The Avanhard Stadium was set to open on 1 May 1986 as the centrepiece of Stalinist utopia and regeneration in northern Ukraine. Soviet authorities saw the building of the new football ground as a key aspect in the development of the newly-founded town of Prypyat – named after the local river – aimed to be a focal point within the small, industrialist community and home of FK Stroitel Prypyat.
Yet the stadium was largely destroyed and irrevocably damaged merely a week before the opening ceremony, as at 01:23, on the 26 April 1986, the meltdown of reactor number four in the V.I. Lenin (Chernobyl) Nuclear Power Plant caused an unparalleled nuclear disaster, with the fallout of radiation dwarfing the combination of both blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 40 years earlier. The Avanhard Stadium has since stood abandoned, the symbolic ghost of football in Chernobyl.
FK Stroitel Prypyat
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was destined to cause the fragmentation of football across the nation, as players, owners and most importantly, money leaked out of clubs. Yet one Ukrainian Fourth Division team disbanded and ceased to exist in 1988, long before the political turmoil took its toll on sport throughout the USSR ‘Stroitel’ (Builders in Russian) were formed in the early 1970s by a group of local industrialists moved to the area by the Soviet leadership.
The initial contract for these workers was to build the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station but they stayed long after the completion of the project. During this period, the Soviet government, under the leadership of Premier Leonid Brezhnev, embarked upon a rapid expansion of their nuclear facilities, including the one built in the Chernobyl Raion less than 50 miles north of Kyiv. Alongside the building of the power plant, Brezhnev announced the creation of the ‘Ninth Atomgrad’ – a nuclear city.
Although led by Brezhnev, the whole operation was part of Joseph Stalin’s attempt to promulgate a Socialist utopia across both the Soviet Union and beyond. One of the central facets of Marxism-Leninism – to Stalin at least – was this aim to promulgate Stalinism as a form of civilisation.
The first Atomgrad was the home of nuclear physics in the country; Ozersk, or ‘City 40’, neighbouring Chelyabinsk in the Southern Urals. Plans for the city were conceived almost overnight, as Stalin awoke to the news of the aforementioned release of the first American A-bomb in Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Vladimir Kuznetsov, a member of the Russian Atomic Energy Corporation and resident of Ozersk, claimed the city was a “totalitarian state within a totalitarian state”, closed off to all foreigners, including all citizens of the Soviet Union that were not Ozersk natives.
Although Prypyat was likewise a secret, uncharted city, the people of the area did not live under as tight a totalitarian rule, with the local football team an oxymoronic symbol of the freedom of those within the barbed wire.
Stroitel were formed upon the basis of a local amateur team based in the nearby village of Chistogaovka, adding money and support from the newly relocated builders, as the population of the city reached 50,000. The team captain was Viktor Ponomarev, previous captain of the displaced team, who was later joined by signings from sides across Ukraine, as future Viktor Leonenko Hall of Fame inductee (the Ukrainian Football Hall of Fame, named after the Tyumen-born but Ukrainian-national striker), Stanislav Honcharenko joined the club in 1979.
During the late 1970s, Stroitel dominated local competitions and reached the Championship of Collectives of Physical Culture (KFK Championship – two levels below the Soviet Top League) in 1981. From 1981-1984 they finished fifth, eighth, and sixth (on two occasions) as they became an established amateur team, but could not gain professional status. The closest they came was in 1985, losing out to FC Neftyanik by merely four points. In order to achieve this, Stroitel were to move into the newly completed, 5,000-seater Avanhard Stadium, but the team never stepped foot onto the pitch.
During a systems test at Chernobyl on 26 April 1986, the formation of steam voids in the reactor core caused both water flow to reduce, and an exponentially large spike in voltage at Reactor Number Four, Thus instigated a rupture to the reactor vessel from the increased pressure. Control fuel rods fractured, the core overheated, and numerous steam implosions exposed the graphite moderator of the reactor to oxygen and ignited the whole system.
This internal meltdown caused two major explosions, destroying the majority of the plant with a nuclear excursion of over 40 billion joules of energy. Thirty-one people died during the meltdown itself, all of whom worked in the plant. Massive ecological collapse was also caused by the resulting radiation propelled into the upper atmosphere, levels of which reached 30,000 roentgens per hour in the vicinity of the core – for context, a fatal dose to humans is 100 roentgens per hour. The disaster has been recorded as the worst nuclear disaster of all-time, classified as a level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
According to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1996, the struggle to contain the contamination cost the Soviet government 18 billion roubles and involved over 500,000 workers. Although the meltdown and fallout has been mentioned in passing, the focus here is not the over-discussed causes and effects of the disaster itself, but the immediate struggle of the city and how the dying embers of football has been overlooked since the disaster.
On 26 April, the Avanhard was to be officially opened by hosting a youth tournament for young Stroitel fans and the team itself were to set to play in the semi-final of the regional Kyiv Cup. The former event was postponed, but the semi-final match was planned to go ahead, until before kick-off when a helicopter packed with soldiers in protective clothing landed on the pitch and declared the match postponed. Ironically, the team that Stroitel were set to play were allowed a bye into the next round and won the regional competition.
Just under 36 hours after the meltdown, the inhabitants of Prypyat and surviving Chernobyl workers were evacuated, never to return to their homes, and the team disbanded. Some of the Stroitel players – such as Ponomarev and Alexandr Vishnevsky – were members of the 500,000 strong clean-up operation but the majority of the team moved to the city of Slavutych, some 30 miles east of the Dnieper River, forming FK Stroitel Slavutych.
However, due to the status of Prypyat as a closed city, the evacuees could not simply go and see their old team play in its new form, despite being relocated within a month. Both Vishnevsky and Ponomarev joined the newly founded team who finished third in the 1987 championship. However, just a year later they finished a disappointing eighth, and under increasing economic difficulty and problems with healthcare in the region, they disbanded towards the end of the year.
Soviet lower league teams such as Stroitel follow a long precedent of struggle and financial failure, just as current clubs across the former Soviet Bloc experience now, but Chernobyl was an unprecedented disaster.
Ghosts of the Avanhard
The formation of Prypyat was an attempt by the party to lead the country through industrialisation by not modernising current cities, but creating whole new ones from scratch, such as the aforementioned Ozersk. Although the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the 1970s was the most ambitious of the Atomgrad, the earlier formation of Magnitogorsk (Magnetic Mountain) in the Urals is equally as impressive.
Magnitogorsk was the first city “created by Socialism” under Stalin in the 1930s, expanding a small village into a one-industry city designed to supply the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel works with physical labour. A showpiece of Soviet achievement, the plant challenged all western rivals, and the accompanying city is even today the second largest in Russia.
Several hundred foreign specialists arrived to administrate the work, including a group of western architects headed by the German Ernst May. According to the original plans, the city was to have followed the rectilinear city design, with rows of ‘superbloc’ neighbourhoods running parallel to the factory, with a greenbelt separating each.
Planners would align living and production spheres so as to minimise necessary travel time: workers would generally live in a sector of the residential band closest to the sector of the industrial band in which they worked. This city represents one colossal industrial success, but embodies the pyrrhic paradoxes of Stalinist culture; the city was a massive achievement and instrumental in supplying the Red Army during World War Two, but was a closed state with suppressed inhabitants, built on the rotten memory of labour camps and totalitarian utopia.
Prypyat was built upon the same parameters, as a one-industry superbloc, but the small beacon of light for many of the citizens was the pride at the Stroitel of Chernobyl. Their lasting legacy has been the builders building the Avanhard. The explosion of the plant set off a chain reaction of implosions from the local football club, but the stadium sits today as a token of Stalinist utopia in northern Ukraine, and also a stoic reminder of the ghosts of football in Prypyat, outlasting its own team without them ever playing inside the stadium. The drama of Chernobyl is not just a tragedy of the individual, but a drama of sporting culture.
If not for the explosion of Reactor Number Four, Stroitel could have gone on to win the Kyiv Cup and secure coveted professional status, but through no fault of their own have now been submerged into Soviet footballing history. Football in Prypyat has been long gone along with its great city, plant and people, only to be consumed by nature.
Although much of the city resembles a setting for a horror movie, the dilapidated stands and overran pitch serve as a lone figure of beauty amidst acres of decadence. Football can divide thousands, but here, traditional images of football taken for granted by those same fans lie as a steadfast warning to the visceral potency of nature. This city, like all the great Atomgrad, stood dormant until visions of Stalinist utopia churned the countryside and developed football in the region, but now football, through the Avanhard, has outlasted all these images of this ‘utopia’.
Chernobyl is now a tourist heartland as students, daredevils and explorers come from all over the world to visit the abandoned superblocs, gaze upon the iconic Ferris wheel, and perhaps have a kickabout in the Avanhard. Maxim Orel, tour guide for Chernobylinterinform, part of Ukraine’s Ministry of Emergency, even joked that “the final match of [Euro] 2012 was played here”.
Such dark humour is rare in regard to Chernobyl. Wladimir Klitschko, in discussing post-Soviet Ukrainian identity, claimed: “The easiest way to explain [who we are] was to say, ‘We are the children of Chernobyl.’ We lost our father. Chernobyl is part of my life. Unfortunately it is part of a lot of lives.” The two Klitschkos, Andriy Shevchenko and Olga Korbut are not just children of Chernobyl, but children of the Stroitel.
Beyond the disintegration of football, the official figure of human losses sits at 31 from the direct explosion, but hundreds more have been affected by the radiation and fallout in the area. On the 30th anniversary of the disaster, it is paramount to pay tribute to the victims above all else. Our thoughts are with all those who suffered and continue to suffer as a result.
By James Nickels @JamesNickels