Spartak – Dinamo: Moscow’s Forgotten Derby

With a total of five clubs in the Premier League, Moscow is one of the cities with the most football derbies in the world. The biggest local derby is by far the one between CSKA Moscow and Spartak. These two clubs have won 14 of the 22 championships since the creation of the Russian league in 1992. But even though CSKA and Spartak have competed since the 1920’s, first in a local Moscow league, later the Soviet Union Supreme League and now in Russia’s Premier League, it is a relatively new thing that their derby match is the most important in Moscow. The derby between CSKA and Spartak had to wait until the 1990s before it became a major thing. When we look back in the history books, the biggest Moscow derby was between Spartak and Dinamo. The two clubs, like CSKA, have been around since the 1920s and until the 1970s they regularly occupied the top spots in the league table.

The Spartak fans’ story about the rivalry with Dinamo has always been about the little man’s fight against the power. The Dinamo Moscow we know today was founded in 1923 and financed by the NKVD secret police, which later became the KGB. Dinamo were, unlike Krasnaya Presnya, which Spartak were called back then, a national sports society, meaning that they operated in multiple cities with multiple sports across the entire Soviet Union. In the beginning, the Dinamo clubs were open for everyone but after a short while this changed so only policemen could join. The sports society was created to strengthen the nation’s policemen physical fitness.  Through the draft, Dinamo, and CSKA (the Army club), got the opportunity to pick the nation’s best players.

Dynamo legend Lev Yashin defending goal against Spartak.

Dynamo legend Lev Yashin defending goal against Spartak.

In November 1935, the founders of Krasnaya Presnya, among them Nikolai Starostin, who was one of the leaders of the club from its founding in 1922 until his death in 1996, decided to create a sports society like Dinamo’s, with the football club in Moscow as the crown jewel and Nikolai Starostin’s personal darling. The founders of the new sports society discussed the name for an entire night before Nikolai Starostin finally came up with the name Spartak. The name came from the Roman gladiator and slave rebel Spartacus, who declared war against the superpower Rome. It took four months before the authorities finally approved the new name. Unlike Lokomotiv, Torpedo, Dinamo and the other Soviet football clubs, who were all controlled by either factories or parts of the state, Spartak was an independent society, which was sponsored by the union for workers in the meat industry.

With the creation of Spartak, the rivalry with Dinamo took a step up and in the 1930’s the two clubs dominated the Soviet football league with Spartak winning back to back doubles in 1938 and 1939 – both the league and the cup. Unfortunately, Spartak’s success had a price when Dinamo’s president, the powerful Lavrenty Beria who was Stalin’s right-hand man and executive at the secret police, decided to attack Nikolai Starostin and his three brothers. The four brothers were all arrested in 1942. The charges were built on an earlier case from 1937 where the brothers were accused of importing bourgeois methods into Soviet sports. In 1937, the brothers managed to stay free, but before the trial in 1942, Beria’s people forced a number of people from Spartak to confess a number of details about the brothers. Forcing people to confess fake crimes, often with torture, was unfortunately, a normal thing in the Soviet Union at that time. This time the charges were more serious than they were in 1937, because the Starostin brothers, and a couple of other Spartak people, were accused of planning to assassinate Joseph Stalin and change the Soviet Union into a fascist state. As punishment, the four Starostin brothers were all sent into exile at labor camps far away from their beloved football club in Moscow. They worked at the labor camps until Stalin’s death in 1952 when they were rehabilitated and allowed to return to Moscow.

While Spartak had always been able to compete with Dinamo before the Second World War, or the Great Patriotic War as it was known in the Soviet Union, the reality was different afterwards. With the Starostin brothers in jail, the club had to rebuild the squad around the few players who had survived the war. Both Dinamo and CSKA’s administration had managed to get their players and staff safe jobs behind the front, which meant they got through the war without losing players.

Sergei Salnikov, playing for Spartak Moscow.

Sergei Salnikov, playing for Spartak Moscow.

While Spartak struggled to rebuild the team, the rest of the clubs tried to lure the players they already had away from the club. The most famous move happened in 1950 when Dinamo got the striker Sergei Salnikov. Salnikov’s move to Dinamo caused a public outcry, where everyone from newspapers to normal workers wrote letters to Joseph Stalin demanding him to annul the move and protect Spartak from the theft of their players. At the same time a smear campaign against Salnikov started and his former fans hated him for his disloyalty towards Spartak, which was finally getting back on its feet.

In 2004 a biography about Salnikov by Aleksandr Soskin revealed that Salnikov’s stepfather had been arrested and imprisoned for financial crimes in 1949, when Dinamo were pursuing him. After his imprisonment, Salnikov’s sister was visited by a group of police officers, who told her that he would most likely die during the winter, which she then told her mother. After Salnikov heard the news, he contacted one of his former teammates who already played for Dinamo and his move to Dinamo was arranged. Soon after, he was contacted and told that his stepfather had been moved to a prison near Moscow where his wife was allowed to visit him as often as she liked. One of Nikolai Starostin’s first actions when he returned to Spartak was to get Sergei Salnikov back to Spartak, where he later joined the coaching staff.

Another Spartak player who had a similar experience with the Dinamo sports society is the legend Nikita Simonyan, who is also the highest scoring Spartak player in history. Before joining Spartak, Simonyan played for Krylia Sovetov Moscow, and during an away match against Dinamo Tbilisi in Georgia, he was told that the Georgian police had arrested his father in an attempt to force Simonyan into moving to Dinamo Tbilisi. Simonyan refused the offer, and with the help of his teammates, he managed to escape Georgia without being arrested. His father was released two days later, but according to Simonyan he feared another arrest until Simonyan retired in 1959.

Even though Dinamo was the richest club in the Soviet Union, the state could not force the citizens to support them. Most of Moscow’s workers, and a lot of the intellectuals also, chose to support Spartak instead, which gave them the nickname “The People’s Team”. In the Soviet Union, where personal freedom was low, the right to choose which football team you supported was one thing the men in power could not control. The Spartak fan’s picture of themselves as representatives of the fight against the people in power was built after several episodes where the club was opposed by authorities and the football association, to whom Dinamo, especially, had close ties because of its police leadership. Because of this, it’s logical to assume that Spartak’s fans were liberal democrats who opposed the totalitarian regime, but according to American Robert Edelman, who is an expert in Soviet sports history at the University of California, and the author of the book, Spartak Moscow – A History of the People’s Team in the Workers State, the truth is not as simple.

Spartak's 1958 squad that won the double.

Spartak’s 1958 squad that won the Soviet double.

In his brilliant book about the history of Spartak, Edelman points out how well Nikolai Starostin spoke “Bolshevik”, meaning he knew how to please the right people in power with the right words. This was especially true after his rehabilitation and Stalin’s death, when Spartak got closer ties to the government, which they have had ever since. Alexander Vainshtein, one of the writers of a Nikolai Starostin biography in 1989, has called the idea of Spartak as the people’s club a myth. He says that Spartak was indeed the most popular team, but that it is impossible to divide Spartak, CSKA and Dinamo fans into workers, soldiers and police officers. According to Vainshtein, the primary reason for Spartak’s popularity was the fact that they simply played the best football, although he does agree that it was an advantage for Spartak that they had no obvious ties with the authorities.

Dinamo president Beria had planned to be Stalin’s successor, but when Stalin died the new General Secretary of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev managed to get him arrested and later executed. The loss of Beria did not have an immediate impact on Dinamo’s success because they won five championships in the ten years after Beria’s death, but in hindsight it is obvious that their downturn started here. Dinamo won their last championship in 1976 and since then have they only added three cup titles to their trophy cabinet. To this day, Dinamo fans still talk about the Beria Curse, which mean that Dinamo are still being punished for Beria’s many cruel crimes against the Soviet people.

Dynamo and Spartak clash in 1976.

Dinamo and Spartak clash in 1976.

As Dinamo Moscow declined, Spartak’s new rival became Ukrainian side Dinamo Kiev, which then dominated the Soviet Supreme League. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Spartak had no real competition in the Russian Premier League, winning nine times between 1992 and 2001. At this time, Dinamo Moscow were a regular mid-table team and the rivalries with Zenit St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow started to get more attention because of those clubs’ success on the pitch. Even though Spartak have not won a title since the cup victory in 2003, they still lay claim to several of Russia’s most interesting derbies, and this will probably never change.

Follow Toke Theilade on Twitter: @TokeTheilade

Toke Møller Theilade

Author: Toke Møller Theilade

Brøndby supporter, groundhopper and more importantly Editor-in-Chief at As a hopeless romantic, I still believe Fyodor Smolov and Viktoria Lopyreva has a future together.


  1. A small correction, if I may. Only three ex-Spartak players actually died during the war, but Starostin, before his arrest, arranged for a lot of them to leave the club and sign for various factory teams, to keep them from front lines. After the war, not everyone returned (obviously), so Spartak was left with some pre-War stars who were 30+ and past their peaks, inexperienced youth players and some of those who weren’t taken by CSKA and Dynamo.

    • Toke Møller Theilade Toke Møller Theilade says:

      Hi Alexey!

      Thanks for the correction! Perhabs I should have phrased myself different in the piece. Right now it sounds like most of the team died, that was of course not the truth, as you say.

      I think it says a lot about Spartak that they managed to bounce back relatively quick.

      I hope you enjoyed my article.


  2. Coincidentally, we have similar headlines for our articles on the derby. It really is a “forgotten” one as far as derbies go, but I think it’ll be different now that Dynamo have established themselves as a consistent top 4 side.

  3. some literature suggests that the name Spartak was inspired by trans-national sports game organized by the different socialist & comunist party in Europe. These sport games were named after Spartacus and apparently some member of the team participated there. I should go back to some of my books to find the exact reference.

    • Toke Møller Theilade Toke Møller Theilade says:

      The truth is that the origin of the name is still uncertain. The Starostin brothers didn’t even agree on it.

      Nikolai Starostin faced clubs from the German Spartacus League during a tour in the country in 1927. There was also a Spartak Leningrad way before the original Spartak was created but that is never mentioned.

      Have you read Robert Edelman’s ‘Spartak Moscow – A History of the People’s Team in the Workers Stat’? Excellent book.

Leave a Reply