The Siege Game: Football In the City of the Dead

31 May 1942. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the artillery and gunfire stopped for a moment to hear a blow of a referee’s whistle in Dinamo Stadium. Despite the brutal devastation wrought upon the populace by German forces, a football match between Dinamo Leningrad and Nevsky Zavod took place. It was not just merely a leisure activity for the besieged citizens to enjoy but a defiant signal of resistance, that Leningrad would not surrender.

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Siege Mentality

German forces surrounded Russia’s old capital, the culmination of Operation Barbarossa which began in June 1941. On 15 September 1941, the Wehrmacht severed the cities communications and Finnish forces cut off their escape route north to Murmansk. This epic continued for 872 days, resulting in 632,000 deaths due to starvation, hypothermia, disease, enemy action and cannibalism. More people died in the defiant defence of Leningrad than both Britain and America had lost during the course of the war.

The Soviets initially expected a full assault from the German-Finnish axis, one war veteran commented;

“Our soldiers dashed from their dugouts, grabbing youngsters and women, pulling them off the road and out of the firing line…an incendiary shell landed on us methodically and precisely…A herd of cattle, frightened by the flaming asphalt began a stampede, kicking up a huge cloud of dust. Then the terrified animals charged straight into the minefield”.

This passage shows both the extensive defensive works the Soviets had prepared for a direct assault and the fear of the citizens; the Wehrmacht had invaded Konigsberg, Riga and were at the doors of Leningrad in just five months.

The siege coincided with the harshest winters in decades, with temperatures well under -30ºC. During February 1942, the Soviet High Command received reports of roughly 20,000 casualties per day and by April the Luftwaffe campaign of fear reached a new level. They did not continue their bombing runs which had devastated much of the city but dropped abominable leaflets which read; Ленинград: город мертвых, ’Leningrad: City of the Dead’. This psychological conflict was directed towards the sanguine citizens, aiming to break their defiance. The leaflet further claimed that the Wehrmacht had only delayed in taking the city “because we are scared of an epidemic from all the dead bodies”.

Trupoyedstvo and Lyudoyedstvo

The harsh winter and Wehrmacht blockade resulted in a severe famine; food demand sky-rocketed as food supply plummeted. Malnutrition was rife amongst the people of Leningrad, some citizens resulted to frantic forms of nutrition including eating sawdust, rocks and each other. The NVKD (Soviet Secret Police) divided them into two legal categories: Trupoyedstvo, corpse-eaters, and lyudoyedstvo, person-eaters. Corpse-eaters were charged with “special category banditry”, and the person-eaters were charged with murder.

In the first week of January 1942, the NKVD reported 42 cases of cannibalism; one man visiting 12 female cannibals in cells reported;

 “One woman, utterly worn out and desperate, said that when her husband fainted through exhaustion and lack of food, she hacked off a part of his leg to feed herself and her starving children.” 

Cannibalism in Leningrad was a by-product of severe desperation. The phenomenon was incredibly rare amongst the mass starvation, with only 1 in 100 murders due to cannibalism. Most citizens were able to stick to their cultural norms, were able to defy both the German advance and their own desperation.

Footballing Defiance 

Before the siege, the final football match in Leningrad was played on 24 June 1941 with the suspension of the Soviet Top League until after the fighting had ceased. The Siege Game (or Blockade Match as it is often recalled) was the only football match organised by the Regional Party Committee during this period. The main reason for the suspension in football was footballers themselves as many were either on the frontline fighting or had evacuated west in fear of the ensuing German advance.

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Dinamo Leningrad (today called Dinamo St. Petersburg) was the biggest of the three teams plying their trade in Leningrad in 1942, they were one of the seven teams in the first formation of the Soviet Top League in 1936. Their opponents, Nevsky Zavod were the team representing the Leningradsky Metallichesky Zavod factory (LMZ – Leningrad Metallurgical Plant) who had taken over the club in 1925 and are the spiritual successor to Zenit St. Petersburg.

The Petrograd Party Committee held talks with representatives of each club; Dinamo’s players were largely in the forces or police whereas those of Nevsky Zavod were mainly factory workers. The forces, women and children did claim a slightly better ration (although all were meagre). Due to this, the LMZ workers thought the Dinamo players had higher fitness levels and proposed they play only two 20-minute halves whereas Dinamo expected a full match. According to reports a compromise of 30 minutes per half was agreed upon. With many spectators forced to desperate measures to merely stave off exhaustion, the actions of all the players were somewhat remarkable. Dinamo Stadium was also damaged from the aerial bombing and looted for firewood in 1941, therefore the game was played at the Dinamo Reserve Stadium.

The game was broadcast on local radio for Leningraders, but neither sides on the front would’ve heard the broadcast and most citizens would’ve likely only heard of the match from press reports in the ensuing days. The result of the match was a Dinamo victory 6-0 and on 7 June 1942, a re-match was a 2-2 draw between the two sides in front of 250 spectators. From this point, football became a semi-regular event in the life of Leningraders, although no other formal matches took place in the Soviet Union until the resumption of the Soviet Cup in 1944 which involved both Dinamo and Zenit. After overcoming many difficulties, Zenit Leningrad proved that despite the German siege of Leningrad, the people of the city were not defeated. Zenit’s 2-0 victory against CDKA Moscow was more than just a football trophy for the people of Leningrad, who had suffered so much.

Last year a monument was raised in St. Petersburg in honor of the football defiance.

Last year a monument was raised in St. Petersburg in honour of the football defiance.

The Siege Game was not the only football match played in Leningrad during the blockade, but it was the first and the most poignant. It matched the zeitgeist of the Leningrad masses; the resistance those who fought the German advance, the defiance against starvation of those who did not succumb to cannibalism and the defiance of the players themselves, who managed to play a competitive football match when thousands of others were collapsing with exhaustion due to malnutrition. Local boy and future Zenit star, Yury Morozov were the protégé of Anatoly Mishuk, a member of the Dinamo team in the blockade match, Yury attributes Mishuk stubbornly defying the chaos and statelessness as key in forming his own love for the beautiful game.

Last year, upon the 70th anniversary of the Siege Game, a monument was unveiled on Krestovsky Island to honour the footballers who brought life to Leningrad’s City of the Dead.

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Follow James on Twitter: @JamesNickels

For an extended version of this article, check out DefensiveBloc, James’ personal blog about Soviet and Russian football

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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