the Muscovites annihilated the Petersburgers 9-1, thanks, in part, to four goals from Pavel Kannunikov, one of Chesnokov’s protégés. Reminiscing about the game on its 50th anniversary, a reader of Sportivnaya zhisn Rossii (Sports Life of Russia) waxed lyrical about Kannunikov’s performance: “Since then I haven’t seen anything better. I was a boy, became an old man, and I will never forget him.”

It was this same Kannunikov who later, in 1923, captained the newly-established Russian SFSR national team and inspired them to come back from 2-0 down against a Stockholm XI representing Sweden in an incredible game that eventually ended 5-5. During this tour of Sweden, the Russians made headlines, not by virtue of their outstanding performances, but because they had managed to smuggle a Soviet flag – forbidden in bourgeois Europe – into the country by wrapping it around Pyotr Artemiev’s body. Artemiev and Kannunikov were long-time teammates, who had first played together a decade earlier at Novogireevo.

The RSFSR team in Stockholm. Kannunikov is the third from left (Source)

Before their sold-out rematch against Stockholm at the end of their Sweden trip, the Russians, on the initiative of Kannunikov, raised their flag over the Olympic Stadium for the entire city – and indeed the entirety of Europe – to see. “The performance of the Russians in Sweden,” whimpered one French newspaper, “showed once again to the entire civilized world that the Bolsheviks use the trips of their sports teams for propaganda, and therefore it is necessary to prevent the meetings that took place in Stockholm and other cities in every possible way.”

The day after the initial Stockholm game, the team travelled to Gothenburg to face Fässbergs IF, who had reportedly beaten Arsenal (yes, the London one) a week earlier and would go on to become Sweden’s national champions the following year. As the RSFSR team found themselves 3-0 down at half time, the Russian ambassador burst into the locker room and gave them a good dressing-down; the game coincided with the Gothenburg Exhibition and dozens of foreign dignitaries were in attendance (a few days later, Albert Einstein would give his Nobel Lecture in the city). The national team, the ambassador thundered, should get it together. And they did, scoring four unanswered goals to come out on top. Goryanov quotes one observer as stating: “Yes, Soviet football players are not like the former Russian football players we saw at our 1912 Olympics.”

Indeed, after their shameful 1912 performance, the bourgeois national team’s fortunes only marginally improved. The first four games of 1913 all came against Sweden, but only the final one, a 4-1 loss, entered the official records as a proper national team game. St. Petersburg had lost the first two, 1-5 and 2-3, while Moscow lost the third, 1-4. Valentin Sysoev, left out of the Olympic squad, did get his chance with Russia at last. In the final game of 1913, he featured in a 1-1 draw with Norway and, of course, scored – but this proved to be his only official outing with the national team. On a hot July day in 1914, the then-27-year-old played his final game for ZKS, scoring five of his team’s six goals, before departing for the front.

A few weeks earlier, Russia, represented by Moscow, had competed at the Baltic Exhibition in Malmö where they were battered 7-0 by Holstein Kiel of Germany, coached by Englishman Sam Wolstenholme, and by nearby Helsingborg (presumably Helsingborgs IF), conceding eight unanswered goals after Zhitarev had given the Muscovites the lead. The Russians stayed a bit longer and faced off against the Swedish national team in another official game, which ended in a 2-2 draw before Moscow was again on the wrong side of a major whopping, losing 7-0 to AIK Solna. A few days later, Moscow lost 2-1 to Norway before the national team drew against the same side 1-1.

While official national team results were noticeably improving, the domestic game was still lagging behind. Though Moscow dispatched sides representing little Latvia and Estonia with ease at the Second All-Russian Olympiad (ten goals scored, two conceded), when they came up against proper European opposition, like the sides they had met at the Baltic Games, the actual standard of the Russian game became clearly discernible.

A Moscow XI lining up to take on Norway in 1913 (Source)

This was a time before coaches were employed; though, to be sure, the idea of coaching was actually not a foreign concept. In fact, in 1913, the Englishman Arthur Gaskell was hired to take charge of Moscow for international outings. Following a promising start – upsetting Norway 3-0 – things unravelled pretty quickly and this experiment ended after just two matches. Most of the time, however, sides were merely supervised by the likes of Fulda, Duperron and Bertram, and they did not act as coaches as such. Hence, despite the unmistakable foreign influence, the horizon of the game within Russia was exceedingly restricted and parochial, which only exacerbated the constraints imposed upon the domestic game by socio-economic factors.

There were, of course, attempts at broadening that horizon, to which the hire of Gaskell attests. Another such endeavour was the international tournament hosted in St. Petersburg in the late summer of 1913 to celebrate the anniversary of the club Sport. Present, besides Sport and local powerhouse Merkur, was a side from Budapest as well as 1913 German champions VfB Leipzig. In the opening games, both Petersburg sides were battered, Sport losing 4-1 to the Germans and Merkur 4-0 to the Hungarians.

Shortly thereafter, Sport would give a better account of themselves in the return fixtures, surprisingly beating the Hungarians and later only losing to Leipzig by a single goal. The fact that these results were hailed as massive achievements and undeniable proof that the Russian game was making strides again illustrates the restricted outlook of the time and lack of bourgeois enterprise. In lieu of actual accomplishments, low-stakes matches on short turnaround against travel-weary opposition were hyped to paper over unmistakable cracks. Small-scale reforms and concessions, like allowing outlaw sides to participate in national competitions on the eve of WWI, were but cosmetic improvements sanctioned solely in the hopes of reconciling workers to the tsarist regime.

St. Petersburg vs Stockholm in April or May 1913 (Source)

Precisely a year after that tournament in Petersburg, the Imperial Army launched its invasion of East Prussia. But football didn’t stop; in fact, it continued all throughout World War I, yet progress always remained minuscule. As long as the underlying issues holding the game back were not extirpated, it could not but merely trudge along. Bourgeois elitism fatally constricted the potential talent pool and alienated the working masses, while increasing nationalism and xenophobia prevented the diffusion of innovative ideas from abroad. The inert Russian upper classes were incapable of striking at the root of the most pressing issues. The belated establishment of a governing body (1912) was just one expression of this overall malaise; by comparison, in Germany, a bourgeois football association had already been founded in 1900.

To conclude, I think it instructive to quote at length an extremely salient point made by Riordan in The Development of Football in Russia and the USSR: “In Russia, the inability – and often the unwillingness – of the government, the Church and Russian industrialists to take similar measures [of integrating workers as in England] only served to extend the gulf between them and the urban workers, to create a dual power in the sports movement (as in politics between the Soviets and the Duma…) and to frustrate the needs of the workers for recreation.”

“As a consequence, most workers were not integrated into the system through the medium of games; they participated in outlaw workers’ sports groups that inevitably developed political overtones due to their semi-clandestine nature and, in the absence of an adequate safety valve of mass sports activity, they channeled their frustrated energies into political actions that were eventually to lead to revolution and to the establishment of a pattern of recreation that more closely corresponded to their requirements.” Ultimately, it was the lot of the Bolsheviks to free Russian sports from the shackles of parochialism and mediocrity, from bourgeois privileges, inertia and artificial material impediments – but that’s a story for another day.

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