Although they have not won the league title since 1976, former secret police side Dynamo Moscow are one of Russia’s most famous football clubs. But despite recent numerous attempts to build a team capable of challenging for the title – including bringing nine Portuguese players to the club for $100 million in 2005 – Dynamo have proven spectacularly incapable of achieving success.
Things have gotten so bad that their fans have even begun to speak of a curse. Or as even former manager Yury Syomin muttered as he quit the side: “An evil fate hangs over this club.”
But if Dynamo are indeed a side playing under a bad sign, then what is the root of their misfortune? After all, curses must come from somewhere, they do not just pop up out of thin air. There are those who suggest that the answer lies in Russia’s troubled, and often brutal, history.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, the team was incorporated into the Dynamo Sports Society, set up by Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the notorious Cheka, forerunners to the KGB. Some two decades later, Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s sadistic secret police chief, fellow Georgian, and the man who almost took over the U.S.S.R. after the tyrant’s death, took on the role of Dynamo’s mentor. He routinely used his influence to fix matches in favor of Dynamo, sending footballers and referees who were impertinent enough to score goals or give decisions against them to the Gulag.
A few years ago, the Tunisian embassy, now housed in Beria’s former Moscow residence, decided to carry out extensive renovations. The repairs took a lot longer than anyone had figured, mainly due to the fact that the workmen reportedly kept coming across skeletons. In the gardens, in the foundations of walls, everywhere they dug. Or so was the word around Moscow.
Could it be that some of those unfortunates had had their fate decided in the VIP box at Dynamo’s Petrovsky Park stadium? Perhaps Beria had resolved to do away with them whilst watching Dynamo launch a counter-attack, his beady eyes flickering briefly as the decision to end a life registered in the part of his brain set aside for such matters.
Are the gods paying Dynamo back for their many sins of their former mentor?
“We are cursed,” said Dmitri, a long-time Dynamo fan, as we sat drinking tea in his apartment, “and it is all down to Beria. You see, during WWII, Beria sent Nikolai Starostin, the founder of Spartak Moscow, to the Gulag for ten years. He could only have done it at that time because there would have been an outcry otherwise. He accused Starostin of attempting to assassinate Stalin during an exhibition match on Red Square in which Spartak had taken part.
“It was ludicrous, of course, but a lot of people were sent to the Gulag on trumped up charges at that time, as I’m sure you know. But just look, Spartak have had the most success of any Russian side ever, and fortune has turned away from Dynamo. It’s a curse, payback for the crimes of the past. I’m utterly convinced of it,” he said.
But what do the players think? At the height of Dynamo’s woes, when points were dropped with apparent supernatural ease, when star players turned into hopeless cases overnight, I put the question to Alexei Smertin, then club captain.
“Sure, I’ve heard the talk,” he told me, “but I don’t know, I don’t want to think about it. I just try to keep myself from considering such things.” He laughed nervously, obviously having no desire to dwell on such matters.
Dynamo - financed by a leading Russian bank - are no longer a police side in anything but name. But the side that took on Dynamo’s mantle of the club of the Russian security forces was besieged by even worse luck when it was formed in the summer of 2007.
While FC MVD’s first two seasons saw astounding progress, with victory in a Moscow-wide tournament followed by promotion to the second tier of Russian football at the end of 2009, things rapidly went downhill and culminated in the club’s office being raided by a rival branch of the security services over corruption claims. FC MVD was later cleared of allegations that a million dollars stolen from businessmen at a Moscow airport had been diverted to the side, but the damage was done and its sponsors pulled out. In 2010, the club ceased to exist.
Their more illustrious comrades at Dynamo have yet to be put out of their misery.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.