Grigory Pasko: On Football

[Editor’s note:At first sight, it may seem odd to post an article about something as frivolous as the Russian football (soccer) championship on this blog, but as Grigory Pasko points out below, in today’s Russia, even football has a political component. Historically the championship has always been won by one of several Moscow powerhouses such as CSKA or «Spartak», but now that there’s a “St. Petersburg team” in the Kremlin, we should have guessed that it was only a matter of time before St. Petersburg’s «Zenit» would end Moscow’s dominance by miraculously wining its first-ever football championship, on November 11. Not surprisingly, Russia’s new flagship team is proudly sponsored by such fine Russian corporations as «Gazprom», «Sibur», «Gazprom Mezhregional», «Sogaz», «Gazprombank», and «Gazpromneft» (all «Gazprom» subsidiaries, if you haven’t guessed), and has a “special relationship” with that other «Gazprom»-sponsored team, FC Schalke 04 of Germany’s Bundesliga.] schalke_zenit1115.jpg Bilateral relations. FC Schalke 04 (the ones in the in blue «Gazprom» jerseys) host «Zenit» (in the white «Gazprom» jerseys) in a friendly on 20 January 2007. The Russian «Gazprom» team won 2-1. Once again about the national pride of the Great Russians By Grigory Pasko, journalist The recently-crowned Russian football champion, St. Petersburg’s «Zenit», are a “Russian” team in name only. Judge for yourselves: the team’s best players have names like Fatih Tekke (Turkish), Radek Širl (Czech – he scored the winning goal in the championship game), Alejandro Dominguez (Argentinian), Nicolas Lombaerts (Belgian – he replaced the Norwegian Erik Hagen in the starting lineup), and Kamil Čontofalský (Slovak)… Nor can you call the coaching staff Russian, either – both manager Dick Advocaat and his assistant Cornelius Pot hail from the Netherlands. So all the proud cries we’re hearing these days about “the great victory of the great Russian team” are at a bit far-fetched at the very least, and groundless at worst. But the people need circuses to go with their bread. Bread continues to be available (albeit now at twice the price of only a few months ago) thanks to the high price for crude oil on world markets. Those same petrodollars also go to buy circuses from the west, by way of the acquisition of foreign coaches and players for Russian professional sports teams.

futbal1114.jpgRussians pack a football stadium. Technically speaking, their flags are illegal – in Russia, the flag is an official “state emblem” and can only be displayed by the state, not by ordinary citizens.The people need something to be proud of. Football victories are very suitable. Football can become something of a modest replacement for a currently nonexistent ideology – the ideology that once held the country together in a state of mass dementia for such a long time.A few words about this dementia. Warrant officer Nikolai Merzlikin, a crew member of the nuclear submarine APL-429, which sank in the Pacific Ocean in 1983, recalled that the sailors abandoning the doomed ship through the torpedo tubes actually took their Marxist-Leninist indoctrination notebooks with them, so that the petty officer wouldn’t chew them out later. Can you imagine to what extent they had to have filled people’s brains with all kinds of stupid garbage to make their thoughts turn to precisely this stupid garbage in a moment of mortal danger!Indeed, the empire that was the USSR was largely held together by propaganda and ideology. I recall how there were four separate ideological departments in the editorial office of the fleet newspaper where I worked: propaganda, party work, komsomol life, and culture. And come to think of it, the other three departments – combat training, information [news], and letters – also worked for propaganda of the socialist way of life and service to a certain extent.Seventy years of propaganda didn’t make Russia’s army any stronger: the Chechen wars showed this very graphically. The moral-and-psychological spirit of a warrior is an important matter. But if his overcoat’s full of holes and his stomach’s empty, then he won’t be able to fight for long.What example have they usually used to inspire soldiers to great exploits? In the main – the victory in the Great Patriotic war. Indeed a Victory! True, the people had paid too high a price for the ambitions of their commanders..And what else can they use to inspire, for example, the people of today, to outdo themselves? The ideology can be fit into two words: Making Money. There is only one propaganda. And even that is of doubtful quality: For Putin’s Plan. What plan, and when comrade Putin found the time to think of it, isn’t clear. Deeds that the country could truly pride itself on aren’t evident. Oil and gas for sale – that’s not the achievement of the Russian leaders, but God’s gift from mother earth.I once noticed that the most souped-up cars in Russia are those of Russian manufacture. Take a look at some «Moskvich» or «Lada», and you won’t immediately recognize it as a product of domestic manufacturing: inconceivable spoilers, a whole slew of additional lights, running boards, moldings, and what not… Why? Because cars of foreign manufacture are self-sufficient, they’ve already got design, you can already see the quality in them.“But ours are cheaper”, said one cabbie to me as he turned the handle to open his window manually (these remain only on Russian cars). “Look”, he said, “it’s cheap, and if something goes wrong…”


It’s still a «Lada»…

As it happened, something went wrong right then and there – the window-opener handle broke. Maybe because it was too weak, or maybe because the driver had been cranking it with too much enthusiasm. “Cheap piece of tin”, he said, “there it goes again…”I understood from these words that this wasn’t the first time the cheap handle had broken. A few more times, and the cost of the broken handles will catch up with the cost of one foreign one. Maybe it’s better to pay a lot once, but to get good quality for it?But I digress. Let’s get back to football. Football fans have become a mass phenomenon in Russia in recent times. After the «Zenit» victory (over the best Russian team, by the way – «Saturn»), supporters of the team at the metro station «Sportivnaya» in St. Petersburg smashed the ornate station lamps, broke an escalator, smashed the windows of several rail cars, and poured beer and champagne all over the station platform. I’ve seen this kind of fans – with their drunk and stupid mugs – in Moscow. I’ve seen them on the plane flying from Moscow to Frankfurt: they were bellowing out songs and cursing at the German passengers. Then they got into a fight at the airport after we landed.


This car was destroyed by overenthusiastic Russian football fans.

This category of Russian citizens needs to have at least something to be proud of – which is why they make a lot of noise on those very, very rare occasions when the Russian national team, or any Russian team (that sports names like Jô, Mozart, Rodrigues, Tekke, and Gyan) actually wins. And vent their rage on expensive cars parked on the city streets when their teams don’t win.The people have nothing to be proud of. Hence the artificial transformation of comrade Putin out of nothing into the role of “leader of the nation”. Hence the secrecy about everything that concerns the army and its equipment. On TV they mention in passing… oh, by the way, you know, we’ve got missiles and a mighty nuclear shield. And that’s all. But about what’s really going on in the military – total silence. And then maybe, out of the corner of your eye, you might be able to read something someplace about how this mighty nuclear deterrent misses its target as a rule. But the main thing is to say it in such a way that everybody knows that we do have IT and you’ve got to be proud of THAT. Why not be proud, for example, of well-made televisions or automobiles instead? If they can build space rockets, then surely they should be able to build cars. Or computers. Or a decent elevator. Or equipment for removing snow and garbage – but all of this is imported from abroad. Even the water cannon they use to disperse demonstrators…


Someone to be proud of – the “leader of the nation”.

Well, okay, in Iran too the leader of the nation is beyond criticism: the symbol of the state, elected by the people, and all that… Let us be proud of Putin. But for what achievements should we be proud of him? What has this person done at his post (the post of manager, in essence) that we all – all of us, and not just a bunch of grovelling sycophants – can truly be proud of him for? Saved Russia from collapse? A doubtful argument. It wasn’t collapsing any further after the collapse of the USSR. Yes, he did destroy the young shoots of democracy as an alien method of running the country. But what has he offered in exchange? Thieving and thuggish management of raw material resources by a gang of chekists? That’s something to be put on trial for, not to be proud of! Maybe he at least did the roads? No, not even them! I ride on these roads all over the country and I can see that Putin will not go down in the history of my country as a maker of roads. The only achievement in this arena has been a law on roads – Putin recently signed a Federal Law “On automobile roads and on road activities in the Russian Federation”.The law defines the term “automobile road”, its structure, establishes uniform requirements for automobile roads and the procedure for their identification, introduces a classification of automobile roads depending on their significance… In short, everything that should have been done, oh, three hundred years ago. The only innovation is the enshrinement of the concept of using an automobile road on a paid basis (toll roads).I think that it will be a long time still before my fellow countrymen can take pride in the quality of their roads. All the more so given that movements such as “For Putin” are cropping up like mushrooms. But I don’t seem to have observed any movements “Against fools” or “For excellent roads”.…By the way, there is an initiative to create a Day of Football in Russia. And to make it an official holiday.