Article Review: Russian Soccer and Social Identity

 In Article Review

Diving into the academic archive to find the most interesting research on soccer so you don’t have to! Or maybe to inspire you to! Either way, this is Soccer Scholar, a review of the best in soccer literature! 

Frykholm, Peter A. “Soccer and Social Identity in Pre-Revolutionary Moscow.” Journal of Sport History 24, no. 2 (1997): 143-54.

For this, the first week of Soccer Scholar I’m looking at Peter A. Frykholm’s 1997 article “Soccer and Social Identity in Pre-Revolutionary Moscow.” A very interesting read and revealing as to how the world’s game came to Russia before Vladimir Lenin. It is Frykholm’s conclusion that soccer in late 19th century and early 20th century Russia was a collision of cultural elements. The development of teams helped to forge identities based on neighborhoods, cities, and eventually nationally. British elements of the game and its appeal to younger Muscovites exposed deep divisions in traditional Russian culture. The game also exposed schisms between bourgeois and working-class players and supporters.[1]

The story of how soccer first came to Russia echoes its arrival in other parts of the world, through British workers in port cities. In this case, Frykholm suggest the game was first played in St. Petersberg and Odessa in the 1870s by British engineers and managers in local textile mills. Soon workers were encouraged to play as an effort to keep them fit and, more importantly, sober. Teams with a significant number of fans soon began to form and the growth of transportation networks allowed for both to travel and compete with teams from other cities.[2]

Frykholm references Richard Holt’s work “Football and the Urban Way of Life in 19th Century Britain.” The quotes pulled from that research are useful in understanding both how we see supporter culture in the present day as well as arguing Frykholm’s thesis of social identity. Holt’s words are worth quoting at length here:

By supporting a club and assembling with thousands of others like himself a man could assert a kind of membership of the city. As three o’clock approached and the trickle of spectators became a flood in the streets leading to the ground, the workers briefly took possession of the city.[3]

As the scale of the industrial city outstripped the capacity of individuals to compass it, the fact of being a supporter offered a sense of place, of belonging, of meaning that could never come from the formal expressions of citizenship.[4]

This idea here is that the working-class in a mass society could use soccer and the support of a local team as a touchstone of identity. These quotes, written about Britain, used by Frykholm to understand Russian identity, still resonate with fans who fill stadiums around the world today. As a soccer fan, you the reader most certainly can relate to this and reference your own “march to the match” experiences.

Returning to Frykholm’s article, this sense of identity that came from both playing for and supporting local soccer clubs challenged a number of aspects of Russian society. First, this identity carried with it a sense of both modernity, and a challenge to traditional rural identity. Soccer in Russia also exposed class tensions. With working class players finding themselves shut out of middle-class (mostly foreign) teams and practice facilities.[5]

These class tensions can be seen in Frykholm’s description of dacha and dikie teams. Dacha soccer leagues were a result of increased middle-class mobility, with teams competing with one another in the small towns along railroad lines. Dacha teams also followed wealthier residents to the countryside in the summer. In contrast to dacha soccer were the dikie or outlaw teams. Dikie teams were made up of factory workers, and seen by authorities as a breeding ground for subversive politics. Frykholm continues the article by describing the rivalries and class challenges these two forms of teams created, culminating in 1912 with the victory of a team of workers, Chesnokov over the elite Moscow club Morozovtsy.[6]

Finally, Frykholm’s article highlights the rivalry between Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as teams from Northern Russia and the South. These regional rivalries, existing long before a Russian ever kicked a ball in anger, were given new light as residents found regional identity behind teams and playing styles.

Soccer has an interesting history, and Russia’s is no exception. Frykholm paints a clear understanding of how soccer fit into Russian society and helped to create identity. The class divisions described here would of course be crucial elements of the 1917 revolution. Following the revolution, soccer remained a critical part of Russian society, but after reading this article I’m curious to see how the ideas laid out by Frykholm shift after the establishment of the Soviet Union and now in modern Russia.

[1] Peter A. Frykholm “Soccer and Social Identity in Pre-Revolutionary Moscow.” Journal of Sport History 24, no. 2 (1997): 152-53.

[2] Ibid., 143-44

[3] Richard Holt, “Football and the Urban Way of Life in Nineteenth Century Britain,” in Pleasure, Profit, and Proselytism: British Culture and Sport at Home and Abroad 1700- 1914, ed. J.A. Mangan (London: Frank Cass, 1988), 73.

[4] Ibid., 79-80.

[5] Frykholm, “Soccer and Social Identity in Pre-Revolutionary Moscow.” 144.

[6] Ibid., 148-49.

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