29 July 2008, 16:11

THE STAROSTIN BROTHERS – THE KNIGHTS OF SOVIET SOCCER

The celebrated Starostin brothers were notable football personalities of the past century. In the 1930s, they came to play leading roles in “Spartak”, the most popular of all Soviet soccer clubs. The eldest of the four brothers, Nikolai Starostin, a football and bandy player, captained this country’s team in both sports.

The celebrated Starostin brothers were notable football personalities of the past century. In the 1930s, they came to play leading roles in “Spartak”, the most popular of all Soviet soccer clubs.



The Starostin brothers

The eldest of the four brothers, Nikolai Starostin, a football and bandy player, captained this country’s team in both sports. Born in 1902 in Moscow’s historic district of Presnya, Nikolai studied at the Mansfield brothers commercial college, where he developed interest in soccer. His professional skills of a book-keeper came in handy when he managed the Spartak Sports Society. After the death of his father in the typhus epidemic in 1920, Nikolai supported his family, playing soccer in the summer and bandy in the winter. However, interest in football prevailed. He later recalled, “We were soccer aficionados, who spoiled for a fight. We were eager to come out on the pitch and play another game. The stadium became our second home.”



Nikolai began his football career playing for the Moscow Sports Circle, later called Krasnaya Presnya. The team grew, building a stadium of its own, supporting itself from ticket sales and playing matches across Russia. As a high-profile sportsman, Starostin came into close contact with Alexander Kosarev, Secretary of the Young Communist League, who was seeking to expand his organization’s control in the field of sports. In November 1934, Kosarev charged the Starostin brothers with organizing and developing a new group, which, after heated debate, was named Spartak – in honor of the Roman rebel slave and gladiator, Spartacus. Nikolai Starostin is also credited with the creation of the Spartak logo – a horizontal red-and-white rhombus. Nikolai played for the team, earning a reputation of a fearless forward, one of the fastest in Soviet football. After retiring as a player, Nikolai Starostin took on the responsibilities as head of the new group. His brothers – Alexander, Andrei and Pyotr – also played for Spartak, becoming acclaimed football masters. Alexander was also Spartak’s first captain. Their two sisters, Klavdiya and Vera, who played volley-ball and bandy, were Spartak’s avid fans. Each of the Starostin brothers had his own vision of the game, and they often disagreed on how it should be played, but their adherence to ethical, honest football remained unchanged. As did their loyalty to Spartak, the team they devoted their lives to. When in the 1970s Andrei Starostin was offered the position of chief of the Locomotive Moscow team, his elder brother, Nikolai, said: “We found ourselves in Spartak, we became well-known footballers here, and we must not quit it.” Andrei Starostin thought it wise to follow his advice.



From the very onset, the elegant combination play practiced by Spartak won the hearts of many soccer fans here. Its most formidable opponent was Dynamo Moscow run by the Soviet secret police. The Dynamo-Spartak rivalry became the bitterest in the history of Soviet sports. In 1938 and 39, the ‘red-and-whites’ won both the Soviet national league and cup, much to the annoyance of Lavrenty Beria, the head of the secret police, who was also the president of Dynamo. A keen footballer in his youth, Beria had played against Nikolai Starostin in the 1920s, suffering a humiliating defeat. Dynamo’s patrons were outraged by Spartak’s successes and, in a very large measure, by the popularity of the Starostin brothers, especially Nikolai, whose methods of running Spartak were considered similar to that of an entrepreneur of a Western sports club. In the late 1930s many of their friends and associates were swept into the purges, including Alexander Kosarev, Spartak’s most influential supporter. Nikolai Starostin later recalled that in 1939 he expected to be taken away any moment. For some reason, Soviet Prime Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, refused to sign an arrest order, but three years later Georgy Malenkov, a Soviet Politbureau member, did. The four Starostin brothers were arrested in 1942, facing accusations of involvement in a plot to assassinate Joseph Stalin and also of ‘anti-Soviet statements’ and ‘doubts about Soviet victory in the war against Nazi Germany’. These charges were later dropped. Following two years of interrogation at Lubyanka, the Starostins were found guilty of ‘lauding bourgeois sports’ and sentenced to ten years of hard labor. During their time in the gulags, the skills of the Starostin brothers were highly sought after. They were invited to coach local soccer teams in the Soviet minor leagues. Under the circumstances, soccer became a means of survival for them. Nikolai Starostin later wrote in his memoirs: “I naturally regret the lost ‘camp’ years… Yet, strange as it may seem, everywhere I went the soccer ball was always out of Beria’s reach. Even though the notorious police chief had once been a player himself, he was never able to defeat me.”



Following Stalin’s death in March 1953, the Starostin brothers were released, and their sentence declared illegal. In 1955 Nikolai Starostin returned to Spartak and presided over the club until his death in 1996 at the more than mature age of 93…



Back in the 1930s, there was a funny joke about “Spartak” and its founders, the Starostin brothers. “Spartak” plays in a tournament abroad. A local journalist asks: “Who is playing at right back?” “Starostin is,” came the answer. “Who’s center half then?” “Starostin.” “And next to him?” “Starostin again”. “And right wing?” “Starostin,” came the answer again. “Oh, I see”, the journalist says. “Starostin” in Russian means ‘footballer’.




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