FC Start: the USSR fights back in World War II.

FC Start: the USSR fights back in World War II.

‘In front of everyone, both the citizens of Kiev and the German occupants, they could prove what great players they were without being humiliated and without bowing down to anyone.’ Makar Goncharenko, player for FC Start.

History is a complex topic at times. How do you know or trust information if you weren’t there? Let’s face it, most great and important historical events have happened in pretty messy or unclear circumstances. They are open to so many influences that can twist or obscure their meaning, that the issue of interpretation is just about the most complicated thing to consider when ‘doing’ history. It makes things fascinating and controversial as well as ensuring that the debates and arguments about what happened and why they happened will, in many cases, never be decided. This is the case for most of history, in fact, there being so little by way of careful, detached analysis for most events, especially those of the distant past. Pre-historic events, such as why Neanderthals died out, are obviously riddled with challenges around gathering, as well as interpreting, the evidence; ancient events, such as Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses and the Prophets, as recorded in the Old Testament, are full of allegory and clearly have a powerful religious dimension which impacts on their purpose; and deciding why wars, such as the Great War, the Vietnam War or the Cold War, developed as they did will always be affected by who won and who lost. We have to accept that people in the past have not always presented the events of their time, the history of today, in a calm, clear and detached manner. There is nearly always some extra message, a value or a purpose, which impacts on the interpretation of the event, just as there is when two football managers discuss the match they have both just witnessed: ‘It was clearly a penalty’, against, ‘It was never a penalty’, is an obvious case in point.

One area of particular interest in historical events is to do with legends. Such stories are a natural part of the human story and the oldest stories we seem to have, the likes of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ and ‘The Iliad’ are just that. There may be a germ of truth in them, maybe quite a lot of truth, but they get changed in the telling so much that they lose any credible connection to the original and are, as such, unbelievable. Such is the case with stories such as King Arthur, Robin Hood or Dracula, where the real person may have existed but the stories that grow up around them come to obscure the truth. History is full of myths and legends that have the power to shape our language, beliefs and actions to this day; one only has to look at the obsessions with the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti, UFOs and the regular forecasts of Armageddon linked with some ancient prophecy to see that such stories retain their influence on many people.

Legends develop for various reasons. They can be used to explain an attitude or belief; they can be used to justify an action; they offer links to origins and identities of peoples and nations; they might explain why things have gone wrong in the past and so make demands on today; they can give peace and hope to people who are suffering. Legends are powerful stories and they cannot be ignored by historians nor dismissed just because they are not ‘true’. To do this is to ignore the power and the purpose of the story. It is important that they are recognised as part of a culture and then examined to explain what they say about that culture, the people and the time from which they developed. The fact that they are believed and valued is an essential part of the legend. One only has to look at the many references to Robin Hood in the light of the banking and economic crisis of 2008 to the present day or the power of Dracula to inspire the hugely successful ‘Twilight’ series to see that ‘truth’ is not the only way in which historical events affect and shape our lives today.

The difficulty of distinguishing fact from fiction is not just a thing of the deep past. There are many events of more recent times which have been open to great debate with issues about just what happened being very difficult to discern. In some ways, the story behind every trial that comes to court, every politician who rises to power, every act of terror or war, is open to some form of interpretation and opinion. These interpretations are based on selecting the truth, highlighting some things over others, exaggerating the good or ill in the work of certain figures and drawing certain messages and consequences over others. With intelligence, care and determination, things can be agreed and reasonable conclusions drawn – but to be a ‘good’ historian is a most difficult challenge.

One particular event comes to mind as an example of this challenge. It is quite an obscure event in some ways but one which has become far better known in recent years, rooted in a game of football that took place in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1942. The match happened during World War II and inspired a Hungarian film called ‘Két félidő a pokolban’, or, ‘Two Half-Times in Hell’ from 1962. In 1981, this in turn inspired a Hollywood film, ‘Escape to Victory’, which remarkably cast the Rambo actor, Sylvester Stallone, alongside some famous footballers, including Pele and Bobby Moore. As happened with another famous war film, ‘The Great Escape’, the truth got rather twisted and some people came to believe that the film really was a factual account of a true event with Brazilians, English, Scottish, American and Argentine prisoners somehow coming together to defeat a team of German soldiers. Further films have been made about the game, a recent example being a Russian one entitled ‘Match’. It was released just before the European Football Championship of 2012 which was jointly hosted by Poland and the Ukraine. This particular film cuts to the heart of the difficulty of separating the fact from the fiction as it portrayed the Ukrainian players in a very different light from that of ‘Escape to Victory’, for example. Whereas that film had shown the players to be heroes against their opponents, ‘Match’ portrayed the Ukrainians as Nazi sympathisers, which is quite a difference. The truth, it is fair to say, is rather hard to discern, even though this was quite a recent event and many people survived to tell the story well into the 1990s. Moving beyond the legend is incredibly difficult.

Map showing Kiev and Ukraine: here

Here is a version of the story of the now famous ‘Death Match’. It shows that, despite what some people say, sport really can be important and influential for a nation. This version emphasises the positive from the players and the Ukrainian perspective. It shows how a team of local footballers caused great annoyance to the Nazis, who were occupying the Ukraine, by refusing to capitulate to their demands that they should stop being so good. Even though they were malnourished, had little by way of proper kit and had little chance to practise, these players ran rings around the ‘stars’ of their military opponents, humiliating them in the process. As we will see, it would all end in tragedy but why did these men even find themselves playing football against the elite forces of the German army in the depths of the war in Kiev during the summer of 1942?

FC Start was a football team in Kiev, in the Ukraine, not far from Chernobyl where the nuclear disaster of 1986 happened. They played for just one season during World War II and they beat everyone they played: played 9, won 9, 58 goals scored, 10 conceded. Theirs is a story of true heroism and skill but it is still relatively unknown in the West, a story lost in the political mists of time because hearing such positive tales about people who were under Communist control after the war was just not the ‘done’ thing.

The key figure behind FC Start team was a man by the name of Iosif Kordik, who controlled one of the local bakeries, in Kiev, which was the capital city. The Ukraine had been invaded by the Wehrmacht forces, the German Army, as a part of ‘Operation Barbarossa’. Kiev itself was occupied in mid-September, 1941. One day, Kordik bumped into one of his heroes, a footballer called Nikolaï Trusevich. Trusevich had been the goalkeeper for Dynamo Kiev before World War II and, now that he had returned home from a prisoner of war camp, where he had been held after being captured by the Germans, he was in need of a job. Kordik invited him to come to work for him at the imaginatively titled, ‘Bakery No. 3’. The German guards had actually released Trusevich and other Russian soldiers so that they did not have to spend time and resources guarding them; they were released with no papers so that they could not get any work, food or accommodation and were therefore expected to starve or freeze to death. It was a solution which would be cheaper than guarding and feeding them.

Within a short period, several other former footballers had gathered at Bakery No. 3, most of them having played for two rivals before the war: Dynamo Kiev and Lokomotiv Kiev. When the German Wehrmacht, who controlled the region, put together a football league to give themselves, and other soldiers from Hungary and Romania, something to do, the players at the bakery were allowed to enter a team and they took the name ‘FC Start’. Nazi superiority was expected to be shown over their military allies as well as the local population.

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The poster advertising the ‘Death Match’ between FC Start and Flakelf. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The local players were always short of food, tired from working shifts of up to 24 hours and in fear for their lives because of Ukrainian informers to the Nazis. They lacked proper kit, wearing cut down trousers and work shoes instead of boots. They were not allowed to train either, although they were so malnourished that this was not their biggest problem. There were serious doubts in the team about whether they should actually play or not. It took a brief speech by Trusevich to decide the issue. By coincidence, a set of red woollen shirts had been found a few days earlier. Holding one of them, he said to the others, ‘We do not have any weapons but we can fight with our victories on the football pitch…we will play in the colours of our flag. The Fascists should know that this colour can never be defeated.’ They all chose to play.

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Nikolaï Trusevich – Goalkeeper for FC Start in 1942 (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

From their first match, FC Start were the outstanding side in the competition, overcoming their physical problems thanks to great skill, tactics and teamwork. Victory after victory followed but things got tougher when they beat PGS, a German garrison team, 6-0 in July, 1942. This was simply not supposed to happen as it humiliated the German players and the ‘system’ which saw them as superior to the local people. Sport really was supposed to show Aryan supremacy, but, as in the Berlin Olympics of 1936, things were not going to plan. On 6th August, FC Start were to face their toughest challenge against ‘Flakelf’, ‘the Flak Eleven’, a newly formed team from the German Luftwaffe. It included some pilots but more players came from the anti-aircraft groups around Kiev. They won easily, 5-1. But immediately after the match, a return fixture was arranged for the following Sunday, 9th August: it would become the ‘Death Match’.

A large crowd gathered for the match. It began with Flakelf giving the Nazi salute and shouting ‘Heil Hitler!’ The Ukrainians had been ordered to do the same by an SS officer who spoke to them before the match in the changing rooms. But as they slowly raised their hands, they put their fists to their chests and gave the cry of the Red Army: ‘Fizcult Hura!’ (literally, ‘Physical Culture, Hooray!’ but better translates as ‘Long live sport!’). Not surprisingly, the Nazis were furious.

The same SS officer who had ordered them to give the Nazi salute was to be the referee for the match. The players had been advised to throw the game for their own safety but as the game started they decided just to play. Chaos broke out soon enough as the referee ignored all fouls by Flakelf even when the FC Start goalkeeper, the famous Trusevich, was deliberately kicked in the head. Flakelf took the lead while he was still dazed. But FC Start would not give in and they struck back, scoring with a long shot before another player, Makar Goncharenko, dribbled around the whole Flakelf team to score a stunning goal, even as they tried to grab him and kick him from behind. A third goal before half-time saw FC Start in control of the match. The Nazis were, to say the least, unhappy.

During half-time, the SS officer and a Ukrainian collaborator returned to the changing rooms to both warn and threaten the players that they could not, and must not, win the game. Serious consequences were threatened if they did win. However, in the second half, things were much quieter and both sides scored twice, leaving FC Start 5-3 up. Then, towards the end of the game, one of the Start team, a defender called Klimenko, dribbled around the whole of the Flakelf defence, went round the goalkeeper up to the goal-line but refused to score and, instead, he turned to kick the ball back towards the half-way line. It was the ultimate humiliation of the German team as this ‘sub-human’ Ukrainian could choose not to score against them – and still win. The whistle was blown early to save Flakelf further embarrassment. The FC Start players did not celebrate but guard dogs were turned on to the crowd of supporters. The Nazi leaders in the crowd were jeered as they left the ground. Hungarians and Romanians with the army had been seen supporting FC Start and mocking the Germans. Something had to be done.

The local Nazi leaders decided what to do but waited until FC Start had played and won their final match, 8-0, to win the league. They then turned up at Bakery No. 3 and rounded up all of the players. They were taken to the SS headquarters and interrogated in the hope that they would admit to being involved in activities against the Germans but none did so. One of the team, though, Korotkykh, was exposed as a member of the NKVD, Stalin’s Secret Police, when his sister told the SS: he was tortured and killed. As the others refused to break, they were sent off to labour camps where several of them died by being clubbed to death and then shot through the head. Three of those who died were executed as retribution for a partisan attack on a local factory. One in three of those held at the Siretz Camp were executed and they included the heart of the FC Start team: Ivan Kuzmenko, their giant striker; Alexi Klimenko, the young defender who had dribbled around the Flakelf team before refusing to score; and Nikolai Trusevich, the great goalkeeper and the man who brought the team together after going to work at Bakery No. 3. Some of the team did survive the war but then faced the backlash of those who saw them as collaborators for playing football with the enemy. Worst was the threat posed by Joseph Stalin who sent so many former prisoners of war and civilians who had contact with the Nazis to the Gulags or death after 1945.

The full story of FC Start was suppressed for many years and only came out in 1959, long after Stalin’s death, and it is really down to two Soviet leaders that it happened. Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, who was himself a Ukrainian, were instrumental in seeing that the remarkable story of FC Start found a wider audience. It was a part of ‘peaceful coexistence’ really, an example of heroism and human endurance, as well as skill, in the face of fear and hatred. For Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the witness of FC Start was an example of anti-Nazism from within Communism, a sign to the world of the strength of their system and way of life.

Today, a monument stands to the players of FC Start outside Dinamo Kiev’s ground. Makar Goncharenko, was the last member living of FC Start. He died in 1996, but four years earlier, he spoke of the team and the ‘Death Match’. He did not see any of the team as heroes, not even those who died. For him, they were just ordinary people caught up in a brutal war, a war that saw that saw the population of Kiev fall from 400 000 to 80 000. The men who played for FC Start were no different from the rest of the community; thanks to their sporting ability, they just played a different role in the struggle.

Monuments to FC Start at the Kiev stadium: photo links here and here. These are clearly evidence that some people thought something important had happened at FC Start. And there is another important memorial, see below, linked with the ‘Death Match’. It is at Syrets Concentration Camp, where three of the players were amongst the estimated 25 000 who died. The camp was close to the infamous massacre site at Babi Yar.

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(Author: Jennifer Boyer; Source: here)

So, that is the positive interpretation of the story and it is one which is powerful and emotional, a classic example of the ‘David and Goliath’ struggle. The heroes are clear, the monuments are built, the memory is enshrined in the stories and the films. But it is not quite so straight-forward and many believe that a different interpretation is necessary. Part of the problem is to do with confusion over what actually happened in 1942 and part is to do with Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the leaders of the USSR, and how the story came out.

There seems to be no doubt that the football season of 1942 did take place, including the teams mentioned, such as Flakelf and FC Start. The result in the ‘Death Match’ was almost certainly a 5-3 victory for FC Start and, within six months, half of the team had died. But then things get messy. How come the local officials of the Nazi occupiers never checked the papers of the FC Start players? They would easily have found out that they had none. Many local people were accused of being collaborators with the Nazis and some believe that the team must have included such people, as portrayed in the Russian film ‘Match’. And were the deaths that followed the game directly a result of the football or just a part of the huge suffering of the Ukrainians in the war? It is estimated that eight-ten million Ukrainians died during World War II, a higher percentage than any other nation, despite evidence of collaboration with the Nazis by some people; in such horrible circumstances, such things were, surely, to be expected. Starvation was the biggest cause of death, a further horrid famine that stands alongside the tragedy of 1933, ‘The Terror-Famine’, when up to seven million more people, mostly Ukrainians, died thanks to the consequences of Stalin’s first ‘Five Year Plan’. Clearly, the fact that four or five players died within six months of the match is no surprise; they may not have been shot.

The suffering of the people and the obvious expectation of collaboration, as in France, for example, was a particular problem when the tide of the war turned against the Nazis. Following that great turning-point, the Battle of Stalingrad, the German forces were decisively pushed back and forced out of the USSR. In the wake of this, Joseph Stalin was ruthless in his pursuit of anyone who might have been seen to have collaborated with the Nazis in any way. After the war, he famously sent Soviet Prisoners of War, who had been imprisoned in the west, straight out to gulags in Siberia for fear that they had been intellectually ‘contaminated’ by the experience. The Ukrainians feared that they would be part of the back-lash and the story of the ‘Death Match’ was covered up until after Stalin’s own death in 1953. If there was a clear story of anti-Nazi activity, surely it would have been used to impress Stalin? The story only came out under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, presented as a story of how good the Communists had been in opposing the Nazis during the war. It is all a bit too convenient for some people.

The truth is that many people do not believe the story of the ‘Death Match’ as told above. They say that those who survived and re-told the story, such as Makar Goncharenko, changed their version of events many times, almost in every re-telling. Also, there were discrepancies between different players and a lack of consistency with any surviving spectators from the estimated 2000 who attended. Marina Shevchenko, a local historian who works at the local museum of the Great Patriotic War, believes that the match between FC Start and Flakelf did take place on 9th August, 1942, and the score probably was 5-3 to FC Start – but it was not a ‘Death Match’.

The story is the stuff of legend, a spin placed upon an event played out under the most frightening circumstances – and formed into a legend to protect and justify people who then faced another bout of horror from their own rulers. It was given added energy by other politicians who wished to cast a positive light on Communists during the Cold War and that was then muddied further by Hollywood. A further twist is given by the ‘celebrity’ enjoyed by certain key players in the match who could hardly do more than re-tell the story everyone wanted to hear, the truth having long been submerged in the myth of patriotic glory. And the Russian version of events in ‘Match’ from 2012, also adds in that element which comes from a historic dislike and distrust between nations.

The Death Match. The stuff of legend. Just like Robin Hood, really?

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