On 15 July 2018, the final match of the FIFA World Cup will be held in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. Sports fans may remember it as the ground where Manchester United beat Chelsea 6-5 on penalties in the 2008 UEFA Champions League Final, or as the main venue for the 2013 IAAF World Athletics Championships, where Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won three gold medals each.
In the run-up to major sporting occasions, hosting stadia often come under intense scrutiny. Concerns may be expressed about whether they will be ready in time, the treatment of migrant labour exploited in their construction, and spiralling budgets. Yet the broader history of these spaces often escapes public attention. The Luzhniki Stadium, in particular, has a remarkable and even tragic history that reveals much about the social history and public culture of late socialism and the final phases of the Soviet political experiment.
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The Vladimir Ilich Lenin Stadium (as it was originally known) was opened on 31 July 1956 in south-west Moscow, on a bend in the Moscow river. ‘Luzhniki’, as the stadium was renamed in 1992, translates roughly as ‘The Meadows’ – a reference to the flood-meadows on which it was built. The original stadium was planned and designed in just 90 days in 1954, and its construction completed in 450 days in 1955–56. The project not only paid tribute to Lenin but was also testament to the power of the Soviet-planned economy and the achievements of construction shock-work [a system designed for rewarding and recognising workers who surpassed their labour targets] that had industrialised the nation and built whole new cities at breakneck speed under Josef Stalin.
Yet the original construction project was not without its challenges, not least those posed by the site’s waterlogged soil, which necessitated extensive groundwork that raised the stadium by about 50cm. The stadium quickly became a feature of the Moscow landscape, easily visible from the nearby Sparrow Hills and immortalised in Konstantin Yuon’s 1956 socialist realist painting Moscow, View of the Lenin Stadium in Luzhniki. Comparing the view from the same location today reveals how much the stadium and the city have changed over the past 60 years.
Over the decades, this original structure has been much modified, first in preparation for hosting the 1980 Moscow Olympics, then with the addition of a roof, completed in 1997. The most recent reconstruction, during which the stadium was closed between 2013 and 2017, destroyed much of the original structure and preserved only the original façade walls.
A symbol of Soviet power
While the stadium structure has changed, the purposes the stadium has served have remained remarkably consistent. After completion, it was quickly pressed into service as the national home for both football and athletics, and regularly hosted major Soviet sporting fixtures. The stadium also found a role in projecting Soviet society and soft power [the process of using economic and cultural influence to influence diplomatic relations, rather than coercive hard power] internationally. This role continues in its choice as the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2018 Football World Cup.
On 28 July 1957, the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students opened in Moscow, which included an opening ceremony in the Lenin Stadium. Some 34,000 foreign visitors from 130 countries, as well as 120,000 Soviet visitors, arrived in Moscow for the two-week festival – audiences to whom the Soviet leadership were keen to project a more open and tolerant image. Held 17 months after Khrushchev’s so-called “Secret Speech” to the 20th Party Congress, and featuring a host of activities centred on the new stadium designed and built since Stalin’s death in 1953, the festival projected Soviet soft power at a moment of Cold War tension, communicating a new vision of Soviet society both domestically and internationally.
The stadium’s role in projecting Soviet soft power internationally continued and intensified when, in July and August 1980, it hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the Moscow Olympics. Just as some British politicians called for a boycott of the 2018 Football World Cup in the wake of the poisoning of Sergei and Iulia Skripal in March 2018, both the 1957 World Youth Festivals and 1980 Moscow Olympics were hit by international boycotts.
A footballing disaster
A look at Luzhniki’s past also reveals darker aspects of late Soviet history. The stadium was the site of the Soviet Union’s – indeed, one of the world’s – worst footballing disasters. On the night of 20 October 1982, Spartak Moscow played the Dutch side FC Haarlem in a UEFA Cup tie at the ground. Unbeknownst to the players on the field, supporters trying to leave the stadium were caught in a fatal crush that killed at least 66 spectators, 45 of whom were barely teenagers. The precise circumstances that caused the stampede are hard to reconstruct, but the one- party state’s handling of the disaster was almost as shocking as the tragic loss of life. The local press mentioned the disaster in only the most opaque of phrases, and it was ignored by the national sports press. The secrecy and callousness of the official response was typical of the manner in which the later Soviet state handled accidents and natural disasters. It was only after Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost [open discussion of political and social issues] had gathered pace that details of the tragedy became public knowledge. Only in 1989, in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster (with which there are striking parallels), was the Luzhniki disaster acknowledged in the pages of Sovetskii sport, the leading sports daily. The culture of secrecy that had surrounded the tragedy only added to speculation of a higher death toll, estimated by some sources to exceed 340 victims.
Yet when the final match of the 2018 World Cup is played and the tournament concludes, it seems unlikely that much attention will be paid to the Luzhniki’s past, especially its more tragic aspects. Little negativity will be allowed to intrude on the images of a modern sporting facility and the message of post-Soviet modernisation and transformation that the Russian government and footballing authorities seek to project. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the tournament also gives many people – players, the crowd and millions more watching around the world – an opportunity to reflect on this space’s complicated and nuanced history.
Dr Robert Dale is lecturer in Russian History, particularly focusing on the Soviet period, at Newcastle University.