“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Winston Churchill’s famous words in October 1939 at the breakout of World War Two ring out as loudly today as they did during Stalin’s Soviet reign. While communism and the core ideologies of Marxist socialism have long since met their end, the autocratic feeling of ‘Mother Russia’ is as strong today as it has ever been.
As Vladimir Putin continues to write his name in the long, glorious and largely murky history of this wonderful nation, the disparity between east and west remains prevalent in a country which straddles two continents.
As the notion of Mother Russia continues to be a uniting influence over the 144 million people that occupy her land – and others that don’t – the 5,500 miles that separate east from west ensure that ‘home’ means very different things to people across the nation.
In Moscow, the feeling is that of Russia’s epicentre; many in the capital consider it to be the most active and secure identity in Russia. Saint Petersburg, largely, is the same. A trip to the city of Irkutsk, the historical Siberian trading centre, offers a telling difference.
In Jonathan Dimbleby’s outstanding BBC documentary series Russia, the people of Irkutsk identify with a very different notion of home. Siberia is their Russia – the centuries old trading route where so many of the natural resources that make up Russia’s wealth travel through today. Further to Russia’s Far East and the pacific city of Vladivostok is perhaps Asia trapped in Russia’s lands.
These palpable contrasts are a mirror to the nation’s football. In the Russian Premier League, no team graces the league from further east than Yekaterinburg, a mere 900 miles from Moscow. It leaves great cities like Vladivostok, Novosibirsk – the administrative capital of Siberia – and Irkutsk without any representation. Instead, their teams are confined to yo-yoing between the first and second tiers.
It symbolises a wider divide in Russia. The easternmost team in the Russian professional football system is FC SKA-Energiya Khabarovsk, a team based in Khabarovsk, 500 miles north of Vladivostok.
While the city is 3,800 miles from Moscow, it’s only 19 miles from the Chinese border. The 577,000 people of the city are largely unconcerned with Moscow; their loyalties lie to the Khabarovsk Krai people and their own concept of Mother Russia. The simple fact is Khabarovsk looks out to Asia, rather than over its shoulder to Moscow.
The divide is evident when teams from east and west meet. There are few, if any, away fans and the teams have to travel days in advance to negate the impact of jet lag and time difference. Perhaps this is why no Russian oligarch has yet considered it fit to plough substantial money into an eastern club.
You would be forgiven for thinking it’s the economy of the region that holds back investment. In fact Khabarovsk placed first in the national award for the Most Comfortable and Developed City of Russia in 2006, 2008 and 2009. Since 2009 it has remained in the top ten.
Similarly, it ranked second behind Krasnodar as Forbes magazine’s most suitable place for private business in Russia. It narrowly lost out to Krasnodar due to the western city’s major leisure and tourism appeal on the Black Sea. It’s no coincidence then that Kuban Krasnodar is a club on the up, bolstered by signings such as Ibrahima Baldé, Charles Kaboré, and Hugo Almeida.
The region is studied very little in Western Europe, indeed Western Russia, yet it offers some of nation’s most impressive cultural diversity, architecture, academic possibilities, and economic growth. The sheer distance makes it easy to understand why there’s such a notable cultural gap; the vast expanse of Siberia and the Ural Mountains cannot be understated.
This gap in a nation’s culture is straightforward to pinpoint elsewhere, too. In England, for example, there remains a marked difference between the North and South. Finance is one, but traditions, too, contrast bluntly.
The north seems to better identify itself with old England – by no means a bad thing. Even in the US, the difference in mentality and way of life differ on the Eastern and Western seaboards. Even in a country that has experienced the greatest globalisation, its own people differ. None more so than North and South.
Having spent time living in New York and travelling through the Deep South, it’s easy to see how geography alters perception. Russia is the size of a large continent. In that context, take Africa. The difference between the Arab, Muslim-oriented north contrasts wholly with the free-spirited South Africa.
In Russia, the cultural gap is as ubiquitous. Many of the descendants in the east can trace their origins back to Mongolia and China. In spite of historical tensions along the Russia-China border, the past two decades have seen peace replace discord and tolerance replace racial stereotypes. There’s genuine reason to believe that the greatest region of cultural acceptance in Russia is the east. After all, it straddles Asia. While Khabarovsk is 3,800 miles from Moscow, it’s only a thousand miles from Tokyo and Beijing. It’s immersed in Asia.
The potential for growth in eastern Russia and Siberia begs one telling question: why hasn’t there been cogent investment in the region’s football? Make no mistake; the game is played in schools and on streets.
Perhaps the wealthy oligarchs from Moscow and St. Petersburg prefer to identify themselves with Europe rather than Asia. Similarly, they may also prefer to remain close to the economic heartbeat of the nation. As the wealth moves east this will inevitably change, but for now it’s limited to the European half of this grand country.
Could Russian football find itself encountering a new eastern power surge? It’s difficult to imagine the likes of CSKA, Spartak and Zenit ever relinquishing their vice-like grip of the nation’s game, but it’s possible. It may even be that investment comes from Asian businessmen before it does Russian.
The Chinese game has experienced remarkable private investment, however the poor standard of league organisation and widespread corruption has tempered interest in recent months. The Russian league, generally well run and improving by the season, offers an interesting alternative. Within reasonable distance of Beijing and Shanghai – the economic hubs of China – Russia’s pacific east may be the home of future investment.
The challenge, in sporting terms, is a mouthwatering one. Can sustained, prudent investment at youth level coupled with attracting a balance of Asian and Russian footballers work to dispel the western stranglehold on football? There’s little to suggest it’s impossible, even unlikely.
More Chinese migrants are moving to Russia than ever and their experiences contrast with what the migrants suffered during the early years after the Soviet collapse. The original notion that they were ‘invading’ Russia seems to have been replaced by genuine appreciation of their work ethic and culture. An Asian businessman in eastern Russia would be welcomed with greater enthusiasm than in the west.
If the likes of Hulk and Axel Witsel, two outstanding talents brought in for a combined fee of £64 million, can be booed from the stands in the west, an unknown foreign businessman is unlikely to be received well either.
The Russian game is a telling mirror of wider Russia. There’s no denying that the economic power resides in the west, for now. The likes of Zenit, CSKA and Spartak are able to spend tens of millions each season to bolster their respective squads. Consequently, the gap between the top and bottom of Russian football grows ever larger. It’s indicative of a wider problem in the global game.
However, as wealth moves east and Siberia continues to harvest its considerable natural resources for exports along the pacific edge of Russia, the cities of that region will experience growth. Growth in Russia invariably leads to rapid growth in a short space of time.
Even Rubin Kazan, a small club with no major honours to their name until 2008, only grew alongside the city’s economic expansion. Just as Gazprom invested in Zenit when the country expanded its energy drive, there will inevitably be Russian, perhaps even Asian, businessmen interested in acquiring teams from the east. The challenge is undeniably exciting.
It was after a trip to the US in 1959, when Nikita Khrushchev famously said to the residents of Vladivostok to turn their city into “our San Francisco” – 54 years on and that dream may one day in the not-too-distant future become a reality. And if it does, expect it to take football in the region with it. For when things grow economically in Russia, local football soon follows.
By Omar Saleem. Follow @omar_saleem