sports blog by andy shenk

The Caucasus Question in Russian Football

In Dagestan, Russian Football on January 15, 2013 at 12:12 PM

This is an article I contributed to The False Nine football blog. To read the entire piece click here or at the bottom of this excerpt.

For many in the United States, Russia brings to mind only cold Siberian steppes and grey old women in frumpy grey overcoats. The stereotype is as propaganda-driven as Russia’s perception of America as one big dissolute reality TV show.

For those who have seen more of Russia than the old Soviet-era video clips, today’s Russian Federation bursts with colour, beginning with Moscow’s glitzy downtown and ending, for some, in the gorgeous Caucasus Mountains that flank Russia’s south-western border, strung between the Caspian and Black Seas.

Some is the key word, for many have little knowledge of the ethnic diversity dotting Europe’s highest mountain range. The northern Caucasus Mountains, home to about 40 distinct languages and people groups, only came under Russian control in the late 18th-19th centuries. Though Russian soldiers fought in the area for most of a century, there were few others who ventured into the region. Through the journals kept by military men and curious academics, however, the mountains gained an exotic reputation in the rest of the country. It was a place populated by fearless horsemen, vengeful warriors and beautiful Eastern women. The Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov, stationed in the northern foothills of the Caucasus in 1837, wrote to a friend about his travels: “I dressed like a Cherkess [native], with a gun over my shoulder; we slept in the open fields, went to sleep to the howls of jackals, ate pitas, and even tried the local drink.” Quite a far cry from his noble upbringing in the capital of St. Petersburg.

Russian settlements were established in the mountain passes and on the coasts, but the high ranges between them were regarded warily, their inhabitants considered wild and uncivilized. In the 20th century, the stereotypes lessened thanks to the Soviet Union’s introduction of universal education and industrialization, but the cultural suspicions between the mountains in the south and the wide-open Russian heartland persist today.

Within the international sports community, Russia’s North Caucasus region has become renowned for its wrestlers, judokas, and boxers. In the 2012 London Olympics, the region sent almost 30 athletes to the Games and returned with four gold, five silver, and four bronze medals. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the region won 11 medals, including six gold. Given that the population of the North Caucasus today is only seven million, or 5% of the total population of the Russian Federation, their contributions to the Russian medal count (approximately 15% of all medals won) is widely discussed in the country.

Still, it came as a shock when Russia’s top football flight, the Premier League, began to fill up with North Caucasus teams – Alania Vladikavzav, Anzhi Makhachkala, Spartak Nalchik, and Terek Grozny. The Russian sports world respected the Caucasian dominance on the wrestling mat, but didn’t expect an invasion of the football pitch.

The Russian Premier League, and the Soviet league that preceded it, has always been dominated by Moscow clubs. They won 33 of 53 Soviet titles, including the first 22 contested. Of the 20 that went elsewhere than Moscow, only four belonged to clubs not based in the capital of a Soviet republic: Zarya in 1972, Dnepr in 1983 and 1988, and Zenit in 1984. Dnepr and Zarya both now compete in the Ukrainian leagues, meaning only one Russian club from outside of Moscow ever won the Soviet league.

The break-up of the Soviet Union helped the smaller Russian clubs compete, but the hegemony at the top remained strong. Alania Vladikavkaz, from the center of the North Caucasus, broke through, winning the Russian Premier League in 1995, but it would be another 12 years until Zenit St. Petersburg wrestled the title once again from Moscow. Since their ascendance they’ve split honors with Rubin Kazan, shutting the Moscow clubs out for a remarkable five seasons, the longest stretch in which the capital city has been without a champion since 1982-1986.

Though Zenit and Rubin’s achievements were naturally upsetting to Moscow football fans, their greatest indignation has been saved for the representatives from the North Caucasus. In 2010, for the first time, all four Caucasus clubs, representing the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Chechnya and Dagestan, competed in the Russian Premier League at the same time.

The hostility toward the Caucasus stems less from their football success, Alania’s championship notwithstanding, and more from underlying political and ethnic tension. The mountains are most known for the bloody conflicts that erupted there in the 1980s and 1990s, which sent thousands of young, ethnic Russian soldiers to their deaths, as well as innocent civilians in the republics. A few high-profile suicide bombings in Moscow in the last decade, carried out by Caucasus natives, have also hurt the region’s image.

Continue reading at The False Nine.

 

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