- Spartak Moscow: A History of the People's Team in the Workers' State
A perennial question confronting historians of sport is how to draw greater respect and attention from more established subfields in our discipline. One way to accomplish this is to write sport history in ways that make it relevant to specialists in other subfields, a feat accomplished successfully by Robert Edelman's new book on the Spartak Moscow soccer club. Edelman not only describes the developments of Spartak soccer, he skillfully places them in the context of political, social, and cultural developments in Russia from the pre-revolutionary era through the Soviet period on into the present day.
Edelman's earlier work should be well known to sport historians, especially his prize-winning history of spectator sport in the U.S.S.R., Serious Fun, and his 2002 American Historical Review article about Spartak soccer, "A Small Way of Saying 'No.'" (Disclosure: I know Edelman personally from several sport history conferences.) In his new book Edelman complicates a traditional narrative: Spartak fans saw their favorite team as the popular and heroic rival to the secret police club Dinamo. Edelman convincingly argues that the reality, like many issues involving opposition in the Soviet Union, was far more nuanced. Cheering for Spartak was a "small way of saying no" for certain fans at certain times, but even then this rarely involved any desire for abandonment of communism. [End Page 457] While the fans of the "Red and White" included artists, writers, and intellectuals who were not exactly the regime's strongest supporters, Spartak rooters also included such party traditionalists as Konstantin Chernenko—Mikhail Gorbachev's distinctly non-reformist predecessor.
Those interested in soccer will find ample explanation of on-field tactics, players, and coaches. Scholars of international sport will find Edelman's discussion of Spartak's overseas tours and involvement in U.S.S.R. national teams illuminating. Even those with no specific interest in Russia or the U.S.S.R. should be fascinated by Edelman's findings that demonstrate the persistence of certain management and personnel issues in elite sport across historical periods and economic systems. For Americans, the phrase "meddlesome owner" may conjure images of men like the New York Yankees George Steinbrenner or the Dallas Cowboys Jerry Jones, but they pale in comparison to Stalin's secret police chief, Lavrentii Beria. There were few limits to what Beria would do to help his beloved Dinamo Tblisi soccer team win; Edelman memorably describes him resembling Steinbrenner and former FBI head J. Edgar Hoover "combined . . . into one single human and given the powers of the chief of the Gestapo" (p. 118). Edelman tells stories of soccer star Nikolai Starostin being whipsawed between Beria and the head of the Air Force soccer club: Josef Stalin's son, Vasili. Even though the pro-labor ideology of the Soviet Union precluded anything as brazenly exploitative as American baseball's reserve clause, Soviet athletes were far from free agents and faced various forms of pressure and negotiation in selecting or changing clubs.
While it may be no surprise to read about military and secret police playing prominent roles in Soviet sport, industrial leaders also played active and often counterproductive roles in sports clubs that were strikingly similar to capitalist counterparts. For example, Edelman discusses the role of ZIS Auto Works head Ivan Likhachev in the Torpedo soccer club in comparison to the Agnelli family's role in Fiat and the Juventus soccer team; he also discusses the sports struggles of Soviet industrial leaders in comparison to the Cablevision corporation that has presided over a particularly abysmal run by the New York Knickerbockers basketball team.
Those looking for faults will note that the book needs a more complete index. Critics might complain about Edelman's use of anecdotal evidence, or that the long-time Spartak fan sometimes gives his work a casual tone. But Edelman is candid about his evidentiary challenges—assessing public attitudes in the U.S.S.R...