BY TOKE MØLLER THEILADE
The 20th of October, 1982 was a painfully cold day in Moscow, bringing along the first snow of the season. Despite the unfortunate weather conditions, ten thousand spectators showed up to watch Spartak Moscow’s UEFA Cup encounter with the Dutch side Haarlem. The match was played at the enormous Lenin Stadium, later renamed Luzhniki Stadium - host of the 1999 UEFA Cup final, 2008 Champions League final and 2018 World Cup final. Of the 82,000 tickets on sale for that game, only ten thousand were actually sold. Because of the terrible weather only the most faithful fans showed up, primarily teenagers and young men, the so-called fanaty’s or the Soviet equivalent of the European ultras. The low number of spectators, combined with a pressure for getting the stands ready and free of snow made the authorities close two of the four sections at the stadium.
Most of the attending fans placed themselves on the East Stand, since its exit was the closest to the nearby metro station Lenin Hill, a decision that would later turn out to be fatal. From the East Stand the fans could follow some of the Soviet Union’s biggest football stars, like the goalkeeper Rinat Dasayev, defender Oleg Romantsev - who would later lead Spartak to nine league titles as coach - and the incredibly gifted midfielder Fyodor Cherenkov. The Spartak fans expected a good result before the return leg in the Netherlands two weeks later.
Edgar Gess, a midfielder born in Tajikistan, scored the opening goal in the 16th minute, but from there on the Spartakovtsy’s had to wait many frustrating minutes before the Georgian born striker Sergei Shvetsov finally sealed the result with a second goal twenty seconds from the end of the match. He would regret this goal for the rest of his life, as he later admitted: “I wish I hadn’t scored.”
A few minutes before Shvetsov’s goal, a couple of hundred fans had left the match in order to avoid the rush at the metro station. The fans had a choice of two exits to leave through, but the majority chose the one closest to the metro station; an exit that was slippery and icy due to the weather. When Shvetsov scored, and the departing fans heard the roar from the celebrating crowd, many of those on their way out immediately turned around to get back into the stadium. Within seconds this turned into a bloodbath, where people slipping on the icy stairway were trampled, while others were crushed between the two groups of people respectively trying to leave and enter the stadium.
According to American historian Robert Edelman, who has written a brilliant book on the history of Spartak in the Soviet Union, it took thirty minutes before the first ambulances arrived at the stadium. Meanwhile, police officers and soldiers began to carry the bodies of the dead Spartak fans to the parking lot of Lenin Stadium.
While Spartak’s fans fought for their life, the 100 Dutch fans left the match through a different exit, totally oblivious to the scenes that were occurring at the other end of the stadium.
“We were told there was an accident several days later, but it was months before we realized people were killed,” Dick Hulsebosch, the president of Haarlem, later said.
Hulsebosch was, however, not the only one who failed to grasp the seriousness of the accident in the stands. The goalscorer Gess later said “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. We later heard that the Voice of America radio station had broken the news that evening. But it was only next morning when Spartak boss Nikolai Starostin told us the news that we were aware of the disaster.”
The Soviet citizens were also kept in the dark. Despite the size of the catastrophe, only a single newspaper wrote about the event at Lenin Stadium the next day. In Vechernaia Moskva the citizens could read: “Yesterday, at Luzhniki, after the end of the football match, an unfortunate event occurred. There were casualties among the spectators.” The police later blamed the disaster on young hooligans instead of the stadium administration who had failed to discover and eliminate the threat of what would turn into a death trap.
That report from Vechernaia Moskva was the only thing the Soviet public heard about the tragedy for many years. General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev ordered they should be kept in the dark, in order to hide the mistakes made by the authorities. When Brezhnev died 21 days later, his successor, the former head of the KGB Yuri Andropov, started a formal investigation which would eventually lead to the newly appointed stadium manager Yuri Panchikhin being sentenced to 18 months in a labour camp for causing the death of 66 people. In Panchikhin, Andropov and the rest of the Communist party’s top brass found a scape goat. Panchikhin, supported by several eyewitnesses, blamed the police at the stadium for making fatal mistakes, but nothing ever came of these claims.
Panchikhin was not the only person to stand trial. However, stadium director Victor Kokryshev, stadium deputy director K. Lyzhin and the chief of the police S. Koryagin were all given amnesty. Kokryshev and Lyzhin because of their military past and the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Soviet Union, while Koryagin was forgiven because of his attempts to save as many people as possible.
No Soviet media covered the trial, and until April 1989, no one mentioned the disaster. In the spirit of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost – the policy that allowed a degree of press freedom - a group of journalists from Sovetsky Sport ran an article on the disaster where they claimed, according to their research, the number of victims could be even higher than the official number of 66 deaths. Sovetsky Sport reported a death toll of around 100 without having proper sources to back up the claim. Three months later, journalists from the same paper made another estimate of 340 deaths, a number that was based on interviews with parents of deceased Spartakovtsys. This article also revealed that the Soviet authorities had cancelled all Spartak matches in October 1982 for fear that the flowers being placed at the stadium by family and friends of the deceased would blow the story wide open.
Following Sovetsky Sport’s revelation, the newspaper Izvestia interviewed Aleksandr Shpeyer who was in charge of the 1982 investigation. Shpeyer denied Sovetsky Sport’s claims of more than 300 deaths, and said that “only” 66 people had died, while 61 were injured, just like the official numbers said. Sovetsky Sport later admitted that their numbers were exaggerated. Shpeyer called it a ‘tragic accident’ but denied that the police caused the tragedy saying it was impossible to always prevent such events. Furthermore, Shpeyer denied that the information about the accident had been hidden from the public, since they were available for anyone to view in Moscow’s archives.
Even though Shpeyer described it as a tragic accident, Izvestia’s article also had another angle on the events that occurred before the disaster in 1982. The authors uncovered that several of Spartak’s supporters had smuggled alcohol into the stadium in order to stay warm. Many of these fans started to throw snowballs and even bottles at policemen during the game which led the police to narrow the exit in an attempt to catch the lawbreakers when they left at the end of the match.
Thirty-three years later it is impossible to say exactly what caused the deaths of 66 people on that October night in 1982, but it is safe to say that what happened at Luzhniki Stadium will always be remembered as the worst catastrophe and the darkest chapter in the history of Russian and Soviet football. The numbers of more than 300 deaths was proved to be exaggerated, but it is impossible to say if the number of deaths was exactly 66 as the authorities claimed and still claims today or if it was higher as some eyewitnesses maintain.
Spartak is, in collaboration with their fans, hosting an annual football tournament around the 20th of October, where the revenue will be donated to the families of the victims. Following a benefit game for the families of the victims between veterans of Spartak and Haarlem in 2007, a Russian commentator described the tragedy to The Moscow Times this way: “The last thing they saw in their lives was football.”
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