Spartak Tambov, a club from the town Russia forgot
In a country with a history as rich as Russia's, it is little surprise that there are some stories which go largely untold, sitting below the surface of popular biography and kept alive only by the communities directly descended from, or affected by, the event in question. On the south-eastern railway out of Moscow, somewhere between the capital and the war memorial which is now Volgograd, lies Tambov, a small city of now more than 300,000 inhabitants, the setting for a part of Soviet history which the authorities were keen to keep quiet.
Alexander Antonov had been convinced by the Bolshevik Party to support their seizure of 1917, despite his position on the radical fringes of the Socialist Revolutionaries. However, whilst many of his fellow revolutionaries became consumed by the need to consolidate their power, Antonov stayed true to his politics. When, just a year later and in the midst of civil war, the new government imposed a policy of forceful grain requisition from the countryside, Antonov had seen enough.
Before long, his band of disillusioned and disenchanted followers numbered thousands, and by 1920 they constituted a highly organised militia force which was enough to convince local Bolshevik authorities to request reinforcements from the capital. In August the rebels, under the guise of the Union of Toiling Peasants, were able to overthrow the recently-formed village soviets and establish their own system of power, setting in motion a policy of land reform and complete enfranchisement of the population.
Despite the best efforts of the Red Army, it took a full year for the peasants to be defeated, and even when circumstances favoured them it took drastic measures to achieve victory. The end of war with Poland allowed mass diversion of troops to the area, and under the command of Civil War hero (and later purge victim) Marshal Tukhachevsky proceeded to wear down their enemy with public executions and primitive chemical weaponry alongside more traditional tactics.
Of course, the Bolsheviks were quick to avoid any reference to the Tambov Rebellion, ignoring it in official histories and removing it from their collective memory of the Civil War. After 1921, Tambov faded into relative insignificance, recognised by musical aficionados as the birthplace of Sergei Rachmaninov and little else. In the sporting world it has also failed to achieve greatness – tennis sisters Anastasia and Arina Radionova, who have since gone on to represent Australia in the Grand Slam events – but for a city so small and with no footballing pedigree, it has produced two of Russia's most exciting players of recent times.
Spartak Tambov, the local team, are by no means a conveyor belt of young talent, and their league status belies their lowly status. Last season they finished 14th in the 16-team Central Zone of the Second Division, saved from relegation to the amateur leagues only by the shocking form of Nika Moscow (no wins and three draws in 30 games) and Znamya-Truda from Orekhovo-Zuyevo (a mere 11 points). That the league now comprises of just 14 teams speaks volumes, and with just nine games to go in the current campaign Spartak sit 11th, safe from the spectre of relegation but by no means impressive. They are managed by Vladimir Kovylin, who has spent all bar two seasons of a 36-year career as player, assistant and then manager at the club – stability is one thing, but Kovylin's own lack of ambition is something which appears to have infiltrated all areas of the provincial side.
Yet despite their long period of stagnation, they can claim to have produced one of Russia's best-known current players. Yuri Zhirkov, currently of Anzhi Makhachkala after rising to fame with CSKA Moscow and Chelsea, began his career in the Spartak youth squads, graduating to the first team in 2001 and averaging a goal every three games as a flying left winger before being poached by the army club. He remains a cult figure in the city, his family's poor, working background portraying him as a true son of the Tambov, and each appearance for the national team is a small victory for the lowly Second Division side.
Whilst Zhirkov may represent the grit and determination of a working class provincial city, the other famous graduate of Spartak Tambov is something of the opposite, a glamorous star with a big ego who happened to use Spartak as a stepping stone to greater things. Dmitri Sychev, at Lokomotiv Moscow since 2004, appeared in Tambov at the start of the new millennium, a huge move for the youngster who had already left his home town of Omsk for a St Petersburg academy. Yet to become the striker he is today, Sychev was deployed as an advanced midfielder, failing to reach double figures in his sole season at the club. Spartak Moscow took a gamble on the youngster, which backfired as he cancelled his contract after less than a year, heading for a failed spell at Marseille before finally settling back in Moscow with Lokomotiv. Whilst his stylish image and exciting play enchanted the nation during his team on the national side, his lack of local roots and apparent self-serving attitude has not endeared him to the locals in the same way as Zhirkov's difficult local upbringing.
Whether Zhirkov will ever achieve the same legendary local status as Antonov and the rebels of 1920 is debatable, but he is almost certainly most likely to attain it than the more glamorous Sychev. The hard work and professional ethic of the winger epitomises a city forgotten by the history books, and in many ways is a shining example to the likes of Kovylin of how stepping outside of your comfort zone and risking your reputation is necessary to develop your abilities. With 48 caps already for his country and the potential for plenty more at the age of 28, it would appear that Zhirkov, unlike his home town, will not vanish from the history books for some time. He has certainly earned that right.
To read more from Rob you can read his excellent blog here