Spartak, survival and success: the story of Nikolai Starostin
For most people the name Spartacus remind them of the Roman gladiator who led a slave uprising against the Roman Empire more than 2,000 years ago. Later, he became a symbol of oppressed people fighting against their oppressors all over the world. For people in the former Soviet Union, however, the name Spartacus has a slightly different meaning. There it will forever be linked with the Spartak Sports Society, a society of sports club spread all over the country with the crown jewel being the football club Spartak Moscow. However, that doesn’t mean that the two stories don’t intertwine.
One man is the personification of Spartak more than anyone else: Nikolai Starostin. Where the football world is full of people who have influenced the game as either players, coaches, administrators or organizers, Starostin has done it all and, just like Spartacus, he was loved by the common man but feared and hated by the authorities who saw him as a threat.
The story of Starostin begins in 1902 in Moscow, six years after the Russian-born Frenchman Georges Duperont first translated the football rules into Russian. At the time, football was slowly becoming popular in pre-revolution Russia and teams were being started all over the country by both Russians and foreigners. However, although the Russian and foreign clubs competed fiercely, they all had one thing in common – they were elitist, with the entrance fee being higher than the average wage for a worker. Unlike in Western Europe, the workers weren’t complaining as football was primarily enjoyed by the privileged, and it was far from the people’s game as we know it today. That would soon change.
Nikolai Starostin grew up alongside his three younger brothers – Andrey, Petr and Aleksandr – and they would turn into some of the most influential people in Soviet and Russian football. With his father and uncle both successful hunting guides, Starostin quickly became used to having prominent guest at his home, despite the family belonging to the working class. Furthermore, the elevated social status allowed Nikolai Starostin to be enrolled at the prestigious Mansfield Commercial Academy, where he was introduced to football at the age of nine.
After playing on various Muscovite teams alongside his brothers following the October Revolution in 1917, and providing for his family by playing both football and ice hockey, Starostin found his way through the maze that was Soviet rules and regulation and established himself as one of the best right wingers in the country. His quick feed, powerful shot and – most importantly – his charisma, gave him the honor of captaining the Soviet national team, and already as a player, he proved his skills for playing politics and gaining support from high-ranking officials.
As one of the country’s most famous football stars, Starostin met many influential people; one of these was Aleksandr Kosarev, head of the All-Union Leninist Youth Communist League, better known as the Komsomol or the youth division of the party.
In the summer of 1934, Kosarev and Starostin went on a hunting trip where they agreed to form the first voluntary sport society since the creation of Dinamo, and Kosarev promised the political support needed to succeed in the Soviet Union. Along with them came Ivan Epifanovich Pavlov, the wealthy head of the Promkooperatsiia organisation, which was a part of the Ministry of Trade.
He promised the financial support needed for the society to attract the country’s best athletes in a wide range of sports. At a time where all clubs were owned and supported by government institutions or factories, the support from Promkooperatsiia, whose members were independent contractors such as taxi drivers, barbers and sales people, was remarkable and significant, especially considering the low status of these people, who didn’t belong to the working class in the eyes of the Communist Party. The first steps towards the creation of Spartak had been taken and the club couldn’t be more different from the later arch rivals Dinamo, who were run by the law enforcement agency NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB.
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A few months later Starostin met with Kosarev and a number of his old teammates in order to discuss the creation of the new sport society, which would have departments all over the Union. There, Starostin, who was 33 and close to retiring from his playing career, received the job of coming up with the name for the new sports society.
How exactly he ended up on Spartak is unknown, but the four Starostin brothers all have different versions of how it was decided to name the club after the famous gladiator. In the book Spartak Moscow – The History of the People’s Team in the Worker’s State, author Robert Edelman writes: “Nikolai recalled playing worker soccer teams named for Germany’s revolutionary Spartacus League during a 1927 tour of Germany. Andrei, on the other hand, claimed had accidentally seen a copy of the popular Giovanoli novel about Spartacus on the bookshelf.”
Spartak became the first nationwide non-paramilitary sports society, and immediately fulfilled the goal of attracting some of the best athletes in the most popular sports.
Spartak quickly became popular among the Soviet citizens, averaging 29,500 spectators at each home game in 1936, and the popularity grew over the following years. The major reason for the popularity was the same we see today – Spartak won games and had famous players like the Starostins. However, the Red-Whites also knew how to generate interest in the club. The best example of this was the famous match at Red Square in Moscow on the Physical Culture Day in 1936, where the first team played the second team in what is believed to be the first football match Joseph Stalin ever watched.
Where Dinamo and its athletes were disciplined and loyal to the Communist Party, Spartak represented creativity and spontaneity, which the game at Red Square was the perfect example of. With the help of Kosarev, Starostin managed to talk a General from the Red Army into allowing the club to play the exhibition match. Despite the political support from Kosarev, this was a risky move, and to avoid disappointing, or more importantly, upsetting Stalin, Starostin and his players planned seven goals in advance, while he also forbade the players to tackle to avoid injuries in front of the party top. Edelman later described the game as ‘the most spectacular challenge to this display of order and discipline’, referring to otherwise strictly planned parades around the country.
Spartak went on to win the Soviet league in 1938 and 1939, by this time growing their average attendance to around 50,000, but their luck was slowly running out. In 1938 Lavrentiy Beria was appointed chief of the NKVD, which also put him in charge of Dinamo, and he was a sworn enemy of Starostin. The two of them had played against each other in a match in the 1920 before Beria’s political career started, and Starostin had humiliated the Georgian on the pitch, which Beria never forgot.
The same year, Spartak’s patron Kosarev was executed during Stalin’s Great Purge, and so Spartak lost the political protection and connection to the Communist Party, that had earlier kept them safe from NKVD, Dinamo and political attacks. In 1937, Nikolai Starostin was accused of ‘attempting to import bourgeois methods into Soviet sport’, but with the help of Kosarev him and his brothers avoided jail.
That Starostin had attempted to import Western methods into Soviet sport was, however, no lie. After an unsuccessful tour to France in 1936, Starostin was asked why the Soviet side was falling behind its Western counterparts, and he had explained that the Soviet players were “stewing in their own juice” because they didn’t play enough competitive matches. In a memorandum to the All-Union Council of Physical Culture, he later wrote: “In the last two or three years, Soviet football has shown that it stands at the level of the best European teams. At the same time an acquaintance with working conditions for foreign professional football players, and all the best teams in Europe consist of professionals, showed us that professional football has a number of advantages over amateur.”
With Kosarev dead and buried, the Starostins had little help when Beria arrested them all and dragged the to the dreaded Lubyanka head quarter in Moscow in 1942. After torturing several Spartak athletes into admitting that the brothers had planned to assassinate Stalin during the game on the Red Square in 1936, the charges against the Starostins were serious. Nikolai Starostin spent a year-and-a-half in the Lubyanka where he was forced to stay awake day and night through endless interrogations until he eventually lost track of time.
In the end, the assassination charges were dropped and the brothers were instead accused of “publicly praising bourgeois sport and instilling the mores of the capitalist world into Soviet sport”, for which Nikolai and his brothers were punished with ten years in the Gulag for. For many this was seen as a light punishment and as a symbol of their innocence. What kept them from meeting a much worse fate was, according to Nikolai Starostin, “the place they had in the hearts of all football fans”. The millions of fans and admirers they had all over the country had saved them.
That wasn’t the last time football saved his life. As Starostin spent the next ten years in prison camps spread across the country – from Ukhta near the Arctic Circle to Khabarovsk in the Far East near the Chinese border – he was met by guards and prisoners who admired him, and during those years he coached numerous local Dinamo clubs. Reflecting on his time in the Gulag and its brutality he wrote in his autobiography: “Their [the guards] unbridled power over human lives was nothing compared to the power of football over them.”
In 1948 Nikolai Starostin returned to Moscow for a short while, when he was hired to as head coach for VVS Moscow, the team of the Air Force. Starostin was headhunted by Vasiliy Stalin, Joseph’s son, who sought to create a competitive sports society. Arriving in Moscow, Starostin was taken directly to Vasiliy’s mansion to obtain his permission to live in Moscow, before returning home to his old home and his wife.
Unfortunately, the happiness lasted only a few days before Beria heard of the arrangement and kicked Starostin out of Moscow. Starostin lived at Vasiliy Stalin’s house for two months, before Beria eventually forced his will through and sent Starostin to Kazakhstan where he coached the side currently known as Kairat Almaty, who owe much of their success to the work Starostin did their during the last five years of his imprisonment.
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After Joseph Stalin’s death and Beria’s execution in 1953, the four Starostin brothers were finally rehabilitated and could return to Moscow and their beloved Spartak. By then, Spartak were back on top of Soviet football as they could celebrate back-to-back championships in 1952 and 1953, thus sending Beria to the grave with the knowledge of his team no longer being superior.
Soon after his return to Moscow, Starostin was appointed manager of the national team, and in 1955 he rejoined his beloved Spartak Moscow with whom he stayed until his death at the age of 90.
When Starostin returned, Spartak had just started what would turn out to be what Edelman calls the ‘Golden Age’, and if Starostin had been successful as a player, it was nothing compared to what he would achieve as the chairman of Spartak.
“Starostin was able to see beyond football,” Spartak expert Joel Amorim from Russian Football News says, “And that was probably his biggest strength throughout times. He loved the game, but was also a sports enthusiast, which allowed him to think outside of the box.”
In 1960 Starostin was the man behind hiring 33-year-old Nikita Simonyan as manager of the Red-Whites, straight after the former top scorer of the club retired. Simonyan went to win two league titles and three cup trophies spread across his two stints, and the appointment of the inexperienced Simonyan highlights another of Starostin’s greatest strengths as Russian Football News and Footballski writer Vincent Tanguy explains: “He trusted people. He knew what was good for the club, and he knew who would do a great job long-term.”
The pattern repeated itself in 1977 when Starostin appointed Konstantin Beskov as Spartak’s boss. Beskov was no popular choice; as a player, he had enjoyed most of his career in Dinamo Moscow’s blue and white with huge success, while he had also coached not only Dinamo but also CSKA Moscow, Lokomotiv Moscow and Torpedo Moscow.
However, despite this, Starostin put him in charge of the first team and Beskov repaid the faith by playing some of the best football ever seen in the Soviet Union. “The best thing Starostin did for the game itself was probably to allow Konstantin Beskov to freely create and shape Spartak,” Amorim says, “A team that put its foot down on European football and that turned out to be the best Russian team of the next ten years.”
As Beskov’s time ran out, Starostin once again pulled a rabbit out of his hat. After defender Oleg Romantsev had retired in 1983, Starostin had groomed and shaped him as a coach at Spartak’s daughter club Krasnaya Presnya, and in 1989 he was ready to take over the first team. Romantsev guided Spartak into the new reality after the fall of the Soviet Union, and during his years in charge of the Red-Whites, they won nine league titles and four cups. Once again, Starostin had trusted an inexperienced coach with big success.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Starostin was one of the men behind the creation of the Russian Football Union, and he, alongside Romantsev among others, signed a memorandum refusing to participate in the newly created CIS League that was supposed to replace the Soviet championship. At the age of 90, the professional league Starostin had proposed 55 years earlier was finally a reality.
Starostin died in February 1996, and he still stands as the personification of Spartak Moscow. In front of the stand where the most dedicated Spartakovtsys stand at Otkritie Arena, the club has raised a statue of the four Starostin brothers in honour of their contribution to the club that, despite powerful enemies, grew to become Russia’s most popular and successful.