The Black Secret of Luzhniki – Between Memory and Oblivion

The only surviving photographs of 27 of the 66 victims of the disaster, sourced from memorial site october20.ru. Image: James Nickels/RFN.

20th October 1982, Sixty-six Spartak Moscow fans would traverse up the stairway on Tribune C of the Central Lenin Stadium, the current Luzhniki, for a UEFA Cup game against Dutch side HFC Haarlem. This would be the last time they would ever make their journey, as, during injury time, they tragically died in a stampede, the majority of which were adolescents enjoying their first-ever game. 38 of the victims were aged eighteen or under, with the youngest, schoolboy Volodya Anikin, who had just celebrated his fourteenth birthday. To this ay it is still the largest ever sporting disaster in Russian and Soviet history.

Winter had already arrived in the city of Moscow. A record cold for October was beaten with -10°C registered. Snow is falling on the icy streets. Though, in the Luzhniki on this Wednesday in 1982, the last sixteen tie took place as regular. Despite the snow falling before the beginning of the confrontation, the game still took place.

Through these weather conditions, and despite a maximum capacity of 103,000 people at the time, the authorities limited the number of spectators, issuing 82,000 tickets for the match and opened only Tribunes C (and a small section of Tribune A) to fans, leaving huge swathes of the stadium not simply left empty and uninhabited, but in fact filled with snow and ice. Without any roof until 1997 and with only one exit at each end of the stand, the Luzhniki was covered in white. The stadium administration attempted to desperately clear much of the remains but was unable to due to the sheer amount. 16,500 Spartak fans and 140 Dutch fans braved these extreme conditions. The stage was planted, and, without knowing it, these supporters will be the main actors of the Luzhniki drama.

Before the drama unfolded, there was a match. Spartak faced HFC Haarlem after having eliminated Arsenal the previous round (3-2, 5-2). Spartak, with a beautiful starting eleven composed of; Rinat Dasayev, Vladimir Sotchnov, Boris Pozdnyakov, Vladimir Shcherbak, Oleg Romantsev, Sergey Shavlo, Sergey Shvetsov, Edgar Gess, Yuri Gavrilov, Fyodor Cherenkov and Sergey Rodionov. Omitting that the great Konstantin Beskov was the Red-Whites’ coach would be a grave mistake.

READ MORE: Konstantin Beskov – The Muscovite Tactician

In these difficult conditions, the fans were quickly warmed up, thanks to a strong free-kick from Gess after just sixteen minutes. 1-0, Spartak everybody mistakenly believed that the evening started well. If, during the game, the tensions between Police and the supporters were lively – many throughout threw the only “weapons” available in the place…snowballs! – the spectacle on the ground was not very glorious. The score remained as frozen as the cold weather in Moscow, with Haarlem unable to equalise. The game was heading to a routine Spartak victory and, as often, under the expectation of the scoreline remaining the same, many began to leave early in order to catch the metro easily. Tribune C is to this day famous for it’s closeness to the Leninskiye Gory (now called Vorobyovy Gory) metro station. They did so quietly, without pushing and shoving. A fact that was turned upside down forever just minutes later.

Thus the tragedy ensued. Hundreds of fans traversed into the tunnel that joins the stairs at the exit of the stadium, the only exit available that night. At the same time, on the field, just twenty seconds before the final whistle, Shvetsov scored a second for Spartak. The fans celebrated wildly, but for only a few moments.

Listening to the sounds of joy in the speaker’s voice, which resonated down into the concourse, the hundreds of supporters who were leaving turned immediately in the hope of participating in the cheering and knowing the scorer. Confusion and panic reigns as hundreds are stuck in the tunnel and on the stairway. Some of them fall and are trampled by others trying desperately to get out of the area, a living hell. Security attempted to calm the crowd, without success. In the end, they’ll perish as well. Supporters continue to stumble over one another and desperately grip to walls, anything, climbing where they can onto the railings, which fall over due to the weight of the crowd. People slip on the icy stairs, some of them stumble, leading the other people to fall like dominoes. The air was more and more restricted and people began to suffocate. From the dream, Luzhniki became a nightmare.

Police began to move the bodies making a stack of them in front of the statue of Lenin that still stands in front of the Olympic Stadium. Ambulances arrived within an hour, victims were sent to the various hospitals around the capital.

If the security was aware of the drama, this was not the case for everybody. The tragic scene played out in full secrecy. The foreign journalists left the stadium by another exit and did not suspect a thing, while there were only a few people still left in the stands at the time who knew. Neither did the Haarlem fans who left the stadium under police escort. English journalist, writer and academic Jim Riordan heard the cries of the crowd searching for an exit. Players, who were quietly walking into their locker room, did know the disaster unfolding just a few feet away from them. Edgar Hess claimed in 2007 that;

We knew nothing about the victims. We were sitting in the dressing room afterwards and hadn’t the faintest idea about the catastrophe unfolding around us. But it was only next morning when Spartak boss Nikolai Starostin told us the news that we were aware of the disaster.

The next morning, the indifference continued. Whereas in modern times, in a world of instant information, news spreads worldwide almost immediately, through social media, the catastrophe was only mentioned in an article in the daily evening paper Vechernaya Moskva;

On the 20th October 1982, after the game at the Central Stadium Lenin, an accident occurred at the exit of the stadium involving many spectators, caused due to unrest and crowd movement. Victims are deplored. An investigation into the circumstances of the accident is ongoing.

That was it. No big title. The press barely even mentioned the events of that night and authorities asked families of the victims not to talk to the press, especially foreign journalists. These same families later had to retrieve the remains of their relatives in order to bury the dead, because of the identification and the autopsy performed on the bodies of the victims.

Finally, the survey and investigation were conducted with the utmost secrecy. They lead to the indictment and sentencing of four people, including the stadium manager and director. The Police were not really worried, and this in spite of serious mistakes of the safety of the fans. Why was only one exit available that day? We’ll never know. All we know today, are the consequences of this situation that we’ll discover years later, in 1989 during the Glasnost. Official reports claim sixty-six died that day, others claim the death toll was as high as 340. If the public learns it in 1989, it is also the case of players and, especially, Shvetsov, who will regret his whole life to have scored that goal. One of the most tragic goals in football history.

This tragedy remains in the memory of the Spartak and its fans. It is somewhat prophetic that the new and improved Luzhniki opens just a fortnight after the 35th anniversary of the most tragic moment ever held at the old. Those sixty-six who tragically passed away may never have traversed back down the fabled stairway of Tribune C but will be remembered and memorialised forever.

Although the most famous icon surrounding the Luzhniki today is the imperious statue of Vladimir Lenin overlooking central Moscow, just off to the right is a resplendent yet lachrymose sculpture in remembrance of the victims. The ‘Monument to the Dead at World Stadiums’ was erected in 1992, only three years after the revelation to the public, on the tenth anniversary of the disaster, on the site roughly where the victims’ bodies were left after the game. In 2007, 24 years after the events, a match in memory of the victims between Spartak and Haarlem took place at the Luzhniki. Supporters of Spartak will never forget and did not wait for 1989. Only a few days after the tragedy, fans wrote a song to pay tribute to the dead;

 

The 20th, bloody Wednesday;
We will remember forever that terrible day.
A match of the UEFA Cup came to an end.
Haarlem and our Spartak played.
Without leaving any chance, Shvetsov scored a nice goal,
The final whistle sounds – The match before the death ended.
And we were all happy, we won that day.
We didn’t know yet that the Police was perfidious
We were all out by a single way,
fifteen thousand – it is strong,
And there, on the steps icy was,
And broke all the ramps.
There they tended their hands, begging,
Not only a single fan died there,
And from the crowd heard:
“Stand back guys, stand back all of you! ”
When the crowd departed,
There were screams, blood,
And so much blood spilt there;
And who responds to this blood?
Who is responsible for? Who’s gonna give an explanation?
I don’t have already the strength to answer anymore.
The police stifled all the questions,
And only friends are lying in the graves.

Author: Vincent Tanguy

Comments

  1. Last row, third from the left. Is it Medvedev? cause He definitely looks like him.

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