Dynamo Moscow vs Spartak Moscow: A Grizzly Tale of Stalinism, Gulags, Revenge... And Some Football

Matt O'Connor-Simpson
FC Spartak Moscow vs FC Dynamo Moscow - Russian Premier League
FC Spartak Moscow vs FC Dynamo Moscow - Russian Premier League / Epsilon/Getty Images

The Oldest Russian Derby is part of 90min's '50 Biggest Derbies in the World' Series

The Oldest Russian Derby between Dynamo Moscow and Spartak Moscow is not just a tale of
football. Its history is a ghastly tapestry of deceit, Gulags and revenge, set it in a brutal dictatorship and featuring one of the most despicable characters in modern European history as the principal antagonist.

Though its prestige has dimmed in recent times, at the height of the USSR the rivalry was
as fierce as it was complex. Each meeting between the two sides exposed the hypocritical
stratification of Soviet society.

The two sides - in their modern form anyway - were established just one year apart. Spartak
were formed in 1922 to provide sporting opportunities for trade union members, while the name
Dymano was adopted for the state police team one year later.

FC Spartak Moscow vs FC Dinamo Moscow - Russian Premier League
FC Spartak Moscow vs FC Dinamo Moscow - Russian Premier League / Epsilon/Getty Images

The seeds of the rivalry were sown by the very establishment of the two clubs. Spartak were based in the Presnya district of Moscow, which had a history of anti-establishment protest. They were also the ‘People’s Team’, due to their links to the trade unions.

Dynamo, in stark contrast were the establishment, drawing their playing staff from the Soviet police force. Even Spartak’s name - which was influenced by ancient Greek slave turn revolutionary Spartacus - sparked controversy and it was not ratified by the government for several months.

With state versus citizen battle lines drawn, early skirmishes between the two clubs were memorable. In the six seasons following the establishment of the Soviet League in 1936, each and every title was won by either Spartak or Dynamo. The latter would likely have been victorious during the 1941 campaign as well - if it hadn’t been cancelled due to World War II.

These pre-war meetings had got the rivalry simmering away nicely, but the intensity would be
dialed up after the two clubs became embroiled in the vengeful politics that were commonplace in Stalinist Russia.

Dynamo’s president was Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s hatchet man who was famed for making the dictator’s enemies disappear. Aggrieved by the People's Team success, Beria sought to destroy the club from the top down.

Arrest warrants were issued for the club’s founder Nikolai Starostin and his three brothers in 1942. As was commonplace in Soviet Russia, the charges were bogus. They ranged from a bizarre accusation that the family planned to assassinate Stalin before the outbreak of the war, to the gloriously vague crime of importing bourgeois methods into football.

The Starostin brothers were sent to labour camps where they remained incarcerated until
Stalin’s death and the subsequent coup against Beria in 1952.

They returned to a Spartak side that had been decimated by the effects of the Second World
War. Whereas Dynamo and CSKA were able to avoid their players being sent to the front lines due to their connections to the police and army respectively, their Moscow rivals suffered heavy casualties.

Spartak also lived in fear of having their stars poached by the state-backed sides in the capital. The most famous instance of this came in 1950, when Sergei Salnikov moved to Dynamo. It would later emerge that Salnikov had been blackmailed into the decision in order to secure his stepfather's release from a labour camp.

Salnikov's strike partner Nikita Simonyan suffered a similar fate one year earlier when his father was arrested in an attempt to convince him to move to Dinamo Tbilisi - another state-backed heavy hitter in the Soviet League.

Despite these perils, Spartak continued to hold their own against their bitter rivals Dynamo throughout the 1950s. The title bounced between the two clubs during the decade with Starostin fueled by the desire to avenge the horrific treatment of his family.

After its 1950s heyday the rivalry lost most of its fire, though Spartak did find a new state-endorsed rival to tangle with in Dynamo Kiev in subsequent decades. Following the breakup of the USSR and the establishment of the Russian Top League in 1992, the derby enjoyed a resurgence with the Moscow foes making up the top two during the 1994 season.

Today, both side are sporadic title contenders at the top of the table but their meeting remains one of the most anticipated dates on the footballing calendar.

Matches are frequently marred with violence between feuding hooligan groups. Ugly scenes to be sure, but nothing compared to the shady political operations that had amped up the rivalry in the first place.