Russian Winters: Andrei Kanchelskis Autobiography Review

 

Andrei Kanchelskis was something of a trailblazer for Soviet football when he took his first intrepid steps in Western Europe, but his life and career to date has amounted to so much more than matters on the pitch. One of a select few to have represented three separate nations – as well as being the scorer of the last ever goal for the Soviet Union before it became the Commonwealth of Independent States – he courted fame and infamy in almost equal measure. At a time when foreign imports were scarce at best, his electric pace and joie de vivre captivated fans across the UK; while he will be remembered in the record books as the only man to score in the Old Firm, Merseyside and Manchester derbies, his impact was far greater than statistics.

His autobiography Russian Winters was released earlier this year, and charts the course of his life as a young lad growing up in what would become Ukraine, his birth as a footballer under the legendary eye of Valeriy Lobanovskyi at Dinamo Kyiv, his rise as a world-class entertainer at Old Trafford, right through to his colourful managerial career in modern-day Russia. Russian Football News were privileged to be sent a copy from the publishers.

 

A Soviet upbringing

“His story encapsulated so many different elements that I found intriguing,” said James Corbett, founder of deCoubertin. “The Soviet childhood, being part of the USSR’s coaching system, seeing his country dissolve overnight, being an Eastern European trailblazer, playing for Ferguson’s Man Utd, playing for Everton, playing in Italy when Serie A was the best league in the world…”

The opening three chapters give a taste of what that Soviet childhood was like as he grew up in a time of intense political turmoil. His father’s family were successful farmers in Lithuania, who slaughtered their livestock rather than allow it to fall into the hands of Stalin’s advancing Red Army in 1940, while his mother’s side lived 700 miles away in Kirovograd. Antanas met Yevgeniya at a dance while doing his military service, and in the same year that his future employers lifted the European Cup, they had a son, Andrei.

For readers who have little idea about life in the Soviet Union, there is an interesting collection of anecdotes that paint a picture of the early years. A friendship with a boxer who moonlighted as a security guard for local mafia, for example, or the time a Georgian man swindled him when selling a Volga car in Donetsk, give an intriguing insight into the formation of his character.

The system of youth development will come as a revelation too. As a teenager Kanchelskis had the presence and strength of mind to move to Kharkiv to attend a strictly regimented sports boarding school where he learned the hard way that he would have to slave away to achieve his dream. The fact he was the slowest of the students will come as a shock to most readers, but the resourcefulness with how he improved his speed and leg strength is revealing. However far-fetched they seemed, Kanchelskis would try anything to give himself the edge, even it it meant hanging from a crossbar and eating carrots in the belief it would help him grow taller.

 

Move to England

The bulk of the book, however, focuses on his time in England. Emlyn Hughes famously sneered at Leeds United’s signing of “flashy foreigner” Éric Cantona in 1992, so when a Ukrainian winger who spoke no English arrived, one can imagine the struggles that faced Kanchelskis. The fact that he would go on to hold a British passport and still be remembered warmly more than two decades later speaks volumes for his character. His relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson is covered in fascinating detail, and will be of great interest to those interested in the machinations of post-Soviet relations.

Of course, not all was plain sailing. The manner in which his departure from Manchester United came about was less than savoury – samovars stuffed with cash, accusations of faking injury and tense standoffs with threats from agents all play a prominent role in the middle chapters. What becomes clear is how Kanchelskis valued respect from others. “I know a few people who grew up in the USSR, and it seems to produce a strongly moralistic streak on things that many people would find surprising,” continued Corbett. “There’s an inherent decency, which I think can be rare – or well hidden – among most footballers.”

 

Return to Russia

Followers of Russian football will be drawn to his intermittent comments throughout the book on that state of the game in the country he chose to represent, something he garnered a unique perspective on during his time as a player and in management. He recounts his disdain for current FC Ural manager Aleksander Tarkhanov’s bizarre approach to training with deflated balls during his time at FC Saturn because he had heard it was popular in Brazil on the beaches. “Curiously, we didn’t play like Brazilian,” Kanchelskis writes in the book. “It says everything about the game that Hrebik [his Dinamo Moscow manager] with his three-hour training sessions and Tarkhanov with his deflated footballs were Premier League managers.”

His attention to detail and pursuit of self-betterment is clear throughout. He mentions how poor physical and tactical preparation was upon arrival in England, but his demand and ability to spot quality never left him. It was Kanchelskis who oversaw the introduction of current FC Ufa captain Azamat Zaseev and Pavel Alikin when the club formed seven years ago, and both have remained cornerstones of the club in their rapid ascent from the third tier to the Premier League.

 

READ MORE: FC Ufa How To Run a Small Club in Russia

 

While many former professionals take a fast-track route to managing top clubs, the manner in which Kanchelskis approached ambitious projects at lower levels, such as FC Torpedo-ZiL Moscow, FC Nosta Novotroitsk and Solaris Moscow, is revealed in the latter stages of the book. Obstacles such as a baseball bat-wielding Shamil Gazizov and deluded chairmen expecting miraculous European adventures are highlighted, while his opinions about the way football is run in Russia is dealt with at the end.

Russian Winters may not be a biopic of Soviet history, but it offers a frank account of life from the perspective of a man who has seen both sides of the Iron Curtain. His words are sandwiched by a prologue from United legend Ryan Giggs and afterwords written by Soviet footballer Sergei Baltacha and former Everton manager Joe Royle which as much as anything show the esteem with which Kanchelskis is held. Although he sees himself as a “Soviet kind of guy”, with Lithuanian and Ukrainian parents, a British passport and a current life in Russia, Kanchelskis is really a man of the world.

 

Russian Winters is published by deCoubertin Books and is on sale now, available Amazon. RFN would like to thank James Corbett for his generosity and assistance with this preview, and with helping set up an exclusive interview with Andrei Kanchelskis that will published on this site next month.

 

Author: Andrew Flint

I moved out to Russia in 2010 to teach English because it sounded like fun, then I met and fell in love with FC Tyumen (and my wife!) and decided to stay. Surprisingly, I turned out to be the only English person remotely interested in a Siberian third-tier club, but then who wouldn’t fall for a grizzly Georgian midget, a flying Brazilian and Tyumen’s 93rd most influential figure…

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