Like other similar clubs around the country it hosted sporting activities such as a gymnastics, horse riding and swimming, but VVS was best known for its three most popular sections; ice hockey, basketball and football. It was especially successful in the first two: the ice hockey team won the Soviet championship three times and the Cup of the USSR once, while the basketball team became champions of the USSR in 1952. The football section on the other hand couldn’t emulate the achievements of their club comrades.
In 1945 VVS was playing second division football and earned promotion to the Top League the following year. The best achievement in the club’s nine-year history was a fourth placed League finish in 1950, followed by a semi-final appearance in the cup the following year. Indeed, what made the club distinctive with a story worth retelling seven decades later wasn’t what happened on the pitch, but rather off it.
In the post-war years when VVS MVO was active, Soviet football was dominated by two clubs; CDKA Moscow (now CSKA) , the army team, and Dinamo Moscow, the police team. Both clubs had managed to keep their best players away from the frontline fighting while improving them by attracting the best players from the teams decimated by the war. Clubs controlled by powerful state institutions were thus fighting both on and off the field, and all available means were used in the battle to become number one. It was into this environment that VVS MVO Moscow made its entrance with support from a certain Vasily Dzhugashvili, the son of Joseph Stalin.
Born in the Kremlin in 1921, a year before his father was selected as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Vasily was destined for great things. At the age of 11 his mother Nadezhda Illiluyeva died, officially of illness, but according to Vasily’s sister Svetlana who famously deflected to the United States in 1967, she left behind a suicide note leading many to believe she killed herself.
Stalin stopped visiting his children altogether meaning that living without a mother or father, the young boy grew up in an unusual environment tended to by maids and guarded by NKVD agents night and day. Vasily turned into a poor pupil at school and soon developed problems with alcoholism.
Following pressure from his father and without any real conviction, in 1938 Vasily joined the air force and gradually rose through the ranks, his upward trajectory continuing during the Second World War when he showed bravery and skill in shooting down two enemy planes. In 1947 he was promoted to Lieutenant-General and in 1948 he became Commander of the Air Forces of the Moscow Military District, which also made him the head of VVS MVO Moscow.
His intentions with the sports club were clear from the beginning: he wanted to create a club capable of competing with the elite, and to these ends he built a modern sports complex at Park Kulturiy in Moscow for all the club’s athletes, by now numbering more than 300.
However, as the early results of the various sporting disciplines turned out to be disappointing, Vasily began conscripting external players to strengthen his teams. Following bad results suffered by the ice hockey team in 1948, he enlisted the entire first line of Spartak Moscow’s side and in 1950 the team was further improved with the addition of CDKA Moscow’s goalkeeper. Along with the new players came titles and success, and it was no wonder that VVS MVO was able to attract the best players as Vasily’s powerful position in society allowed him to offer – far from the communist spirit – apartments, military promotions and high wages to his new stars.
The football team underwent similar upgrades. Players such as Vsevolod Bobrov (at this time treble champion of the USSR, twice winner of the cup and two-time top scorer in the league with CDKA), Yevgeniy Babitch (Soviet champion from 1948 with CDKA), Vyacheslav Tikhonov, and Dinamo Tbilisi’s Gavoz Dzhedzhelava, one of the best strikers in Soviet football between 1937 and 1948 who was ordered to take charge of the team between 1950 and 1951.
There were some players who managed to resist the equal amount of pressure and temptation from VVS. During a vacation in Kisloyodsk, Nikita Simonyan, the current Vice-President of the Russian Football Union, was ordered back to Moscow to meet the VVS boss. To his face Simonyan said: “Vasily Iosefovich, I beg you let me stay with my team,” to which Vasily answered: “You see! This man told me the truth. Thank you for your sincerity. You can remain at Spartak.” Simonyan went to become one of the greatest players in the history of Spartak and the Soviet Union, winning an Olympic title in 1956, four Soviet championships and two cups for the Red-Whites, for whom he also scored 133 goals in 213 matches – still a club record to this day.
Elsewhere in Moscow, Lavrenti Beria, the all-powerful head of the security services and patron of Dinamo Moscow was at the peak of his influence. Unlike most, Vasily Stalin wasn’t afraid of Beria and with the two men sharing a visceral hatred for each other, the football field became their battlefield and the players their soldiers. Caught in the middle of the rivalry between two of the Soviet Union’s most powerful men is Nikolai Starostin, the founder of Spartak Moscow. After competing with Dinamo on the pitch for too long, Beria had Starostin and his three brothers sentenced to ten years in the gulag for anti-Soviet agitation. This was his plan to open the door to dominance for his Dinamo, but Vasily had other ideas.
While coaching Dinamo Komsomolsk in Amur during his involuntary exile from Moscow, Starostin received a phone call from Vasily informing him that he wanted him back in Moscow. After his arrest Starostin had been banned from residing in 16 major cities across the USSR, including Moscow of course, but despite this ban a plane landed in Komsomolsk the next day to fly Starostin back to the capital.
Back in Moscow, Starostin was immediately taken to meet his liberator and after a toast in honour of his return, Vasily had him registered to live back at his old address. Starostin later recalled: “The closer I got to Spiridonovka Street, the more I understood what I had missed the most during all those years – the sensation that someone is waiting for you. And when I crossed the threshold of the apartment, seeing my wife and my daughter in tears, I realised that man, in essence, needs very little to be happy.”
The happiness didn’t last long though. After just a few days back in the capital Starostin was told that his registration had been cancelled and he had to sign a document agreeing to leave Moscow within 24 hours. He went to see Vasily who offered to host him at his own home to keep him in the city. There he effectively became a prisoner, unable to do anything by himself while surrounded by the security guards of both Beria and the young Stalin. The following day he escaped and returned to his home, only to be arrested and put on a train to Maikop in southern Russia.
Starostin never reached his destination because in Orel he was recovered by Vasily’s most trusted men and transported back to Moscow by plane. Upon recovering his most prized asset, Vasily decided to take revenge against Beria when later that day Dinamo hosted VVS at the Dinamo Stadium in Moscow. In the official lodges and in front of all the security services, Vasily entered alongside Starostin; Dinamo’s enemy number one, the founder of Spartak, and a man who had been sentenced to the gulag by Beria. During the match, Vasily continued to laugh at the situation, embarrassing several high-ranking officers among the crowd. To him it was all a matter of honour.
In the end however Vasily had to give up his valued prisoner – not because of Beria, but because of Starostin himself. The Spartak man knew he was playing with fire and that things couldn’t continue in this manner, so despite Vasily’s efforts to protect Starostin and his family by sending them away from danger to a military base far from the capital, Starostin talked him into letting him go. After leaving Moscow, Starostin travelled to several Soviet cities but met nothing but closed doors. After being denied entrance to Krasnodar, Maikop and Ulianovsk, he wrote: “I understand that it was the price to pay for my epic Moscow journey.” Eventually, he found a place to stay in Almaty in Kazakhstan, where he took over the local Dinamo Alma-Ata, the current Kairat Almaty.
When Joseph Stalin died in March 1953 it created hope for many of the people he had imprisoned or exiled, including the Starostin brothers, who were eventually allowed to return to Moscow and Spartak in 1955. For Vasily Stalin the situation was quite different as the death of his father left him without protectors and at the mercy of the new masters of the Kremlin. At the end of April, less than two months after his father’s death, he was arrested on Beria’s orders for treason and anti-Soviet propaganda.
Beria himself would also be arrested however and subsequently executed later that year. This saved Vasily from a certain death sentence, but he was still sentenced to eight years imprisonment and hard labour and sent to Vladimir under the name of Vasily Pavlovich Vasilyev. He was eventually released in 1960, given a small flat in Moscow, a state pension and the right to wear his military uniform again. Just three months later he was arrested once more, and when released the following year was ordered to move to Kazan where he officially died of alcoholism – although this is still debated today – on March 19th 1962, shortly before his 41 birthday.
His beloved club didn’t survive without its patron and in May 1953, two months after the death of Joseph Stalin, VVS Moscow was dissolved. Officially this was for economic reasons, but the de-Stalinization drive by Nikita Khrushchev suggests that everything with any link to the dictator had to go. The club never reached the top of the Soviet game but did leave behind a fascinating legacy and a cautionary tale about the dangers of political patronage in football.
BTLM writes regularly about lost clubs from football history with fascinating histories which was how we came upon this excellent article written by Vincent Tanguy @Spartak_M_VT . This piece was originally published on Russian Football News and is reproduced in an updated form here on BTLM with the author’s kind permission.