Deeper Than Oil: The Soviet equivalent of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl tragedy

© RIA NovostiMarс Bennetts
Marс Bennetts - Sputnik International
Last week’s plane crash that wiped out almost the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl ice-hockey side brought back dark memories across Russia and the former Soviet Union of a decades-old disaster involving another sports club that failed to make it to Minsk.

Last week’s plane crash that wiped out almost the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl ice-hockey side brought back dark memories across Russia and the former Soviet Union of a decades-old disaster involving another sports club that failed to make it to Minsk.

On August 11, 1979, virtually the whole Pakhtakor football team - from the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan - were killed in a mid-air collision with another passenger plane while flying to a match against Dynamo Minsk in Belarus.

The Tashkent-based team was the only Uzbek side ever to appear in the Soviet top division and the catastrophe was widely seen as the Soviet equivalent of Manchester United’s 1958 Munich crash.

In all, 178 people were killed, including the seventeen Pakhtakor players and training staff on board. The club’s manager, Oleh Bazylevych, only survived because he had gone to a Black Sea resort to see his wife and child.

With glasnost, however, came rumours that there had been something more to the tragedy, that Vladimir Sumskoi, one of the two air-traffic controllers who had been jailed after the crash, hadn’t been entirely to blame, and that the lives of these bright young footballers, loved “all over the U.S.S.R., from Moscow to Minsk, Kiev to Baku” as the Soviet press eventually put it, could have so easily been saved.

In 2004, Sumskoi alleged in an interview with the Pravda newspaper that the two planes had been forced to fly in a critically overcrowded air corridor because an airplane carrying then-Secretary General of the Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev was in the air in the area at the same time. The majority of air space had been cleared for the Soviet leader’s plane, he said. Some 12 planes had mounted up in a tight air space, and the situation had become, in the words of Sumskoi, “beyond human control.” The two planes collided at 30,000 feet above the Ukrainian region of Dneprodzerzhinsk. Sumskoi also said though that he still considered himself guilty, and he should have been able to handle the pressure.

The authorities were initially unwilling to admit the crash had occurred. However, it proved a task beyond even the Soviet leadership to cover up the sudden disappearance of an entire football team, and seven days later the news made the papers. (In 1982, when at least 67 people – some say as many as 340 – died in an accident at a Spartak Moscow match at Luzhniki Stadium, the deaths were not reported at all. The story only made the Soviet press in 1989.)

The Brezhnev rumors were dismissed by ex-Soviet flight security official Valentin Dudin in an interview with the Sovetsky Sport newspaper on the 30th anniversary of the flight.

“That was just thought up by unscrupulous journalists,” he said, without mentioning Sumskoi. “Brezhnev had flown south through that area – but two days earlier.”

As for Pakhtakor, the club continued its existence, with three players from each of the top Soviet teams joining the side that season. And for the next three seasons, the club was protected against relegation from the elite.

Since the split-up of the Soviet Union, Pakhtakor have been the top club in Uzbekistan, winning eight league titles.

In the wake of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl disaster, Pakhtakor responded with a simple but heartfelt statement.

"Pakhtakor FC expresses sincere condolences to the bereaved families and relatives. We hope that in the near future, the new generation of Lokomotiv will gladden all its fans with beautiful games. Eternal memory to them.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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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 who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).


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