Dinamo  – The footballing embodiment of Leningrad and St. Petersburg

Familiar St.Petersburg

Nobody would deny that current Russian Premier League champions Zenit St. Petersburg hold the football monopoly in Russia’s second city but this has not the always been the case. However, before Zenit’s first title win in 1984 under Pavel Sadyrin, Dinamo Leningrad, as they were then, were the most supported club in the city. Their story is a fascinating one that embodies the history of the great city they represent.

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The first official football match in Russia took place in St. Petersburg in October 1897.

St. Petersburg, the capital of the former Russian Empire, is the birthplace of Russian football as English and Scottish dock and factory workers set up their own football teams in the city during the late nineteenth century. In 1922, in the city of Petrograd as it was then, the first foundations of Dinamo were laid during a tournament to decide whether the army or navy were the more superior and with this Dinamo became the first club in the city.

The team was founded in 1922 as part of the All-Union Sports Society but did not adopt the name ‘Dinamo’ until 1924. The following year the club entered the Leningrad City Championship for the first time and in 1929 they found a home at the Dinamo Stadium on Krestovsky Island in the north of the city. The club enjoyed great success in their formative years as they won the Leningrad City Championship in 1926, 1927, 1930, 1931, 1933 and 1935 as they staked their claim as the best team in the city.

In Spring 1936 the inaugural Soviet Top League season took place and Dinamo Leningrad won the very first Top League match 3-1 against the now legendary Lokomotiv Moscow at the Dinamo Stadium. The match did not start well for the hosts  as they conceded a goal in the fifth minute. The move started from the right hand side when Lokomotiv attacker Aleksandr Semyonov shot at goal, Dinamo goalkeeper Aleksandr Kuzminsky parried the shot but only to the feet of Lokomotiv’s Viktor Lavrov who shot from 11 metres out into a virtually empty net.

However, Dinamo fought their way back into the match in typical Soviet passovotchka style as their intricate short passing game brought them into the Lokomotiv area. Pyotor Dementyev quickly passed the ball to Aleksei Baryshev who fired in the equaliser. Despite having only just scored, the Leningraders once again siege the Lokomotiv goal and scored a second on 44 minutes through Viktor Fyodorov.

Lokomotiv Moscow enter the field at the Dinamo stadium to compete in the first ever Soviet Top League match,

Lokomotiv Moscow enter the field at the Dinamo stadium to compete in the first ever Soviet Top League match,

The second half started brighter for Lokomotiv who had several shots at the Dinamo goal but failed to score despite their impressive, intricate style of play. They were punished again in the 70th minute when Aleksandr Fyodorov, the second of three Fyodorovs on the Leningrad-based team, sealed victory with Dinamo’s third goal. Fyodorov was still alive to the situation after his teammate Dementyev had had his initial shot saved, slotting away the rebound.

Despite this impressive first victory, the season did not go as planned for Dinamo Leningrad as they finished sixth out of seven teams with one win, one draw and four losses. The team only conceded 12 goals but scored a mere five, the lowest total of any of the seven teams.

The years up until the beginning of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War in 1941 were fruitless as Dinamo often competed at the bottom end of the Soviet Top League and their best finishes were in mid-table as the league was expanded over time.

Leningrad is known as the City of Heroes for the way it managed to survive despite being bombarded by German artillery for over two years. The citizens never gave in and their heroism is arguably the greatest act of defiance of all time. The most famous cultural event in Leningrad during the blockade is undoubtedly the performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony Leningrad by a group of starving musicians who came together and performed in defiance of the German blockade. The symphony was boomed around the city through loudspeakers to show the Germans that the Soviets were still fighting to protect the city as well as to act as motivation for the citizens of Leningrad.

This match

This match between Dinamo Leningrad and N-Skiy Zavod on 31st May 1942 is arguably the most important game of football ever played.

However, there was also an act of defiance in the football community. A 30 minute match took place on 31st May 1942 at the Dinamo Stadium between Dinamo Leningrad and a team made up of players from  Zenit Leningrad, Spartak Leningrad and various other players from factories around the city. The team called itself N-Skiy Zavod and was put together by Aleksandr Zyablikov. Zyablikov had played for Zenit before 1941 but worked in a Leningrad metal plant named after Stalin during the war.

The match typified the blockade with many players unable to muster the strength to play whilst others were unable to even get onto the pitch due to being weak from hunger. The match ended in a 6:0 win for Dinamo but everybody knew the score was irrelevant. Valentin Fyodorov of Dinamo Leningrad said that the victors were merely those who had a greater ration of bread on their card such was the struggle for food during the blockade. All the players left the field embracing each other despite the scoreline as they understood that by simply playing the match it was victory for everybody over fear and despair whilst also showing how the people of Leningrad had the desire to live despite the atrocities surrounding them.

This match is probably the most important game of football that has ever been played.

With an allied victory of Nazi Germany, Soviet life started to recover. Although the city was still in ruins, Dinamo Leningrad once again entered Soviet football in the top flight, finishing a respectable fifth and only two points off a bronze medal finish whilst Dinamo legend Aleksandr Fyodorov, the same one from their first victory against Lokomotiv Moscow in 1936, finished as sixth highest goalscorer with 11 goals.

From the end of the war until 1954, Dinamo managed to consolidate themselves in the top flight and  tended to finish around mid-table, local rivals Zenit were also starting to be more successful at this time and finished above their neighbours four times.

However in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, Dinamo had a disastrous season and finished 10th out of eleven teams in the Soviet Top League. The officials in charge of football in Leningrad were unimpressed by this poor finish and removed Dinamo from the league, replacing them with a new Leningrad-based team; The Labour Reserves, who were allowed to use Dinamo’s stadium and training facilities. It is worth noting that after the death of Stalin and NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria many teams called Dinamo started disappearing in the Soviet Union due to their association with the brutal secret police.

The Labour Reserves take on a youth team from Moscow.

The Labour Reserves take on a youth team from Moscow.

The Labour Reserves had an excellent first season as they finished fourth in the Soviet Top League in 1954 but they eventually dropped off and were relegated in 1956. During this time Dinamo Leningrad were non-existent but in 1960, after The Labour Reserves had won their section of the Soviet First League (second tier) in 1959, Dinamo’s historic name was again returned to the club, albeit not in the top flight as Labour Reserves had lost in the promotion play-offs. However, two seasons later the club found itself back in the Soviet Top flight, then known as ‘Class A’.

Despite the joy of having their name back, Dinamo were unable to replicate their past top flight performances and were relegated in 1963 after a 4-0 thrashing in a relegation play-off against CSKA Moscow.

Dinamo had had a 25 day break before the match and match reports describe how they were laying siege to the CSKA goal as even a draw may not have been enough to survive. Dinamo played in a very nervous and disorganised fashion which allowed CSKA to deal with their threat and be clinical with their rare chances at the other end. Dinamo had actually achieved some decent results in their recent games and were unbeaten in five but it seems nerves got to them in the end as spectators were shocked by Dinamo’s collapse.

The club now found itself in the doldrums of Soviet football and in 1972 they fell down even lower, into the Second League (the third tier) where they finished sixth in their ‘Second Zone Group’. Dinamo briefly returned to the First League in 1977 but the club was unable to build on this brief success and they were relegated back to the Second League in 1979 where they remained until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The 70s and 80s are arguably the worst years in the history of Dinamo Leningrad as they lost their fan base to the more successful Zenit Leningrad. Dinamo’s attendances started to dwindle as fans went to go and watch Zenit, a team that restored pride in Leningrad by challenging their rivals in Moscow.

Pavel Sardynin is hoisted into the air by his Championship winning squad.

Zenit manager Pavel Sadyrin is hoisted into the air by his 1984 Championship winning squad.

Former Dinamo Leningrad midfielder Yury Morozov was managing Zenit around this time and is the man who started the revolution at Zenit which Pavel Sadyrin successfully finished by winning the league in 1984. After Zenit’s Championship win, Dinamo lost the support of many people in Leningrad.

Just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dinamo were battling it out in the lower leagues and decided to merge with a club from a youth centre in the south west of the city and thus became known as FC Prometheus-Dinamo St. Petersburg. Citizens of Leningrad had voted to change the city’s name back to St. Petersburg six months before the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

After the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet football leagues disbanded as each former Soviet republic set up their own football league system. In the first Russian football championships in 1992, FC Prometheus-Dinamo were awarded a place in the First League, the second tier of Russian football. However, the club were relegated to the third tier of Russian football immediately as they finished second from bottom. The club was once again starved of success in the mid nineties and went through  another name change as they reverted back to the more traditional Dinamo St. Petersburg. Although Dinamo were undoubtedly struggling at this time, in 1998 the club achieved mild success as they reached the fifth round of the Russian Cup where it took extra time for Premier League Alania Vladikavkaz to knock them out.

Off the field, the hundredth anniversary of football in Russia was celebrated in 1997. Dinamo were recognised by the Russian Football Union and were awarded a diploma for their ‘great contribution to the development of Russian football’. However, in the late 90s and early 2000s, disaster continued to strike at the St. Petersburg’s oldest club.

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The Dinamo-Stroyimpuls team in 2000

Dinamo were relegated to the amateur divisions in 1999 and, despite immediately being promoted back to the professional leagues, they lost their professional status once again in March 2000 due to a lack of finances at the club. In May of that year, Dinamo joined forces with building society Stroyimpuls and became Dinamo-Stroyimpuls. The newly named team immediately returned to the professional leagues the following season whilst also winning the Russian Amateur Cup. Their first season back in professional football in 2001 brought further success as they won the Western division of the Russian Second Division (third tier) in the guise of another name, FC Dinamo-SPb St. Petersburg.

2002 was a strange season for Dinamo, they played well and amassed a lot of victories in the Russian First Division. However, the club were awarded ten 3-0 defeats out of their 34 matches for fielding ineligible players which led to them finishing just outside the relegation places in the First Division.

The next season was a lot better for Dinamo as they finished 5th and their former Russian international forward Aleksandr Panov was the division’s top goalscorer with 23 goals. Unfortunately for Dinamo, just as things seemed to be going right for the club, they once again plunged into the darkness. In December 2003 the players revolted against new President Aleksandr Semchenkov, refusing new contracts and Dinamo was subsequently disbanded. A new team was formed at an amateur level in Spring 2004 but, just before a game was about to kick-off, the football authorities in Moscow banned the team from competing. The future of Dinamo St. Petersburg once again hung in the balance.

Petrotrest - The team that was renamed Dinamo in

Petrotrest – The team that was renamed Dinamo in 2007

In 2007, after three years in the wilderness, it was decided that St. Petersburg team ‘Petrotrest’ would be renamed FC Dinamo St. Petersburg and would once again play in the Russian First Division. Around this time, the club moved their home ground to the Minor Sport Arena next to Zenit’s Petrovsky Stadium just off Petrogradsky Island where they remain to this day whilst Dinamo’s old stadium on Krestovsky became Dinamo’s new training complex.

Of course this newly renamed team was not the original Dinamo team from 1922 that had created such a proud history in Leningrad but for the fans it was the best that could be achieved. The team played under this Dinamo guise until 2010 when they were relegated from the First Division. At this point the club reverted back to its’ old name ‘Petrotrest’ and a new Dinamo St. Petersburg team was once again set up in the amateur leagues. However, Dinamo St. Petersburg found themselves in trouble in a short space of time.

In the 2011/12 season, the team had to withdraw from the amateur leagues due to lack of funding as their main sponsor, Alfa-Nord Security, a security company based in St. Petersburg, withdrew their sponsorship which led to the club being dissolved.

The club had taken many hits during its’ long history but the withdrawal of funding seemed to signal the end for Dinamo St. Petersburg. This great club with so much history was set to be forgotten and stored in the archives. However, in typical Dinamo and Leningrad fashion, the club brought itself back from the brink and was resurrected.

Before the 2013/14 season there was an agreement between the previously mentioned Petrotrest and a reformed Dinamo to merge into FC Dinamo St. Petersburg and play in the Russian National Football League, the second tier of Russian football, taking Petrotrest’s place in the league. The club performed well considering the chaos that had happened before the season had started as they managed to survive, finishing 14th. The 2014/15 season did not turn out to be as successful as the club finished rock bottom of the league, 24 points from safety. This seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of Dinamo as the club was declared bankrupt and the club was disbanded.

Discussions were held about bringing back the Dinamo St. Petersburg name but as a farm club to their Dinamo counterparts in Moscow.

The Dinamo St. Petersburg huddle before their game against Karelia on 15th September 2015

The Dinamo St. Petersburg team huddle before their game against Karelia on 15th September 2015

However, it was decided this was not an ideal situation and the club was reformed and rebuilt independently as Dinamo. The club found new sponsors for the 2015/16 season and currently compete in the third tier of Russian football. Halfway through the season they find themselves in 9th position and only a few points off competing for promotion.

Football fans around the world often take the existence of their club for granted but Dinamo St. Petersburg are an example of how quickly a club can slip down the footballing  hierarchy. Despite once being Leningrad’s most famous club they have often found themselves in the depths of Russia’s football league. Whilst Zenit will undoubtedly hold the St. Petersburg football monopoly for the next few generations at least, Dinamo will always hold a special place in the hearts of the city’s population. The club embodies the history of the great city of Leningrad/St. Petersburg as it refuses to lay down and die, even in its’ darkest moments. The history of Dinamo is littered with chaos, as is the history of the city itself, but as the city looks to the future so does this club  as they hope to once again bring stability back to the great name of Dinamo.

Follow Thomas on Twitter @Thomas_Giles_UK


Author: Thomas Giles

Studied Russian at University which peaked my interest in the country and led to me living there for two years. Having already been a big football fan in England, I started following the Russian league and the chaos that goes with it during my time there. Whilst I am the first to admit that the action on the pitch is far from exciting, I find the politics and history of Russian football fascinating.

Comments

  1. Lokomotiv have made a replica of their 1936 kit. Looks just like the one in that photo. It’d be cool if other teams did the same!

  2. Good piece, by the way!

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