In late 1949, three men sat at an oak desk flanked by a pair of hammer and sickle gerbs discussed the recent success of the Red Army sports teams, a conversation which would run long into the night. FK CDKA Moscow won the Soviet Top League three years in a row from 1947 to 1949, just as the hockey team were victorious in the respective Top league in 1948 and 1949, and both were lauded as the zenith of Soviet sport.
The first of these men was the star of both, Vsevolod Bobrov. Striker for FK CDKA, and left-wing for HK CDKA, he would be paramount in the development of both national teams, as he led the Red Army team to Olympic Gold in 1956 and led the way for the national football team’s triumph at the 1960 European Nations’ Cup.
The other two men with Bobrov were not managers, coaches, fellow players nor even fans, but Joseph Stalin and his second son, Vasilli. This was the only time Bobrov met the Red Tsar, but was merely part of a strong comradeship with the son of the Soviet Premier.
“General Vasilli, my closest comrade”
Vsevolod Bobrov was born in Morshansk in 1922, just a year after the Antonovschina (Antonov Mutiny – Tambov Rebellion) in the region, the best organised and most destructive peasant rebellion the infant Bolshevik state faced. Total losses in this area due to the Civil War, executions and imprisonment reached over 240,000 but the Bobrov’s were luckily unharmed during the conflict and moved to Sestroretsk, just outside Petrograd in 1925.
Vsevolod spent much of his youth in the surrounding areas of Petrograd and played for Dinamo Leningrad from 1938, but was called up to work in Omsk for the production of artillery sights before serving himself in the Red Army from 1943 when he graduated from the Red Army Quartermaster School.
VVS MVO Moscow, a sports club based in the capital, was founded in 1944 on the basis of the aviation school in Moscow, and functioned until Stalin’s death in 1953. VVS incorporated many differing Soviet sports teams but focused upon its semi-successful football and hockey teams. Bobrov played for the hockey team from 1949-1953 and the football team 1950-1952, moving from reigning champions CDKA Moscow. In 1948, Vasilli Stalin (born Dzhugashvili) was promoted to the position of Commander of the Air Forces of the Moscow Military District, and therefore was also propelled to the presidency of VVS.
As president of the club, Vasilli befriended Bobrov, his star player, quite quickly with the striker even claiming he was “my closest comrade”. The intentions behind this quote were unknown – Bobrov may have genuinely held Stalin in such high esteem – but the fact he is both his club’s president and the son of the Red Tsar is likely the true cause for Bobrov’s words.
The two personalities were poles apart; Vasilli Stalin was an unreliable alcoholic and apparatchik who propelled his career in the forces through his name alone, whereas Bobrov was a consummate professional and sporting star. Vasilli was removed from the front and returned to Moscow before becoming Commander for drunkenly permitting pilots to take part in a military parade despite turbulent weather, resulting in the deaths of both pilots when they inevitably crashed, with his second name saving his military career.
Bobrov starred for VVS, scoring 14 goals in 32 games for the football club, and won the Soviet Top League in 1953 for the hockey team while under the stewardship of Stalin. Bobrov’s time at VVS, however, will always be overshadowed by the Soviet hockey air disaster in January 1950. A military Li-2 plane carrying 11 players, a doctor, masseur and six crew crashed near Koltsovo Airport in Sverdlosk, killing all aboard.
The team were on their way from the Central Aerodrome in Moscow to Chelyabinsk for a match with HC Tractor “Dzerhinsky”. F.F. Prokopenko, an investigator for the Moscow Military District, claimed the accident occurred due to the poor meteorological conditions over the Urals, and because the local communications equipment at Koltsovo was too rudimentary to communicate with the sophisticated military equipment of the Li-2.
The plane changed course to Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg), but neither Captain Ponomarev nor Major Zotov could land the plane in the conditions, and crashed during their attempts. Vasilli Stalin and the state kept the disaster secret – typical of many Soviet accidents of the time – and cobbled together reserves and players from other teams to replace those who lost their lives.
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Read | A history of CDKA Moscow, the precursor to the CSKA powerhouse
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The families of the deceased did not learn of the fate of their loved ones until after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, over 40 years after the crash. Bobrov claims he slept in and was thus running late for the plane, which took off without him. Viktor Shuvalov, the team’s coach, claims Bobrov stayed in Moscow with team official N.A. Kolchugin, and the pair travelled to Chelyabinsk by train a day later. He did not learn of the tragedy until he met Vasilli in Kuibyshev (Samara) on the way to the game and. despite the deaths of 11 teammates, was forced to play by “his closest comrade”.
The story of their close friendship and life at VVS Moscow was even documented in a Russian biopic film, My Best Friend, General Vasilli, Son of Joseph Stalin. The film was released in 1991, with director Viktor Sadovsky taking advantage of Mikhail Gorbachev’s newly-imposed glasnost, as censorship became practically obsolete. In the film, Bobrov’s name was changed to ‘Bagrov’ in order to avoid directly incriminating the sports star.
Long before Bobrov played for VVS and Vasilli, he was already an accomplished striker and winger for the Red Army teams, and even took part in Dinamo Moscow’s tour of Great Britain in 1945. Ironically, Bobrov was introduced to the sport while playing in England, purportedly walking into an exhibition match between two amateur hockey teams and requested to play for Hockey Club CDKA upon his return.
Bobrov was considered the finest forward of his generation in the Soviet Union, scoring 97 goals in 116 games in the Soviet Top League. Because of this scoring record, and despite playing for CDKA, he was invited by Lavrentiy Beria to take part in Dinamo’s ground-breaking tour of Great Britain.
In a period of the cult of collectivism in Soviet sport, Bobrov’s name stuck out amidst the Dinamo squad; he was known as the rookie forward who scored a 15-minute hat-trick on his debut against Lokomotiv, but also as the striking partner of Grigory Fedotov, the Soviet Union’s most famous player. Individuality was not allowed within the paradoxical world of Soviet sport, but Bobrov’s sheer talent and endurance to be both a football and ice hockey star stood out amidst a title-winning squad of stars.
Individuality was not allowed within the paradoxical world of Soviet sport but Bobrov’s sheer talent and endurance to be both a football and ice hockey star stood out amidst a title-winning squad of stars. Even a Moscow News report from 1945 supposed the squad sent to Britain would be a “Soviet XI” due to the appearance of Bobrov on the squad-list, but this was not the case. The team that was finally sent was the victorious Dinamo squad from the 1945 Soviet Top League, plus Bobrov and two players from Dinamo Leningrad.
The press in Britain were fascinated by the mysterious Soviet stars, dressed in matching coats, with matching cases and a mysterious demeanour. The travelling delegation were immediately met by swathes of reporters ready for interviews, whereas the players themselves had never been interviewed before and would often just stand silent, partly due to surprise, but also out of fear of incriminating the country.
Some London-based tabloids dubbed them as the “Silent Ones”, but on the pitch they were far from that. Over four games in England, Wales and Scotland, the Dinamo side were unbeaten. The first match of the tour was a 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge, in which the home sides’ John Harris claimed “Dinamo were the best side I have ever played against.”
Following this game, they defeated Cardiff 10-1 – a side many in England expected were at the same level as the visitors – Arsenal 4-3 at White Hart Lane and drew with Glasgow Rangers 2-2. Bobrov scored six goals throughout the tour, including a hat-trick in Wales. From this point, however, Bobrov still saw both football and ice hockey as a technical game, played on a technical level. This was the case until he played under Anatoli Tarasov.
Tarasov is considered the father of hockey in the Soviet Union, the leader of a system which had money, influence and people poured into. He was the coach of the Red Army Team controlled by Joseph Stalin, creating them from almost nothing in 1946. This Red Army School was developed to demonstrate the Soviet and Communist system as the strongest in the geo-political sphere, but Tarasov did not see hockey or the school as a tool of the state. He skilfully utilized the irrevocable support to develop a training program which focussed upon both the individual development of the player as well as the collective development of hockey in the nation. According to Olympic champion and later Captain of the Red Army Team, Vyacheslav Fetisov, Tarasov described and taught hockey in a simplistic way;
He skillfully utilised the irrevocable support to develop a training program which focussed upon both the individual development of the player as well as the collective development of hockey in the nation. According to Olympic champion and later captain of the Red Army Team, Vyacheslav Fetisov, Tarasov described and taught hockey in a simplistic way; “He [Tarasov] did not see hockey as an aggressive game, but as a different concept. He saw hockey as an amazingly intricate way of passing the puck, and developed a cut and weave passing game, a tapestry. Whereas the United States and Canada only saw it as a form of aggression.”
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Read | The groundbreaking Dinamo Moscow tour of Britain in 1945
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The Red Army School emphasised the collective, both in their style of play and the players’ minds, but did not subscribe to the cult of collectivism like football. This approach was unique, with the Soviet Union arguably the only country in the world to play in this way. Tarasov harnessed this and reminded the players to play without fear and used interesting training methods that would be ridiculed elsewhere.
Anatoly Karpov, former world chess champion and fellow Muscovite, was invited by Tarasov to increase the players’ psychological training and patience, and Tarasov developed theories and tactical manoeuvres with Karpov utilising chess moves on the ice. Bobrov and his line mates, Yevgeni Babich and Nikolai Sologubov, were sent by Tarasov to the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre in their spare time to study the line plié training.
This traditional ballet move was adapted by Tarasov into a fitness regime which involved dancing, rolling, jumping and running in full hockey gear to increase the dexterity of the Red Army Team players. This regime became known to the players as ‘Tarasov’s Boogie-Woogie’, designed to allow the players to think of the sport as a vivid form of art. Tarasov was Bobrov’s coach from 1946-1949, before his forced move to VVS. Tarasov threatened to resign over the
Tarasov threatened to resign over the move but ultimately stayed on as head coach of the Red Army Team until 1960, with his dictatorial protégé Viktor Tikhonov succeeding him.
Vsevolod Bobrov followed Tarasov’s example not just in hockey, but also football, showing many of his team-mates at CDKA, VVS and Spartak his methods. Fedotov, Valentin Nikolayev and Aleksei Grinin were among few who took part in the boogie-woogie with Bobrov, but unfortunately the training methods did not take hold in football.
Successive coaches such as Boris Arkadyev and Grigory Pinaichev for CDKA, Garviil Kachalin for Trudovye and Lokomotiv Moscow and Vasily Sokolov for Spartak allowed the players to train this way in their spare time but preferred traditional training methods. These would focus on physical training, socialist education and very strict control of the players. Although Arkadyev is one of the greatest and most successful coaches in the Soviet Union, the success of the nations’ football teams is dwarfed when juxtaposed by those of the hockey clubs and national team.
Arkadyev developed Herbert Chapman’s W-M formation and fluid football learned from Sbornaya’s humiliating defeat to the Basque National Team in 1937. Arkadyev’s successful CDKA team from 1946-1949 containing Vsevolod Bobrov were all named in a list of the top 33 players in the country by the National Committee of Physical Culture and Sports.
He could not replicate this dominance on the international scene at the Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952. Bobrov, Nikolayev, Yuri Nyrkov, Anatoli Bashashkin and Aleksandr Petrov were all called up from CDKA to compete under Arkadyev at the Olympics, along with Bobrov’s old VVS team-mate, Konstantin Krizhevsky, and Soviet legends such as Igor Netto and Anatoli Ilyin.
In the preliminary rounds of the tournament, they defeated Bulgaria 2-1 with extra-time goals from the Captain Bobrov and Dinamo striker Vasili Trofimov. They were thus paired with local rivals Yugoslavia, a match highly anticipated throughout the annals of the Kremlin. The match finished 5-5 after extra-time, with Bobrov scoring a hat-trick then further goals from Trofimov and Petrov. However, Yugoslavia won the second leg 3-1 as Bobrov again scored the consolation goal.
The loss infuriated Joseph Stalin and fuelled angst of the Tito-Stalin split, a schism between the two countries which signalled the end of international relations between the nations in 1955. Although Stalin’s rejection of Tito’s plans to integrate Albania and Greece as part of the Yugoslav Satellite State and the countries’ expulsion from Cominform (Communist Information Bureau) in 1948 was the main cause, the football match was used as a political tool for either to gain an advantage during the Informbiro (Yugoslav term for Cominform, and the term given to the schism by Tito).
Stalin blamed Arkadyev and the CDKA core for the defeat in Finland and barred the team from competing. Arkadyev was stripped of his Master of Sports title, CDKA’s players were spread out amongst their rivals, and the whole club was absolved until 1954, well after Stalin’s death.
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Bobrov on his skates
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The Red Army Team (as the National Hockey Team was called) was one of the most successful national teams of any sport throughout the world during the same time period. They won the World Championships 20 times and gold at the Winter Olympics seven times (out of a possible nine) from 1954-1988.
Tarasov was the direct builder of all these achievements, with himself and Viktor Tikhonov the only two head coaches from 1945-1991. Comparatively, the Sbornaya only won gold at the 1956 and 1988 Olympics, and the European Championship in 1960, and made 29 different managerial changes over the same time period. Although these alone are great accomplishments for the football team, they pale in comparison to the successes of Tarasov’s system.
Paradoxical nature of Soviet sport
Bobrov was either involuntarily held back or voluntarily persecuted by the Stalinist system numerous times throughout his career. Despite the aforementioned on-pitch success of VVS Moscow, Bobrov and Vasilli, the Stalinist system was typically paradoxical, with the successes of each club treated with both suspicion and paranoia by the state. Development of football was secondary to the development of socialism.
After scoring a winning goal for VVS against Dinamo, Stalin bought Bobrov a cottage on the outskirts of the city, but as a typically modest character he refused the gift. In response, an outraged Vasilli had Bobrov arrested for 10 days and ironically called it a “vacation”. Later, they both fell victim to party politics, during Vasilli Stalin’s constant battles with Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the MGB (secret police) and the president of Dinamo Moscow.
Beria and Vasilli Stalin were directly vying for control of the Politburo, their premier’s approval and dominance on the pitch in Moscow. The former disliked the son of the Premier for being just another apparatchik who had been all but given his authority and respect by his father. Vasilli Stalin allied himself with Nikolai Starostin and Spartak Moscow – infuriating Beria – and even removed him from the GULAG to hire him as Head Coach of VVS.
Beria was the officer who accused Starostin of ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’ and ‘promotion of bourgeois sport’, and sentenced him to the Soviet prison system. After the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953, Vasilli had no protector in the Politburo and was arrested in April by Beria and charged with the aforementioned charges Starostin faced, as well as treason.
Vasilli was only saved from execution himself because the new Premier and First Secretary of the Communist Party, Georgy Malenkov, executed Beria in May. Vasilli was sentenced to eight years imprisonment under the pseudonym Vasily Pavlovich Vasilyev. As part of the fallout, VVS were disbanded and the players were distributed amongst other clubs in Moscow. Bobrov moved to Spartak Moscow but only played four games for the club before he retired from football, partly due to the controversy but also to focus on his hockey career for the upcoming 1956 Olympics.
The ideal that sport was an art form was held by players such as Bobrov of both teams from the base level – influenced by Tarasov, who they saw as the father of the Soviet sports system. In direct juxtaposition to this, the bureaucrats and apparatchiks saw Stalin as the father of this system, with the cold-hearted, practical ideals towards sport as a political means to announce the superiority of the Soviet Union paramount.
Some Soviet coaches, such as Tarasov, Starostin and Valeriy Lobanovskyi, but particularly the former developed players under a dictatorial system with a democratic structure of abstract thinking and freedom above all, allowing youngsters like Vsevolod Bobrov, Vyacheslav Fetisov and Grigory Fedetov to thrive under in this paradoxical Red Army school. Soviet sporting successes are often organised into ‘Schools’,
Soviet sporting successes are often organised into ‘Schools’ in an aim to propagate the claim that the State is central to the success of any sporting team, with the Red Army School integral in the development of football and ice hockey in the Soviet Union. Bobrov and Vasilli Stalin were early proponents of the principles shared by both sports in this era moulded and formed two of the most successful schools of either sports history; the Valeriy Lobanovskyi and Anatoli Tarasov School.
Although Tarasov’s techniques were largely ignored by many other football managers, the cult of collectivism was removed and replaced by the cult of personality surrounding famous Soviet sport stars. Valery Lobanovskyi used this cult to develop a new system of success which is still followed today by Dynamo Kyiv.
Bobrov died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 56 in July 1979. By his death, he had won the Soviet Top League four times and the Soviet Cup twice in football alone. As a hockey player, he won the Top League seven times, the European Championship three times, World Cup twice and Olympic gold in 1956. His individual achievements include an Honoured Master of Sports of the USSR (1948), Honoured Trainer of the USSR (1967), and he was even the first ever hockey player to become a Knight of the Order of Lenin in 1957.
The poem below, Breakthrough Bobrov, by Yevgeny Yevtushenko pays homage to his expertise and class on and off the pitch and rink, claiming; ‘Watching the flight of the ball and the puck, like the flight of other worlds, and forever – Russian, native, in people’s memory, played by Vsevolod Bobrov.’
Следя полет мяча и шайбы,
как бы полет иных миров,
и вечно – русский,
на поле памяти народной
играет Всеволод Бобров.
By James Nickels. Follow @James Nickels