‘Strelec’ in the GULAG: Eduard Streltsov’s Incarceration and Survival in the Vyatlag Archipelago

A Russian Postage stamp bearing Streltsov. Circulated in December 2015 alongside 6 other “Legends of Russian Football” in the build-up to the 2018 World Cup. Source: Peterstamps.com

A Russian Postage stamp bearing Streltsov. Circulated in December 2015 alongside 6 other “Legends of Russian Football” in the build-up to the 2018 World Cup. Source: rusmarka.ru

Curse of the Råsunda

Råsunda Stadium in Stockholm – for many Russian football fans a name synonymous with mythic tales of what might have been for the national sport, and their star player, Eduard Anatoliyevich Streltsov the “Russian Pelé”. Like so many other would-be football superstars he was tragically robbed of his career and could even be recalled as the “Russian Duncan Edwards”.

The 1958 World Cup was the watershed moment in Brazilian Pelé’s career, on 29 June the then seventeen-year-old scored a brace in the 5-2 Final win over hosts Sweden in the Råsunda Stadium, Solna. Just a month earlier, Streltsov suffered the nadir of his own career. He entered Eduard Karakhanov’s dacha in 25 May as the star of the Soviet Union national team and idol of Torpedo Moscow, but left in the hands of the KGB.

Streltsov was convicted of rape, and awaiting trial incarcerated in the GULAG system as the USSR were knocked out at the Quarter Final stage, by Sweden at the Råsunda. On 26 June 1955, it was against Sweden, again at the Råsunda that he made his debut for the Soviet national team, scoring a hat-trick (the first player ever to do so for the USSR on his debut) in a 6-0 win. The USSR’s golden generation led by Streltsov himself, Captain Igor Netto, goalkeeper Lev Yashin and Torpedo striking-partner Valentin Ivanov all started in the friendly.

1956 Summer Olympics

Streltsov by this point had scored 48 goals in 89 appearances for Torpedo and 18 in 21 for the USSR, yet had not won any silverware. His zenith, the 1956 Olympic Games is a microcosm of his future. He scored against West Germany in the First Round. In the Semi-Final against Bulgaria, the USSR trailed 1-0 with Ivanov suffering a strain injury and right-back Nikolay Tyschenko continuing to play despite breaking his collarbone. Streltsov equalised in the 112th minute then set-up Boris Tatushin for the winner in the 116th.

Despite single-handedly dragging a battered and bruised USSR team through to the Final against Yugoslavia, Streltsov and the injured-Ivanov were replaced by Spartak pair Nikita Simonyan (who would later captain the USSR at the World Cup, aged 32) and Sergei Salinkov as the head coach – Gavriil Kachalin – preferred club partnerships playing up-front. The USSR still went on to win 1-0 through Anatoli Ilyin. This foreshadows Streltsov’s future, being robbed of the biggest stage to perform upon; he did not even earn a winners medal as only the starting XI of the Final were granted them. Although Simonyan did offer him his medal, Streltsov refused and reportedly replied, “Nikita, I will win many others…this is yours”.

Mural of Streltsov at the Eduard Streltsov Stadium. Source: The Midfield Magazine

Mural of Streltsov at the Eduard Streltsov Stadium. Source: The Midfield Magazine


On the evening of the 25th, Streltsov, Tatushin and Mikhail Ogonkov went to a party hosted by returning army officer Eduard Karakhonov. The trio met Marina Lebedeva at the party, a socialite who paid particular interest to Streltsov. Many witnesses at the party claim that he was “seduced by her”, the daughter of an army colonel. She next day she wrote a letter to the Moscow public prosecutor;

‘On 25 May 1958, in a dacha next to the school in the village of Pravda, I was raped by Streltsov Eduard Anatoliyevich. I ask he be brought to justice’.

Lebedeva also wrote a letter accusing Ogonkov, but all three were charged. Yet only Streltsov did not return to Tarasovka (the national team’s training base) the following morning. Streltsov confessed to the rape, and was sentenced to twelve years imprisonment while the other two received three year disqualifications from football. Aleksandr Nilin, in Streltsov (2002), claims he only confessed as was told by the KGB he could play in the World Cup if he done so, and was subsequently convicted amidst inconclusive evidence on 24 July 1958 – three days after his 21st birthday. Nilin further claims over 100,000 factory workers from the ZiL-factory (the World War Two munitions factory in which Torpedo were created by) planned a protest in support but disbanded upon hearing news of his confession. Before this, on 30 May, Lebedeva sent the public prosecutor another letter, claiming;

‘I ask that the criminal proceedings against Streltsov Eduard Anatoliyevich be stopped, because I forgive him’.

Yet she withdrew this letter hurriedly only a day later, suggesting a conspiracy. Lebedeva also recanted the letter accusing Ogkonov, writing to the public prosecutor on 27 May, asking;

‘…to consider my application submitted to you of rape by Ogonkov…I have submitted a statement without thinking and therefor I apologise’.

This plea was accepted by the public prosecutor, yet the claim against Streltsov was dismissed. There are two machinations at play; the first that Streltsov, an east-Moscow Perovo native chose to play for his local team Torpedo embarrassed the KGB-owned Dynamo and army-owned CDKA Moscow, proving himself unpopular in the All-Union Council of Fitness Culture of USSR and the Football Federation of USSR – just as Simonyan was ostracised for choosing Spartak over the “big two”.

Streltsov also had numerous brushes with the party in the run-up to the events of 25 May 1958. In November 1957 He and Ivanov missed a train from Moscow to Leipzig ahaead of a 1958 World Cup qualifier play-off against Poland – forcing the Peoples’ Commissar of the Railways, B.P. Beshchev to order the train to be stopped in the suburb of Mozhaisk to allow the pair to board.

A few days before the USSR were to travel to China in January 1958, Streltsov was involved in a brawl with police at a Moscow metro station and convicted of ‘minor-scale hooliganism’. He was withdrawn from the USSR squad by the State Committee of Physical Culture, and only made the World Cup squad through a public apology.

However, the second machination was his most dangerous verse of his dance with the party authorities. Many in the party had considered him becoming too much of a “celebrity”, a “capitalist influence” and his womanising brought him to conflict with the only ever female Politburo member, Yekaterina Furtseva. She met him at a reception at the Kremlin celebrating the gold medal in the Olympics in 1957, and purportedly mentioned a possible marriage to her daughter, Svetlana. Apparently he replied “I have a fiancée and will not marry her”, which Furtseva took as a great slight. According to Jonathan Wilson, he was heard later disparaging Svetlana, claiming “I would never marry that monkey”. The Football Federation publicly criticised him numerous times following this, once for a sending off that was not “hero-like” and condemned his marriage before a friendly with Romania in which an internal memo read “this [his marriage] shows the weak educational work at Torpedo”. The crucial part of this case is Khrushchev’s reported knowledge of the case, who reportedly ordered his sending to prison as soon as he found out.

Wilson was shown a collection of letters by Nikita Simonyan which showed both a bruise Lebedeva and Streltsov, yet when asked of the question of guilt, he claimed;

‘It is a mysterious thing. He wrote to his mother saying he was taking the blame for someone else…the system punished Streltsov’

Just who did Streltsov take the blame for, one of the other players? Khrushchev? Or maybe it was merely an attempt at softening the blow his mother received.

Streltsov’s Experience in Vyatlag

Despite being initially sentenced a twelve-year internment, Streltsov only served 5 years and was released in 1963 – this is an especially rare occurrence with the norm a prisoners’ term being “stretched”. Yet he was not actually “released early”. After the highly publicised case, an “indoor court” took place during the World Cup itself. The twelve-year sentence was reduced in this court, as Streltsov was defended by famous Moscow lawyer Milovsky, but most interestingly is this court ignored the previous rule of law presented in the Moscow public prosecution, as he once again was asked to confess in order to form a deal, and sent to Vyatlag in the far-north of the Kirov Oblast.

Very little of Streltsov’s experience incarcerated is known, except that he was purportedly beaten by a fellow prisoner and spending four months in the prison hospital, with a report claiming he was ‘hit either by an iron bar or a shoe’. He was later moved to a section of the camp in which the warden was a football fan and had him playing for the prison camp teams to increase morale. But there is some recorded in the State Archive of the Kirov Region.

The old railway station at Vyatlag, Streltsov arrived as a prisoner here in a cattle cart surrounded by other camp-mates. Source: http://www.vyatlag.ru

The old railway station at Vyatlag, Streltsov arrived as a prisoner here in a cattle cart surrounded by other camp-mates. Source: http://www.vyatlag.ru

It is recorded that he did not arrive to a great ceremony or pomp, but merely as just one of many prisoners arriving at Lesnoy – the settlement closest to the camp. From here, special carts would transport them further. Initially those sent to Vyatlag would be kulaks – the ‘rich peasants’ deemed ‘un-socialist’ – but after Stalin’s death in 1953 the camp population was composed of career criminals, actors, artists, poets, academics and one footballer. All of which were convicted either of rape, murder or ‘anti-Soviet agitation’ under Article 58. The camp was once mainly used for prisoners-of-war but they had all been returned, released or died by 1958.

Streltsov lived off a general diet of bread – made using watery dough due to the marshland surrounding the camp – and containing bran, barley and buckwheat which gave it a “bluish colouring” and “tasted worse than foul”, according to an inmate and ex-construction engineer Yury Yurkevich, arrested under Article 58.

One record of the camp archives record the fates of rapists in the camp committing suicide early in their stay. One ex-inmate, Irina Moiseyevna claimed; “anyone who is sent down for that crime is simply passed from one to another, that’s the code of the underworld”. This will corroborate reports that Streltsov was attacked early in his stay and put under increased protection. Some claim this person was involved with the government, but the likelier claim is that the attack was retribution for his sentence.

Vladimir Veremyev, a local researcher of the camp claimed the death rates were extraordinarily high, he compared Vyatlag and Buchenwald, finding that the former had 90,000 on register, with 24% (21,000) of them dying as compared to only 14% at Buchenwald (33,000 of 236,000).

Streltsov survived the camp relatively unharmed following his initial beating, protected by the guards. But he also increasingly earned the admiration of his comrades in the camp, apparently through his performances in matches and shows of skill to impress fellow prisoners, despite his initial sentence. Fellow prisoner, Ivan Lukyanov claimed ‘we loved Streltsov, we believed he would return to football, and not only us’, as claimed in the book, The Criminal Case of Streltsov.

‘Strelec’s’ Legacy

Today, Streltsov is rightly considered one of the greatest footballers of the Soviet Union. It is somewhat ironic that he tragically died of throat cancer in 1990, and could not outlast the system which had incarcerated him in the Vyatlag archipelago. Yet his legacy endures and has posthumously endured a reincarnation; a two Ruble silver coin was commissioned in 2010 with his likeness as part of the “Outstanding Sportsmen of Russia” series alongside Lev Yashin and Konstantin Beskov. A series of stamps were likewise commissioned in 2015 celebrating his achievements.


The two-Ruble commemorate coin celebrating Streltsov. Source: http://tribodoscaboclos.blogspot.co.uk/

The two-Ruble commemorate coin celebrating Streltsov. Source: http://tribodoscaboclos.blogspot.co.uk/

Yet, his greatest legacy was the Eduard Streltsov stadium, Torpedo’s home ground renamed in 1996. The RFU have since created the ‘Strelec’ in 1997, the inaugural player of the year prize in the Russian Premier League in honour of Streltsov. Yet, he has never been pardoned or fully rehabilitated. Then Mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov and chess world champion Anatoly Karpov in 2001 began a campaign to call for a pardon, with the latter – the President of the Streltsov Committee formed to head the campaign – claiming, ‘If it hadn’t been for that [the conviction], Streltsov without a doubt would have become the best footballer in the world’.

Streltsov’s defining moment had been sandwiched just a month prior Pelé cementing himself into football history and three months after the brilliant Duncan Edwards tragically died in the Munich disaster, yet the Russian is a mix of the two. His superstar status was taken away from him, but his great perseverance and survival ability saw him playing again from 1963, and he finally fulfilled his promise to Nikita Simonyan that he would “gain many more [medals]”.


Follow James on Twitter: @JamesNickels

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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