Story Beyond the Photo: Football in Leningrad under Siege

Soviet and Russian sports journalism boasts an eventful history, and football is a big part of it. This column is about famous sports and football photographs and the photographers
Share 11 May 2016
TASS photo archives
Football game in a besieged Leningrad

There is quite a story beyond this simple photograph, showing five footballers and some barracks in the background. Boris Vasiutinsky, a war reporter for TASS, photographed a critical moment in the history of the Siege of Leningrad: the city’s first wartime friendly between Dinamo and N-sky Factory. The game gave the city inspiration and courage to hold out during its first spring under siege.  

The Germans had completed the stranglehold of their siege around Leningrad in September 1941. The city was shelled constantly. Famine hit Leningrad a few months later, and the winter of 1941 came early and was singularly severe. The people of Leningrad lived in utterly inhuman conditions, dying in their droves. Those surviving could hardly summon enough strength to go on, but they soldiered on, they worked and they had hope. Some relief came in the spring as the Road of Life went into service, but the city was exhausted physically and morally. The Germans dropped their infamous “Leningrad, City of the Dead” flyers on the city in April 1942. It was a psy-op and, given the dire circumstances, it could be more powerful than bombs.

It was decided to stage a series of friendly football games to boost people’s morale and show the enemy that the people of Leningrad were unbroken. Leningrad had had two football teams before the war. Many of the players were at the frontline or working in the city. Some had evacuated early in the siege, and some had been killed. Manpower for the teams had to be recruited from among those who were around and had the strength to play. One line-up mostly consisted of the former Dinamo players. The other, dubbed “N-sky Factory,” was manned by the former players of the pre-war Zenit, who now worked at Joseph Stalin Leningrad Metal Works, and their co-workers. The captain, Aleksander Zyablikov, would recall later: “I’d had to work harder than Dinamo to put my team together. Some of the people I had put on the team could not make it, being too weak from undernourishment…” They trained twice a week – that was the most they could do. The stadium was in a sorry state of disrepair. One part had been disfigured by shells, the other planted with vegetables.

The teams played their first official game on May 31, to an audience consisting entirely of the wounded from the nearby hospitals. The players struggled to keep playing, even though each halftime had been shortened to 30 minutes. Anatoly Mishchuk, who had checked out of a hospital, where he had been treated for dystrophy, less than a month prior, passed out on the field. Dinamo won 6-0. The players left the field hugging, it didn’t matter who’d won. And they were propping each other up, too.  

The game was covered on the radio and in the papers. Former Dinamo forward Nikolai Svetlov, who did not play that time, heard about it in the trenches: “I’ll never forget the day when I heard that game live on the radio from Dinamo stadium, sitting in my trench in the swamps of Sinyavino just 500 metres away from the Germans. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I ran into our dugout to talk to our radio man, and he confirmed: it was a football match indeed. You should have seen the jubilation among our fighters! It was such a morale boost. I bet, had the order come, right at that time, to kick the Germans the hell out of their trenches, we totally would have done it.” What mattered about that game was its message, it spelled Victory! 

Maria Vashuk