Spartak statues show how football can be more than life and death

Those who've watched matches at Moscow's Spartak Stadium - Brazil play Serbia there on June 27 - might have noticed a set of four statues next to the goalpost on the left of the dugouts. It's of four men; two are sitting on a bench, two standing next to them. It's an unusual setting for a monument - right by the playing area, taking up precious real estate reserved for photographers.

But this is no ordinary monument: It's a tribute to the Starostin brothers - Nikolai, Aleksandr, Andrey and Pyotr - the founders of Spartak, whose personal story is closely intertwined with, and as riveting as, the story of their club. In a nutshell, they turned Spartak into the "dissident" club and were then charged with attempting to murder Stalin, charges that were later turned into the crime of attempting to bring bourgeois mores into Soviet sport. They were exiled to Siberian labour camps but survived that, outlived Stalin too and eventually returned to Spartak.

Last week, news emerged that the Russian Federal Security Service - the successor to the KGB - had recently declassified documents pertaining to the arrest, trial and conviction of the Starostin brothers that showed up the near-farcical nature of the entire process. There is some belief that the declassification was prompted by the World Cup and the desire to demonstrate transparency; whatever the reason, it offered more proof, if needed, that the Starostins fully deserved this unusual pitch-side honour.

But to start at the beginning. The Starostins grew up in Moscow's Presnia district, which played a lead role in the October Revolution; they were all sportsmen of varying abilities but their USP was their independent streak. When the brothers came of age in the 1930s, they decided to take their sporting interests to another level and set up a football club.

Back then, Moscow's main clubs were official arms of different parts of the state: Dinamo Moscow was the club of the NKVD (the KGB's predecessor); Lokomotiv the club of railway workers; CSKA the army team and Torpedo of automobile workers. The Starostins decided their club should be unaffiliated, of the people. And their choice of name was not accidental - Spartacus, leader of the slave revolt and champion of the underdog (who is also honoured with a statue, though outside the stadium).

Imagine the context. Those were uncertain and fairly terrifying times in the USSR, with the state machine going to great lengths to ensure stability. The preparations for Stalin's Great Purge were underway. Anyone and everyone was a potential suspect and all dissent was potentially a crime against the state.

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Even sport was tightly controlled - it was a huge propaganda weapon, directly influencing the minds of young men and women, hence the state-sponsored football teams. Into this mix came Spartak, free of affiliations and loyalties and with a commitment to play the best football. It was a brave move, and though it would have its consequences, it also very soon proved to be a huge success.

One reason was the football; Nikolai Starostin imbibed the best ideas from Europe and used his growing influence within the top Soviet leadership to create an exciting, attacking team that was crowned national champions three times their first five years.

But there was a deeper, perhaps unspoken, reason for Spartak's growing popularity: because they weren't representing any government organisation, they became the symbol of what was "free" - and perhaps democratic. Back then, supporting a football club was one of the few free choices available to the Soviet citizen. Everything in life was dictated by and linked to the state but here was a chance to engage in something that had nothing to do with the state.

"To be a fan", the anthropologist Levon Abramian is quoted as saying in Simon Kuper's Football Against the Enemy, "is to be gathered with others and to be free."

The public grabbed the chance with both hands.

Soon, as the NKVD and the security apparatus increased its reach into people's lives, the fans' love for Spartak was complemented by their hatred of Dinamo. In a 1990 interview to the historian Robert Edelman, Spartak fan Boris Nazarov shed light on the rivalry. "As I was growing up, when Spartak played Dinamo or CSKA, you could hear from the stands 'kill the cops' or 'kill the soldiers'".

It's not clear how the dissent in the stands, the "kill the cops" chants, was allowed. In a society that was so tightly controlled, there would surely have been the expectation of discovery and reprisal, but it didn't happen. Either the sheer numbers involved provided some sort of anonymity or the authorities saw it as a safety valve, allowing the public to let off steam here rather than with more serious ramifications.

As the Spartak-Dinamo rivalry grew more bitter and intense, the Starostins added fuel to the fire. In 1936 they were invited to take part in the national Physical Culture Day celebrations on Red Square; it was an event of the highest profile and usually featured tightly-organised gymnastic and other regimented displays of physical expression. Spartak decided to stage a football match on an "artificial" pitch they unrolled there; an expression of free-flowing, freewheeling football that was antithetical to the Soviet concept of sport.

All this added to the fury of the dreaded security chief Lavrenti Beria - in charge of Dinamo, among other things - and something had to give. Enter the plot against the state.

In the course of a few months, in 1937-38, people close to the Starostins were picked up; they named the brothers as conspirators in a plot to murder Stalin. That match they played in Red Square, at which Stalin was present, was a convenient alibi against them. This charge was later dropped when the police realised they didn't have any real evidence. They were then charged with "propagating Western bourgeois mores onto Soviet sport" and financial embezzlement and other forms of corruption.

They were arrested in 1942 and sentenced to ten years in Siberia, and their good luck held out when their prison camp guards realised who they were and gave them preferential treatment. It also helped that Stalin's son Vasily Iosifovich Dzhugashvili was also a huge football fan and - for various reasons- inimical to Beria. He gave Nikolai Starostin as much protection as possible from the security services, including sheltering him in his own house.

Eventually the wheel turned full circle; after Stalin's death, in 1953, Beria himself was arrested, charged with treason and executed. The Starostin brothers returned to Moscow, the charges against them eventually overturned and it was as happy an ending as is possible. It's said that football's most famous quote - it's not a matter of life and death, it's more than that - is an overexaggeration of the game's importance. The tribute at the Spartak stadium, however, tells us that, every once in a while, it is the reality.

On Wednesday, June 27, Brazil will play Serbia (at 7:30 PM IST) at the Spartak Stadium, which will host its final World Cup 2018 match on July 3, the last round-of-16 encounter.