The stickers became more frequent and thicker as I ascended the Saint Petersburg metro escalator, forming a static conveyor belt of lurid decorations. They were emblazoned with caricatures of hooded young men clutching flares and wearing garishly coloured tracksuit tops, trainers and seductively menacing grins. The figures posed next to slogans: “Our name is Zenit” read one.
Although each sticker told its own layered story, they were unanimous in the unmistakable message they harboured which rang loud from the silent scribbles: “This is Zenit, This is Our Patch.”
Walking out of Sportivnaya metro station, in the city’s north-west, the air carried from the Neva River struck my lungs. Smatterings of people in sky blue and crisp white scarves scurried toward swathes of police forming lines ahead of chunky, armoured trucks. Bleating matchday programme sellers were heard among the chants of “Forward Zenit, Forward for Petersburg’. This was matchday in Saint Petersburg.
It was September 2013 and, as a fresh-faced 22-year-old, I was beginning my study year abroad and had decided to fill the vacant weekends that came as a byproduct of being unable to watch Manchester United by watching local side Zenit Saint Petersburg. That day they were home in the league to Terek Grozny.
I’d been in Russia a week and had become acquainted with some of the breathtaking scenery the city had to offer. The history of Russia’s one-time capital is intriguing. Built by Peter the Great in 1703, it was intended to be the gateway to Europe and leans to the west in more ways than simply geography. Peter travelled as far as Holland, Denmark and even Manchester to learn craft techniques before creating Saint Petersburg; the result is a city sculpted by the man’s idiosyncrasies, each building carrying an insight into the mind of a pioneer craftsman.
One quirk that made its way from the very practice of building to the present day is ingrained in local vernacular: if a Petersburger invites you for drink, they will deftly raise their chin to one side and flick a finger into their neck. This originated from when builders working on the who were paid in drink and would point to a stamp on their neck when ordering in the city’s watering holes to verify their authenticity.
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Going to watch Zenit threw up the opportunity to visit a further landmark less celebrated, but no less spectacular – the Petrovsky stadium. Accessible only by bridge and nestled almost precariously into a meander of the Malaya Neva river on the city’s north-west Petrograd district, the ground holds a shade over 21,500 and hosts Zenit home games.
Although the city’s architecture itself is influenced by European elements, the stadium is rudimentarily Russian. It was built 1925, the same year as Zenit’s inception, three years after the creation of the USSR and one year after the death of Lenin, with the Soviet Union taking its first steps under Stalinist rule. The ground, like the country, has undergone several reconstructions since; it was annihilated during World War II, rebuilt and then rebuilt again for the 1980 Olympics.
Its current form carries a quintessential Soviet sporting feel, as if you’ve been transported back to the times of short shorts, tight perms and ‘taches, of gymnasts in dusty gymnasiums and chain-smoking coaches.
Walking up to the ground on a clear September day, through the tangle of police and towards the bridge that leads from the island on the island, it is easy to be overawed by the beauty of the Petrovsky. Glistening, clear water almost seems to cradle the ground. It flows just feet away from short, sandy walls that hold brilliantly blue seats separated from the pitch by a strip of running track. The four floodlights that tower in each ‘corner’ of the oval resemble oversized versions of early satellite television aerials.
By the time I made it into the ground, the atmosphere was electric. Groups of fans at opposing ends of the ground were organised by one loan drummer at the foot of the stand, beating out orders to rhythmically shout, sway and goad one another into more raucous support. The ground was bubbling when Aleksandr Kerzhakov put Zenit 1-0 up on 21 minutes, intensifying further when captain Danny netted a second minutes before half-time. The score stayed the same to send Chechen side Terek, whose chairman at the time was Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov, the 2,500km back home without anything to show for their travels.
Petrovsky stadium ranked worthily alongside the jewels of Saint Petersburg’s skyline. It could well keep the company of famous Petersburg landmarks like Isaakievskiy Sobor, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood and Kazan Cathedral but would hardly ever be named in a travel guide.
Nevertheless, it is a stunning setting that has provided a stage to five Russian title-winning sides and the team that won the 1944 Soviet Cup, the first since football in the USSR was suspended due to the outbreak of war and the same year the Siege of Leningrad finally ceased, which had ravaged the city and its citizens.
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On 8 April, the club will bid farewell to the Petrovsky. Zenit were finally given the green light to move to the 68,000 Stadium Saint Petersburg on Krestovsky Island, whose name conjured nothing of the emotions and imagery Petrovsky does, but is at least still in keeping with tradition in being situated on an island. The game against Anzhi Makhachkala will be the last. The ground will host the opening game of this summer’s Confederations Cup and will be one of the host stadiums for next summer’s 2018 World Cup.
Petrovsky is just one nugget of Petersburg identity that runs deep into its denizens, hardened through generations that lived through communism, war, a siege and witnessed the fall of the USSR and the rise of Russia. Many in Saint Petersburg consider themselves to live in the country’s cultural capital, a place ahead of the rigid curve set by Moscow in terms of the arts, music and fashion, and prides itself on a liberal outlook and vibrancy.
Identity becomes important when those with a birth year before the fall of Soviet rule in 1991 were born when their town and country had different names to what they are now. When titles cease to have importance, ethos assumes primary importance.
This unique character shone through when a blast ripped through the metro in early-April, killing 14 people and injuring dozens more. The city united in the face of terror and strangers offered the needy water, food and shelter. It was a cruel blow to a city that has been through its fair share of hardship, but it was not one that would shake it, not one that would defeat it.
In a commendable, touching act, Zenit pledged to donate the proceeds of tickets sold for the game against Anzhi – which were intentionally increased in price due to the occasion – to the victims of the blast. Zenit players travelled to the site of the tragedy in hoodies with the hashtag ‘You Will Not Break Us’ in Russian on the front. The message was different from those stickers on the metro wall, but it still represented an important side of the club, the only club in the city.
Both the club and the city will say goodbye to an iconic piece of architecture after that game against Anzhi. On an occasion shrouded by tragedy, it will also remember those who perished. As new life begins and Zenit look forward to a new era, the past and a place to remember will be left at the Petrovsky, such an integral part of the city’s identity, and into which the club will engrave the memory of those fallen forever
By Danny Armstrong @DannyWArmstrong