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  • Gulag FootballCompetitive and Recreational Sport in Stalin's System of Forced Labor
  • Steven Maddox (bio)

On 22 May 1936, a football match was played in the northern town of Segezha between a local team and one from the nearby settlement at MaiGuba. Segezha was the clear favorite going into the match, but at the end of the first half, the score was even at 2:2. According to the match report, the final 45 minutes proved to be rather exciting:

The second half was played at a significantly faster tempo with Segezha having the clear advantage. However, in minute 27, Mai-Guba's attack managed to break through with the ball toward Segezha's goal, and, taking advantage of the congestion formed in front of the net, Mai-Guba scored a third. Three minutes later, Biketov evened the score with a strong strike into the opponents' net.

Chistiakov put one more past Mai-Guba in the last minute of the game. The match ended 4:3 in favor of Segezha. Segezha displayed good technique but lacked sufficient teamwork. The play of Biketov, Buslaev, Khodakov, and Chistiakov deserves special attention.1 [End Page 509]

On the face of it, this match seems much like any other: the underdog took the lead through some lax play by the favorites, who subsequently overcame their shaky start to claim victory in the end. What makes this match different, though, is that it was played by teams composed of inmates in the Gulag. Even more interesting, however, is that this was not a "one off" or an isolated occurrence. Rather, the match in Segezha was one of many played by inmates in the camps and colonies of the Gulag under Stalin. This is not to suggest that sport was played at every camp or that all inmates were involved in physical recreation. Yet for many prisoners, the authorities organized physical exercise and sport and encouraged as many people as possible to participate.

It seems a peculiar paradox that the Soviet authorities would foster and promote sport among inmates who, by all accounts, struggled to survive in the Gulag. However, I argue that there were at least two factors that made it possible for sport, and football in particular, to be played in the camps. First, sport was part of the Gulag's "mass cultural" work that was aimed at rehabilitating the inmate population for reentry into society, in large part by providing cultured leisure activities during the inmates' free time away from work. The promotion of sport in the Gulag was a reflection of the Stalinist embrace of physical culture and recreation as vehicles to instill Soviet values, increase productivity at the workplace, and improve the population's physical fitness to defend the country in the event of war.2

Second, the sheer popularity of football in the Soviet Union fostered a desire for the sport to be played and consumed by a broad spectrum of the camp population, including inmates, guards, and administrators. Sport provided a source of entertainment for camp populations cut off from the distractions of modern life. Football in the Gulag, then, could be a light in the dark, a taste of freedom that could help players survive the hell in which they found themselves.3 Guards, too, as spectators and players, welcomed football as a form of entertainment in places that were often located [End Page 510] far from towns and cities. And some camp commandants promoted football among the prisoners under their command for the purposes of self-aggrandizement. Football in the Gulag, therefore, was both a manifestation of the state's drive to transform society through physical exercise and competitive sport and of a popular desire to play and be entertained by the "beautiful game."

Discussions and analyses of football and sport in the Gulag have been largely absent from the historiography. While some historians acknowledge that sport was part of the cultural-enlightenment work in the camps, they rarely go beyond noting that physical recreation was a feature of camp life.4 Others, in fact, dismiss the very idea that sport could have been played in the camps. Anne Applebaum, for example, argues in her bestselling...


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