As the Russian political and geographical landscape went through a seismic shift in the 1990's, football could easily have become a casualty. Domm Norris looks at how the change from communism to capitalism has made a significant impact on post Soviet soccer.
The demise of the Soviet Union and the consequent abolition of communist thinking within the political realm may not be an issue that, on the surface, could have a dramatic effect on the growth of Russian football. However, the expansion of capitalism, and the dramatic changes that such development brought, helped to drastically change the face of Russian sport.
As the communist government began to crumble, the serving ministers, who for so long had fought against western, capitalist agendas, began to seek a future for themselves away from the rapidly transforming world of politics. For various communist officials, the future lay in the nation's expanding business culture. The influence and power of such politicians was such that their introduction to business was relatively straightforward. Through a policy that can be best described as mass privatization, these communist officials were able to utilise and network their high profile connections to purchase companies for significantly lower prices than their market values suggested. This process of privatisation meant that Russia's most significant businesses; including Gazprom, Lukoil and Rosneft, became what is known as 'nomenklatura' companies, which essentially relates to the government's ability to place key officials in significant roles.
This process caused a significant transformation to the face of Russian big business. The implementation of privatisation consequently provided a platform for the creation of a new breed of post Soviet business heavyweights, whose wealth, power and influence grew at an astonishingly rapid rate. These fresh, bourgeois thinkers have become some of the most important figures in the growing stature of the Russian nation as a whole. It is significant that the role of this generation of Russian business icons have spilled through to have an effect upon the nation's social and political development in a manner that had not previously been successfully achieved.
The fact that Russia was creating fortunes for men of such a young age created the issue of how they would decide to utilise the vast sums of cash that they had accumulated. One such method was through investing in sporting ventures - with football quickly becoming one of the more lucrative propositions.
The reasons for this are straightforward. The prestige of football club ownership and the sociological and political gains that can be made through such investments can be extremely enticing. There is also a sentiment within Russian society that became entrenched through the Soviet era, which wanted to show that in spite of different ideologies success is still a hugely important facet of a nation's existence. Such feelings are especially prevalent where football in concerned and for these budding billionaires to bring glory and success to a football team was a hugely rewarding dream. The years of reluctance to see private ownership within the Soviet era was also a major factor in why investment within football was so unquenchable. It was as though years of pent up frustrations had been broken down through the capitalist agenda that had been politically introduced to the nation.
The crippling debt that the Soviet Union faced at the point of its dissolution was unmanageable for a nation of such ideological beliefs. The impending collapse created vast problems for the football teams within the union, which would not be rectified for a number of years to come. Many of the Soviet teams were previously funded by state organisations that were unable to continue to support the clubs once the nation began to spiral out of control. Consequently, the debt of the nation was mirrored onto the football clubs that had previously been in relatively healthy positions. It appeared as though football within the newly independent states would face a long, arduous road back to the top of European football. With the exception of Spartak Moscow - who did not rely upon state funding - Russian football lost its competitive edge and it was not until the investment of the 'New Russian' business tycoons that the nation began to witness the rise of a strong domestic league.
Private ownership may now be the norm in the Russian Premier League for the majority of the nation's major footballing powers - Leonid Fedun's billions made through Lukoil continue to subsidise the future of Spartak Moscow, while Gazprom's investment in Zenit Saint Petersburg looks set to bring yet more trophies to the increasingly successful side. However, there is still space for the progression of football clubs who are not fortunate enough to have the backing of a hugely wealthy investor. Rubin Kazan are a prime example of how Russian football continues to hold onto traditions of the Soviet era as their owner Alexander Gusev is the chairman of the state council of Tartarstan, the region in which Kazan can be located.
It is through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequential wealth of post Soviet business that Russian football has become a gradually improving force within Europe. The effect that the collapse of the Union had upon the region's football clubs shows in itself that the sport is not entirely resilient against dramatic levels of change. The seeming stagnation in the years between the Soviet Union's demise and the surge of Russian business and investment is proof that political and economic circumstance is hugely significant upon the progression of football.
Domm writes regularly for IBWM and if you would like to read more from him please visit the excellent football ramblings.