Damon MainComment


Damon MainComment

It now looks highly likely that the Scottish National team will be absent from the 2018 World Cup Finals in Russia. It seems that just about the only existing tie between the two nations that will ring true come next summer is that Scotland’s patron - Saint Andrew, will still be shared with the modern day Russia who also celebrate the Saint.

Over the decades many a cultural link has been explored between the nations of Russia and Scotland. Despite its small borders and tiny population in comparison, many Scots have played a large rule in the development of Russia across such themes are the arts (Lermontov), the military (Barclay de Tolly) and via the construction of noted Moscow architectural landmarks (Galloway).

But back in 2012 Vladimir Putin honoured a new Scottish influence in the field of elite sporting influence, once a theme that had previously been unheralded thanks to the secrecy of the communist period.  

A little known Scotsman, who was born in St Petersburg, was toasted by the present day leader at a hugely extravagant dinner celebrating the centenary of the Russian Football Union.

The first football club in Russia the St Petersburg Football Club was founded in 1879. But it was on the parade grounds of the First Military Academy of Russian way back in October 1897 that was the scene for the first-ever fully organised match in the history of Russian football. A friendly game took place between the Russian side ‘St Petersburg Circle of Lovers of Sport’ (Kruzhok Liubiteley Sporta) and the Vasilyevsky Island Football Society; a team that had been made up of British players.

However, it was not until the turn of the century that another landmark milestone was reached and a fully organised St Petersburg Football League was established - the first organised Russian football league.  The opening match took place on September 2nd 1901.

At the core of this league were industrial factory sides. A ‘Nevska’ team of Scottish players from the Samson weaving mills located in St Petersburg was formed. Soon this league attracted other teams - ‘Nevsky’ made up of Englishmen from another spinning mill; and the newly formed Russian team called ‘Sport’.  The Viktoria team were a mixture of Englishmen, Germans and Russians.

Match officials were also often men of British origin as games took place on snow covered frozen pitches.

The winners of the first St Petersburg Football Championship were Nevska and the some of the player names tell a tale of a team laden with Scotsman - Gilchrist, Fletcher, Hargreaves, Haines, Small, Boyle to name only a few.

With a Scottish surname and Scottish born grandparents Arthur Davidovitch MacPerson was born in St Petersburg in 1870. His ancestors had been shipyard owners from the Clyde in Glasgow and his grandparents (as well as his own mother and father - Ann and David) served the Russian Imperial family where they were hugely influential in setting up steelworks and shipyards.

A slightly stout man, unbecoming of such gentlemanly sporting prowess, MacPherson wore a thick moustache and himself became a wealthy timber merchant and stock exchange dealer in Russia.

While tennis had long been played in Russia (Count Leo Tolstoy played it, had his own court, and devoted an episode in Anna Karenina to the game) in 1903 MacPherson founded the first All Russian Union of Lawn Tennis Clubs the forerunner of today’s Russian Tennis Federation. By 1912 he was a key player in the country’s first Olympic Committee being elected in 1911.

Parallel to his tennis exploits MacPherson also rowed but more significantly he chaired the St. Petersburg football league from 1903 to 1905 and from 1912 through to 1913 playing a huge role in its organisation and functioning.

By 1912 Russian teams with Russian-born players were outclassing the expats via self organisation and sporting involvement. Individually talented Russian players soon emerged for the watching crowds.

Football games were drawing attendances of up to 12,000 people. Some unofficial ‘international’ matches also took place between a St Petersburg select team and other nations (Bohemia) but given its expanse and a spread of media interest in the game a Russia wide football federation was required.

The Russian Football Union (VFS) was created on 19 January 1912 and in the same year was admitted to FIFA. The Union consisted of 52 football organizations across the Russian Empire and was the organizer of the Russian national football team which played 16 internationals between 1910 and 1914.  At the head of this Football Union was Arthur MacPherson who became the first president for two years from its foundation in 1912.

On June 30, 1912 the first match of the Russian National team occurred in an official international tournament. Russia played Finland at the Olympic Games in Stockholm losing the match 2-1. Almost all of the players in the squad hailed from the St Petersburg sides and its first ever goalscorer Vasily Butusov came from a team located in St Petersburg – Unitas.

The emergence of an organized Russian national football team coincided with the tercentenary of Romanov rule in Russia - a date celebrated by Tsar Nicholas II in 1913. He and his dynasty ruled over a huge empire that stretched from central Europe to the Pacific Ocean and from the Arctic to the borders of Afghanistan. This mighty imperium covered one-sixth of the land surface of the globe, and was populated by almost 150 million people of more than a hundred different nationalities.

To honour the role of MacPherson in furthering the exploits of this Tsarist empire this sporting man was awarded the Order of Saint Stanislaus by Tsar Nicholas II. It was the first time in over 300 years anyone in the country had been decorated for their services to sport.

Despite reaching the relative heights of participation at the 1912 Summer Olympics the development of Russian football was temporarily halted by the First World War and the Russian revolution.  Many of the earliest football players were killed on the frontline of war.

The family of MacPherson themselves also witnessed death. His son Robert served with the 8th Cameron Highlanders on HMS Hampshire but died aged 19 when his ship was sunk off the Orkney Islands during the First World War.

Another son Arthur Jr also served with the Cameron Highlanders Scottish regiment but survived the war before being enrolled as a British secret service spy. A keen tennis player he continued his father’s sporting heritage by playing six times at the US Open from 1917 and also appeared at Wimbledon in both 1920 and 1923.

The Russian Empire signalled its withdrawal from WWI soon after the October Revolution of 1917.

Quickly the country turned in on itself with the bloody civil war between the Bolsheviks and the conservative white guard. Diverse groupings of bolsheviks, monarchists and alternative non-ideological variants clashed taking Russia into those years of turmoil.

Individual pursuits such as Tennis and even organised football were soon treated with suspicion by the Bolsheviks who considered the former a ‘bourgeois sport’.

The results of WWI and the Russian Civil war were momentous for the once powerful empire both in a sporting and human sense. Deaths from war mounted up and the total number of military personnel who died from disease became uncountable. Amongst the dead were thousands of sportsmen whose budding football careers were cut short.

During the Red Terror the Cheka are said to have carried out at least 250,000 executions with estimates putting the numbers of enforced imprisonments by the Bolsheviks between 1917 and 1922 at around 28,000.

Amongst the imprisoned was one Arthur MacPherson. Considered amongst the elite of Tsarist society and held in suspicion by revolutionary governments he was arrested by the Bolsheviks following the October Revolution in 1917 and jailed. It was reported he had been shot and tortured for serving British interests after being taken from St Petersburg to a Moscow jail for several months.

In jail he contracted typhoid and eventually died in 1919.

It is said that MacPherson’s body was only recognized in death after he managed to tie a piece of paper around his wrist which stated his name.

Arthur MacPherson is now buried in the Smolensk Lutheran Cemetery in St Petersburg in a humble plot for a man now noted as being a leading figure in Russian football history.

Since the death of MacPherson, football in Russia has gone onto be shaped and changed forever by the Soviet period.  With his death gone went the era of liberal native nobleman who set up private sporting recreation clubs and loose organised football leagues.

While many of the clubs we know today have roots in factory teams and industrial companies from the Russian Empire, football player membership soon became more professionally controlled. Many pre-revolutionary clubs were disbanded in St Petersburg and Moscow.  These were often renamed and reorganised along Soviet sporting lines.

Powerful political forces started to control both players and clubs such as Dynamo Moscow. Club histories have become intrinsically tied in with the communist era.

Despite the changes people such as Arthur MacPherson brought both transformation and authority to Russian football at a time when organisation of the game was spreading across the world. Russian football replaced this respectable authority with a form of Soviet totalitarianism often backed by both the military and secret police - both institutions that brought about MacPherson’s own death.

Football still plays a key role in Russian society from an identity and participation perspective. Today there are differences in club constitutions but the more successful club names have often stayed the same as they did during Soviet times from Spartak to Zenit, Dynamo and CSKA.

Gifted crops of football players continue to come out of Russia long since the days of Lev Yashin who propelled the Soviet Union to the glories of the 1960’s.   

As Russia continues its road to the finals of next summer perhaps the name of Arthur MacPherson will be remembered once again for his role in bringing football together in Russia from both an organisational and federal sense. As Russia celebrates having the ultimate festival of world football across its diverse land from Moscow to Kazan and Samara one does wonder if his name has become somewhat lost amongst the more modern day familiar sounding names of Arshavin and Dzagoev.

By Damon Main. Full header image credit goes tomisha maslennikov.