Revolutionary Origins in Pre-Revolutionary Russia: the development of football in the Tsarist Empire

An early team Saint Petersburg Circle of Sports Lovers (SPb KLS) from 1907. Source: Samokat.

24 October 2017 marks the 120th anniversary of the first ever official football match played in Russia, a game between the Saint Petersburg Circle of Sports Lovers (SPb KLS) and the Vasileostrovsky Football Society. It was played out on parade ground of the First Military Academy, on the grounds of the Peter and Paul Fortress. This match is commonly regarded as the birth of Russian football. Although the first organised national division wasn’t formed until 1923, and the Soviet National team did not play until 1922, there was a long tradition of the sport being played in pre-Revolutionary Russia.

Very little is known of the match that took place in 1897, and although it is the first-ever officially recorded game in the country, football was widely played long before this date. The exact origins of the game in Russia are unknown, however, it is widely regarded hat football was an import from Britain, first promulgated by expats and sailors visiting Saint Petersburg and Odessa – then part of the Russian Empire. From here, the game spread to Moscow most prominently, as well as other industrial centres across the Empire. These expats generally formed sporting societies in order to preserve their British enclaves as communities within the myriad of large, Russian cities.

The first officially recorded club in the nation the Saint Petersburg Football Society, formed in 1879. Another dictatorial principle propagated upon the citizens of one of the most vehement dictatorships in the nineteenth century. Others followed suit, the Charnock brothers of the Blackburn cotton mills established the first team in Moscow in 1887, Morozovsti, which would become Dinamo Moscow in 1923. Two more were founded; Nevka Football Club in 1892 – a club consisting entirely of Scots working at one of St. Petersburg’s biggest factories (the Nevka) –  and in 1894, Victoria Football Club, an Anglo-German effort.

The Charnocks, Clem, James and Harry first introduced football in Moscow when Clem first kicked a ball high into the air, and when it landed, his workers all fled, fearing it was a bomb.

Russians were not allowed to join the society in order to maintain the ‘preservation of British principles’. Although these expats irrevocably introduced the nation to football, they did not – by any means – bring the ‘egalitarian nature’ of football in Great Britain with them. For the English and Scottish at this time, football was generally a game still initially limited to the upper and middle classes looking for a means of finding their inner catharsis. Russian sporting societies which first sprang up in the 1880s were different, with many forming as bases for revolutionary discourse to be discussed. They were truly egalitarian institutions, only able to do this over the course of forming their own, uniquely Russian clubs.

The first of these was the aforementioned SPb KLS in 1888 and organised football for the first time in early 1897. One night in the Viktoria Hotel on Voznesensky Prospect, a group of young workers and students each with a black and white shield inscribed with KLS met, initially discussing topics ranging from ice racing on the Neva to the travel from Tsarskoye Selo to St. Petersburg, but in March 1897, this group of young men changed Russian football history, forming the first all-Russian football club.

The team was initially based in a race ground near the Zhdanovka, then were forced to move to the Kamennoostrovsky cycle track at the other end of SPb.

The most famous game the team had ever participated in, however, was that match on 24 October 1897 outside the Peter and Paul Fortress. Vasileostrovsky defeated KLS 6-0 on the day, and the magazine Samokat the day after published a piece on the match;

The game was a triumph of football in Russia. Petersburg is the only city in which regular matches are arranged. It is to be hoped that the “Saint-Petersburg circle of sports fans”, which has spread most of the sports in our country, will soon embrace football and make this game popular.

Members of all the famous, well-established St. Petersburg clubs were in attendance that day, including the chairman of Victoria. However, except for one reporter from Samokat, no other Russian journalist was present at the match. Papers reported that over 1450 were in attendance at the Maryinsky Theatre that night, yet not even a single word was printed on the match at the Peter and Paul Fortress.

By 1927 both teams had ceased to exist. However, the legacy of this game is plain for all to see. Although KLS were forced to relocate until 1900 when they rented a sports ground on Krestovsky Island in the exact location of the current Krestovsky Arena.

On the turn of the century, the St. Petersburg Football League was established and the first game was played on 2nd September 1901. This was the first organised league in Russia. Beyond this, numerous Russian sports associations existed nationwide, and by the outbreak of war in 1914 and the unfortunate disbanding of football until 1922, 1,266 sporting societies existed in the nation, with an average membership of over 60, not just in the cities but on the fringes of the Empire – or 196 alone in Ukraine including 8,000 members and one Jewish sports club; the Jewish Maccabee Sporting Club based in Belarus with over 100 members.

An SPb KLS training session in 1910. Source: Samokat.

The national team of the Russian Empire played its first unofficial match against Bohemia in 1910.  The game was played at KLS’ ground on Krestovsky Island, recording a 5-4 win thanks to four goals from Girgory Nikitin and another scored by Aleksandr Filippov. It was the only victory the team would ever achieve in four years of international fixtures. Another game against Bohemia in Moscow was recorded in which “Russia” won 1-0, however, this match held at the Zamoskvoretsky Sports Club was, in fact, English expats including the Charnock’s and German Michael Romm, captained by goalscorer Harry Newman. This match has rightly been disregarded since.

The first official game was held against “The Wanderers”, eleven of England’s most successful players at the time. Held again at the Nevsky Ground in front of 4,500 spectators, Russia lost 11-0 to the inventors of the game, and wouldn’t play them again until 1958 due to a result of war, revolution and international isolation. By 1912, the Russian Sports Federation was created under Arthur MacPherson, a St. Petersburg-born Scot who would later be awarded the Order of Saint Stanislas by Tsar Nicholas II. The first time in over 300 years anyone in the country had been decorated for their services to sport, ironically, in the same year that Nicholas II had celebrated the tercentenary of Romanov rule over Russia.

It is somewhat prophetic that Russia’s first ever national game was held against England, thirty years after the inventors of the game exported it to Russian shores. The Englishmen defeated Russia 11-0 with a contemporary report in The Times claiming that;

This game represented the first time that England had played Russia on the football field. Despite atrocious weather conditions, the English side easily overpowered their Russian counterparts, winning 11-0! However, it could have been an even more resounding victory: the Russian goalkeeper saved at least five goals. The representatives of the Russian football clubs, who had invited the English team over, “expressed their hearty appreciation” to the English side for visiting Russia.

This is typical of the pervading school of thought behind the British Empire, that the British had introduced cultural savages to a new way of life. A typical colonial superiority complex, and although the game was thankfully introduced to Russian shores by numerous groups of fans and players, it was the development of uniquely Russian clubs under Tsarist rule such as KLS which engendered a unique and platonic catharsis for Russians struggling within a society of overwhelming transformation and authoritarian dictatorship. As Nikolai Starostin claimed in his autobiography;

I think that the prewar social role and significance of football grew out of the special relationship the public had with it. People seemed to separate it from all that was going on around them. It was like the utterly unreasoned worship by sinners desperate to seek oblivion in their blind appeal to divinity. For most people football was the only, and sometimes the very last,  chance and hope of retaining in their souls a tiny island of sincere feelings and human relationships.

This is why 1897, and not the early 1870s is considered as the birthday of Russian football. It was this date in which the long-term development of a uniquely Russian game first bore fruit.

Author: James Nickels

Born and raised in South Shields, the direct mid-point between Sunderland and Newcastle in North-East England during an era of sustained success and European football for the Magpies, while the Black Cats floundered in the lower divisions, so naturally I decided to support Sunderland. I’ve developed an interest in Russian football over the last decade or so, but it piqued while studying for my Masters’ Degree in Russian and Soviet History, and I’ve been hooked by Spartak Moscow ever since. Considers Eduard Streltsov the best of his generation, and a fond proponent of his repatriation.

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