The Game of the Peoples? Historical Perspectives on Football in Russia: Politics, Culture, Economy

13.06. - 14.06.2018, Internationaler Workshop, DHI Moskau

Football was labeled “the game of the peoples” (narodnaja igra) in Russia and the Soviet Union. From the 1930s, it was the most popular sport and sources demonstrate that this label also dates back to that decade. Which “peoples” does it refer to though? What role did football serve with regard to political representation in the union of soviets? What were its socio-cultural implications and did it have a role in economic value creation? What is the legacy of Soviet football in the post-Soviet era?

Above all, the history of Russian football is a European history. British specialists introduced the game to the emerging industrial centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg in the late nineteenth century. After World War One, the Russian Revolution, and the Civil War, football was transformed into an urban mass event in the more open climate of the New Economic Policy. By the 1930s, an evermore professional Soviet sport began to reach beyond state borders via international friendlies and exhibition matches. Soviet sides used such games to measure their progress. This impulse towards global interaction is important, because – arguably – it contradicted the established premises underpinning Soviet order and foreign policy during the twentieth century.

However, the history of football in Russia and the Soviet Union also sheds light on the inner-history of multi-ethnic states. From the foundation of the Soviet football league in 1936, Moscow sides dominated the championship: these were Dinamo Moscow, the team of the NKVD and later the Ministry of Interior, CDKA (since 1960 CSKA), the team of the Red Army, and Spartak, initially a district team from Krasnaia Presnia. In the late Soviet period, however, the character of Soviet football changed, as successful teams from other Soviet republics – above all, Dinamo Kiev, Ararat Yerevan, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Tbilisi – rose to the challenge. Football evolved into a sphere in which citizens and functionaries could and did articulate intra-Soviet antagonisms through Soviet discourse.

This workshop will discuss the multitude of antagonisms and tensions that influenced the game at the international and intra-Soviet level, as well as the ways in which football’s history intersected with the Soviet Union’s political, socio-cultural and economic history. Historical research rarely combines these strands of analysis. How important were external impulses for the development of football as a spectator sport? How did football, as a cultural activity, translate into the complex multinational reality of Soviet society? Conversely, how did this reality shape perceptions of Soviet football – in the context of international competition and the Cold War – within the Eastern bloc and beyond? Finally, what is the legacy of Soviet football, “the game of the peoples”, the tremendous complexities of which are poorly concealed behind this term?



Matthias Uhl, German Historical Institute Moscow

Manfred Zeller, Research Centre for East European Studies (Bremen)


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