The World Cup tournament reminds me of my reporting years in pre-glasnost Moscow rooting for Dynamo Kiev (now Football Club Dynamo Kyiv), then the best soccer team in the Soviet Union. Dynamo’s reign — it won five national championships between 1980 and 1990 — was one of the many unforeseen consequences of the Soviets’ “nationalities policy.” While politically subservient to Moscow, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, as it was then known, enjoyed certain autonomies as well, among them building their Dynamo sports empire to bedevil the sports-crazed Russians.
I rooted for Dynamo because the team was non-Muscovite outsiders. Tens of thousands of the team’s fans, clad in flowing blue and white scarves, would swarm into Lenin Stadium (now Luzhniki Stadium) for matches with Dynamo’s hated rival, Spartak Moscow. My friend Alexei Sossinsky, who immigrated to France after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, rooted for Spartak but not for nationalistic reasons. “These were just the best match-ups in the country, but they weren’t particularly political,” he recalls. “No one thought the teams were working out pro- or anti-Ukrainian grievances dating back to Tsarist times.”
Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of the Moscow Anti-Doping Center who was embroiled in Russia’s 2016 Olympic doping scandal, agrees: “The prevailing notion was that Russia and Ukraine belonged to the all-powerful Soviet Union, which was aligned against the United States. The savage war of today was absolutely unthinkable at that time.”
Relations between Russia and the Ukrainian SSR were calm during the early 1980s. There was no border control between the two republics, and millions of Russians, whom I sometimes accompanied, flocked to Ukraine’s Black Sea beaches during the summer. The powerful head of the Ukrainian Communist Party, Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, inveighed against “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism” and happened to be a huge Dynamo fan.
Dynamo was a team with a history. Eight of its players participated in the so-called “Match of Death,” a series of soccer games held in Nazi-occupied Ukraine during World War II. Four players subsequently died in Nazi prison camps, but the legend that they were imprisoned for beating a German team may well have been a confection of Soviet propaganda, according to Volodymyr Dubovyk, a professor of international relations at the Mechnikov National University in Odesa who is spending the semester at Tufts University: “There were many myths like that in Soviet times.”
“I never rooted for Dynamo,” as a young teenager in Ukraine, Dubovyk said. “If you lived outside of Kyiv you would root for your local team, like Shakhtar Donetsk [Donetsk Miners] or Chornomorets Odessa [Black Sea Odessa]. People didn’t like how Dynamo used its powerful connections to sign up all the best players in the republic.”
In other words, it behaved like the New York Yankees of Soviet-era soccer.
After the collapse of Soviet power, Dynamo became a team much like any other, with an oligarch owner and some successes and failures in international play. But the Soviet-era team still casts a long shadow. Dynamo stadium, named after the team’s legendary coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi, was the scene of brutal fighting between police and protesters during Ukraine’s 2013-2014 Maidan Uprising.
International soccer star Andriy Shevchenko, who began his long career as a youth prospect with the Soviet-era Dynamo team, has become one of the most visible supporters of Ukraine’s struggle against Russia. Shevchenko, one of three Dynamo players to win the “Golden Ball” award given to the world’s best soccer player, has been using his celebrity to promote international fundraising efforts and to speak out against the Russian invasion.
“If you don’t know, let me tell you, football is a very important part of Ukrainian life,” Shevchenko recently wrote, describing the first time he put on a blue and yellow jersey and played for independent Ukraine. “The game had a different kind of importance to us. We were creating something that felt bigger than football. It was about national identity.”
It still is. Soccer is life.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.