Rob DillonComment

A LEAGUE BUILT ON FEAR

Rob DillonComment

A history of football in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

The Russian Second Division can be a hard place for a footballer to ply his trade. Pitiful levels of support, matches in stadia which barely qualify for the term, and even the regionalisation of the league into five zones fails to compensate for the huge distances often travelled in the build-up to matchdays. With salaries understandably low in the country's lowest professional league, it is little surprise that teams struggle to keep squads together between seasons, and that clubs on the periphery struggle to stay afloat – when the likes of First Division sides Luch-Energiya Vladivostok and Baltika Kaliningrad are fighting to survive, prospects are bleak for teams further down the pyramid. 

Nowhere is this more true than in the inhospitable region governed in footballing terms by the Second Division's Eastern Zone, an area spanning just under 3,000 miles from the home of Irtysh Omsk to the island base of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk's FC Sakhalin, with the small matter of the Tatar Strait between the mainline and one of Russia's most remote sides. Much of the landscape between the two is typical Siberian fare – taiga, tundra and generally impassable terrain, the unrelenting nature of the area showed by the fact that only 30 million people reside in an area roughly the size of China.

With this in mind, it is hardly a surprise that Siberia and the area to the east has a history intertwined with Russia's criminal population. Even in tsarist times, undesirable elements of the population were exiled from regular life, the most common destinations for the prisoner trains the as yet undeveloped Central Asian provinces or the harsh climes of the Russian East. Taking their penal colonies further east, 1857 saw Alexander II's regime establish a settlement on the island of Sakhalin, and in the Soviet era the famous Gulag system had many of its harshest camps in Russia's remote areas.

Many historians have suggested a link between the paranoia of one Joseph Stalin with the huge number of prisoners incarcerated in the Gulag settlements. Whilst such an explanation is rather over-simplified, the Soviet leader's personal distrust of the vast majority of people also helps to explain one of the world's most remarkable feats of constructions, the Baikal-Amur Mainline, or BAM as it has become known. Began in the early 1930s, much construction was completed in the final years by prisoners of the Second World War as fear of a Chinese attack on the more famous Trans-Siberian Railway increased. Abandoned but not forgotten after Stalin's death, Leonid Brezhnev revived the plans in 1974, handing responsibility not to convict labourers but to the Komsomol youth organisation, and a whole decade later the BAM was declared finished after half a century of intermittent construction. Tens of thousands of lives were lost, China never attacked, and even today the single-track line is underused, running at huge financial losses.

Yet despite centuries of authorities alternating between populating Siberia with criminals and then attempting to turn it into the next great Soviet industrial region, the millions of people who have made their homes in the uncompromising territory are no different to anywhere else in Russia. Whilst their ancestors may have been Gulag inmates or Komsomol shock workers, they themselves have the same basic needs as the rest of the world – food, shelter, companionship, leisure – and this is where football comes in.

The Eastern Zone is arguably, and understandably, the weakest of the Second Division regions, as the area lacks both the population density, accessibility and appeal of Russia's more metropolitan areas. The region has seen success in the past, with Luch-Energiya, Sibir Novosibirsk and the  controversially-funded Tom Tomsk reaching the Premier League and SKA-Energiya Khabarovsk enjoying a long spell in the second tier, however on the whole representation of the Russian East in the top two leagues has been disproportionately low, Yenisei Krasnoyark currently bucking the trend of the regional champions being immediately relegated back to the game's third tier.

Such has been the rise of Sibir that their reserve side now competes in the Second Division, sitting second from bottom in this season's competition and winning just four of their 30 matches. On 1 May, Sibir's second string host FC Sakhalin, the side from an island famed for Russo-Japanese territorial disputes and a penal colony which a certain Anton Chekhov invested a great deal of time, surveying the inmates after a three month journey to the island. At the time, the great writer saw the  Sakhalin penal colony as 'the extreme limits of man's degradation,' and no doubt the more cynical of Sibir's reserves would have seen their away game earlier in the season as something equally humiliating – after the lengthy inconvenience of a trip to Sakhalin, the Novosibirsk side took a 68th-minute lead only to be pegged back immediately, and then beaten by two goals in the final four minutes.

Due to their anomalous geographical position, Sakhalin often find themselves with games in hand due to poor weather conditions and the impossibility of travel. The construction of the BAM would theoretically have solved this issue for the Eastern Zone sides in Soviet times had more than a third of the line been operational, with Smena Komsomolsk-na-Amur and Radian-Baikal Irkutsk the main beneficiaries. Smena, who play in the ambitiously large 16,000-seater Avangard Stadium, have been a third tier mainstay since their successful application to join the professional leagues in 2002. They have settled into a regular midtable position, almost tasting promotion in 2008 but ultimately falling short of the First Division, finishing runners-up to FC Chita.

Radian-Baikal on the other hand, are a new club, formed in 2009 to take the place of the now-defunct Zvezda Irkutsk. Zvezda were the first professional club of current Dinamo Moscow defender Vladimir Granat, but more famously had a support known across Russia for anti-fascist activities amongst its ultras, a welcome change from the more widespread right-wing hooliganism if not necessarily any less violent at times. In 2008, Zvezda's airline sponsors collapsed, forcing the team to withdraw from the league, and the following year the management team, coaching staff and a large number of players moved to set up Radian-Baikal, successfully applying for a professional license in 2010 and ensuring Irkutsk's representation at Second Division level once again.

The final club in the division with particularly strong Soviet ties are something of an anomaly. Sibiryak Bratsk, who sit in a respectable if uninspiring 10th place in the current campaign, hail from a town built not by fear but by mass enthusiasm. The Bratsk Hydroelectric Dam and its construction was the top priority for the Komsomol in 1954, and Khrushchev's leadership encouraged thousands of workers, particularly young, the make the long trip out to Siberia and help built what would be the world's most powerful energy producer until 1971. Prizes were awarded, workers were eulogised in the press, and the site was hailed one of Soviet Socialism's finest achievements.

However, amidst the glory and honour was suffering and strife – to accommodate the dam, nearby towns and villages were flooded and razed to the ground, whilst the intense labour itself claimed the lives of many who worked there. It is this tragic contradiction which is manifest in many of the Eastern Zone sides, a combination of pride in perseverance and the inability to escape, bound by their surroundings and fearful of the world outside. Of the four teams mentioned here, only Sakhalin have a manager who has played for or managed a team outside of their current employers – even then, Oleg Kokarev has spent the vast majority of his career in the far reaches of the Russian Federation.

Siberia and the Russian Far East are harsh, uncompromising places, far from the ideal locations to launch a successful career in professional sport. Whilst a handful of teams and players have indeed achieved greater things, a combination of the difficult conditions and ominous spectre of history means that for the vast majority of footballers in the Second Division's most extreme zone, the hope of making it even out of the league is a small one. That they persist in that hope through thick and thin is testament to their mental fortitude, a virtue of the area no doubt descended from the Gulag spirit of old.

To read more from Rob you can read his excellent blog here.

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