JOHN O’SULLIVAN uncovers the ex-Soviet secret police chief’s love of football and how it drove him to extraordinarily vicious lengths.
Stalin closed his eyes and began singing softly, the old Russian song “You’re caught in the net, my pretty little bird, I won’t let you go, for anything in the world.” Pobkrebyshev looked at Stalin, at his grey, thinning hair, his pock marked face, his closed eyes; suddenly he felt the ends of his fingers grow cold - Life and Fate , Vasily Grossman.
The final whistle blew at last; exhausted the victorious players of Spartak Moscow fell to their knees. They had triumphed against all the odds; they had beaten Dinamo Tbilisi, 3-2, in the semi final of the Russian Cup. In the stands Nikolai Starostin - one of Spartaks founding members - received the accolades of the people around him; but amid the handshakes and the backslapping a solitary figure caught Starostin’s eye, the toadish, bespectacled little man in the expensive overcoat regarded him with a look of pure hatred before turning away. Starostin’s stomach jumped into his throat, the man was Lavrenty Beria chief of the NKVD, Nikolai knew that his fate was sealed; he would be going on a long trip.
Born in Georgia in 1899, Beria had been a soldier in the First World War, before deserting to take part in the revolution. He joined the Cheka (secret police, forerunners of the NKVD and later the KGB) in 1919 and, through corruption, blackmail and sometimes murder, quickly rose through the ranks to become head of the Georgian division. He first met Stalin in Georgia in 1931, when he staged and then appeared to foil an elaborate assassination attempt on the Soviet chief. Stalin rewarded him by making him party boss of the Transcaucasian Republics, and during this time he became responsible for administrating the great purges of 1936-38. It must have struck Beria that if the state itself could get away with mass murder, then who would miss the odd petty official or jealous husband who stood in his way? His efficiency was not lost on Stalin who brought him to Moscow to become deputy head of the NKVD - under Yezhov. Stalin was by this time keen to find an exit strategy from the purges which, even he felt were a bit excessive, so he ultimately blamed it all on Yezhov, who was summarily tried and executed. Beria took over and began to row back the mass murder (killing only hundreds of thousands instead of millions) but still took the opportunity of systematically, eliminating the hierarchy of the NKVD replacing them with his own loyalists.
Becoming chief also meant that Beria took over the NKVD’s powerful sporting organisation, Dinamo. Beria had been a keen footballer in his youth and was an avid supporter of his local team, Dinamo Tbilisi, but in his new position was more concerned with the fate of the organisation’s flagship outfit, Dinamo Moscow. At this time, Dinamo were constantly being eclipsed by their fellow Muscovites, Spartak (who took their name from the rebel Roman slave Spartacus) who were considered the “people’s club”. Spartak’s football was all about individual brilliance and daring; above all they felt it their duty to entertain. Conversely, Dinamo were more regimented, relying on discipline and sticking to a pre-arranged plan. Backed by the powerful Kroomspayia trade union and run by the charismatic Starostin brothers, Spartak would prove to be formidable opponents for Beria to take on. But take them on he would. Putting Beria in charge of Dinamo was effectively putting him in charge of all football in the Soviet Union. The American historian Robert Edelman in his book “Spartak Moscow – A History of the Peoples Team in the Workers State” described it as;
“It was as if New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner had been combined with former FBI head J. Edgar Hoover into one single human and given the powers of the chief of the Gestapo!”
Beria would approach the problem of Spartak’s dominance in the same way he approached any problem with a rival; he would seek to eliminate them. Of course getting rid of a whole institution like Spartak was problematic to say the least, they were far too popular; he would seek to solve the problem by cutting off its head, in this case the Starostin family.
The brothers Starostin (Nikolai, Andrey, Alexander and Piotr) had enjoyed considerable freedom and protection from the old NKVD regime, and were still well connected but, as with nearly all high profile Soviets, dossiers were still being compiled and Beria began a project of evidence gathering and surveillance to try and find even the most tenuous excuse to arrest them. There were rumours of black marketeering and currency speculation surrounding Spartak’s 1935 tour to Paris, there was Spartak’s adoption of Herbert Chapman’s WM formation - which many considered to be too bourgeois for Soviet football - but above all there was Nikolai Starostin’s lavish lifestyle with his high profile friends among Moscow’s intelligentsia. Taken in isolation these matters were trivial, even in Stalinist Russia. Beria needed a way of joining the dots. With the bizarre conclusion to the 1939 Russian Cup it became personal. Beria would pounce.
On the 8th of September 1939, Dinamo Stadium in Moscow played host to the semi-final between Spartak and Beria’s Dinamo Tbilisi. Spartak would win a tight game 2-1, however the winner came as a result of a goalmouth scramble and Tbilisi lodged an official complaint that the ball hadn’t crossed the line. The appeal was immediately turned down. Just a few days later Spartak lifted the Cup - after beating Stalinets of Leningrad 3-1 in the final. The jubilation on the streets of Moscow was short-lived, when Spartak were informed that the semi-final was to be replayed. The order had come straight from the Central Committee of the Communist Party, but even the dogs on the street knew that it was all Beria’s doing. For the first time in football a team would take to the field for a semi-final, despite having already won the final. 80,000 attended the replay, again in Dinamo Stadium, and all observers agreed that it was one of the most thrilling games in Soviet football history. After a game that ebbed and flowed from end to end, Spartak once again came out on top, winning 3-2. For Beria this was the final humiliation, he issued an order for the Starostin’s arrest.
Beria, though very busy, liked nothing better than to roll his sleeves up and get stuck in - particularly at interrogations - indeed being interrogated by him personally was colloquially known as “having coffee with Beria”. Once, after a meeting with a delegation of miners, Stalin couldn’t find his favourite pipe, and asked Beria to ask the miners if any of them had seen it. Later Stalin found the pipe in a drawer, and phoned Beria to tell him. “What a pity,” was Beria’s reply, “They’ve all confessed!” In the Soviet Union, guilt or innocence were semantic issues, there was only the arrest, then the evidence would be found, and then you were done for. One of the more bizarre charges against the Starostins was pieced together from a series of “confessions” obtained from friends of theirs. The allegations centred on a plot to assassinate Stalin at the 1937 exhibition of culture in Red Square. The Spartak players were on a float shaped like a giant football boot, and at a signal from Nikolai were to leap off and, using revolvers hidden in their football shorts, were to shoot Stalin and other dignitaries gathered on the main dais. Now it is possible that this was too farfetched even for the NKVD, but people were executed for far less in the Soviet era, even a cursory browse of Solzhenitsyn’s the Gulag Archipelago will yield even more bizarre examples. Still, as Vasily Grossman would write in Life and Fate, at least the Soviets would look for an excuse to kill you, the Nazi’s would just kill you. Eventually Beria would settle for the less serious charges of black market profiteering and introducing bourgeois elements into Soviet football. All four brothers were sentenced to 10 years each in the Gulags. Andrei had a brief reprieve when Stalin’s son Vasily, commandeered him to coach his new club VVS, but it says much for Beria’s power that he had him rearrested and exiled for life.
When Soviet football resumed after the Second World War a new power emerged to challenge Dinamo and the now rudderless Spartak; the army’s team CSKA Moscow who would be champions in 1946,’47,’48,’50 and ’51. Hugely popular because of their defeat of the Nazis, the Red Army were seen as untouchable, even for Beria, still he wouldn’t let that fact stand in his way. There began a systematic strategy of bribery, blackmail and threats to coerce CSKA’s best players into joining Dinamo, one player was promised leniency for his parents in the Gulag, even though Beria knew well that he’d had them shot months before. Despite these tactics, CSKA would continue to flourish, mainly because of their coach, the revolutionary and charismatic ex-Dinamo, Boris Arkadiev. Try as he might Beria could get no dirt on Arkadiev, but once again opportunity knocked, this time in the shape of the 1954 Olympic Games.
Many Soviets were surprised - despite the success of CSKA - at the nomination of Arkadiev as head coach of the Soviet football team to take part in the Helsinki games, but Beria (now deputy Prime Minister and Curator of the Organs of State Security) offered no resistance to the appointment. Some commentators suggest that Beria was simply too busy with other things to care, but perhaps he was simply providing Arkadiev with “enough rope”? The Soviets sent a strong 20 man squad (containing just 5 CSKA players, it’s worth noting) to Helsinki and , even though they went out at the first round to eventual runners up Yugoslavia, were by no means disgraced. Indeed they drew 5-5 in the first game, the Yugoslavs taking the replay 3-1 - before going on to be beaten in the final by the Mighty Magyars - but it wasn’t the first round exit that was the problem, it was the fact that they’d been knocked out by Stalin’s arch enemy Tito’s Yugoslavia. The result caused such embarrassment to the regime, that the result was not published until after Stalin’s death. The main repercussion against Arkadiev and CSKA was that overnight they simply ceased to exist. They were expunged from the history books and never mentioned again in the press, their players dispersed among other clubs with Dinamo, naturally given the pick. It is worth looking up the League tables for this period to see CSKA champions in 1951, not mentioned in ’52 or ’53, and then suddenly turning up again to finish 6th in 1954!
While a lot of commentators of this period query whether Beria had even the time to worry about a seemingly trivial matter like football, it’s important to note that Beria was a workaholic who slept only a couple of hours every day. There was nothing that went on in the Soviet Union that he didn’t take an active interest in. His secretary, General Sarkisov, would note that Beria read the sports pages of every newspaper first, while having his morning tea. The feud with Spartak was really a feud with the Starostins – particularly Nikolai. There is little doubt that Beria was insanely jealous of the debonair playboy with his artist friends, and his popularity among Muscovites. The problem with CSKA was again motivated by jealousy; all the Marshalls of the Red Army had been decorated – with the Order of Victory – after the war. Beria’s significant contribution to the Soviet victory was ignored and this enraged him, he would seize any opportunity to discredit the army. By this time Stalin had come to loathe his trusted Lieutenant, instructing Sariskov to “Bring me everything the asshole writes down.” Every Soviet citizen, top to bottom, was living on borrowed time. Beria’s time was running out.
On the evening of March 1st 1953 Stalin suffered a major stroke. Ironically, it was Stalin’s absolute power that was to kill him. Beria and the rest of the inner circle were afraid to involve a doctor - Stalin’s personal physician was being tortured in the Lubyanka at the time - in case Stalin recovered and had them all shot; his last order had been “I don’t want to be disturbed!” When Stalin eventually died, on the 5th of March, Beria sprang into action. Immediately positioning his ally, Malenkov, as new head of state, he declared a general amnesty for all persons in exile or in the Gulags and began to publicly condemn Stalin, privately boasting that he had personally poisoned the dictator. The new regime would face its first major crisis in June 1953, when a strike by construction workers in East Berlin quickly escalated into a mass uprising. Unsure of how to act at first, the regime soon reverted to type, and sent in the tanks to crush the revolt. Beria’s last entry in his diary on June 17th was the chilling sentence “Our stupidity, their provocations, and one has to shoot as a result. I am sorry for people, but we’ll have to shoot.” Over 600 people were killed and 5,000 arrests were made. Khrushchev used the resulting chaos to seize power and denounce Beria. The most powerful man in Russia was accused of treason and sentenced to death.
The guards pushed and kicked the sobbing Beria down the cold, harshly lit corridor. “Your beloved Dinamo were cheated out of the title”, they taunted, “Spartak are champions again”. The cell had no furniture, no windows; the concrete floor sloped away from the walls at all sides, leading to a small drain in the middle. General Batitsky stuffed a rag in Beria’s mouth, to stop his bawling, and kicked him to his knees. He shot him once through the forehead. “It’s done”, he said. “Take this garbage out to the woods and burn him”.
JOHN O‘SULLIVAN - @clockend5