The little-known story of Russia’s worst sporting tragedy

On October 20, 1982, football fans were crushed to death at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium, an event the Soviets censored.

Russian soccer fans and players lay flowers at a memorial to the 66 fans that tragically died in a post-match jam near the exit of Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, 20 October 2007. The tragedy happened 25
Russian football fans and players lay flowers at a memorial to the 66 fans that tragically died in the post-match jam near the exit of Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow [File: Sergei Chirikov/EPA]

Along a staircase into Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, flowers and photos commemorate the football fans who died in Russia‘s worst sporting tragedy.

Vladimir, who lost six colleagues, has chosen red and white flowers – the colour of Moscow’s Spartak team.

Outside of Russia, few know about the disaster that was hidden for years in the Soviet Union. 

Even today, it is still unclear what happened and exactly how many people died at the Luzhniki, which had been the main stadium of the Olympic Games only two years earlier.

On the evening of October 20, 1982, 16,500 fans descended on the site, initially named Central Lenin Stadium, to see Moscow’s favourite football team play Haarlem, a Dutch club, for a place in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup.

Attendance was low – the stadium had capacity for at least 80,000 people.

“The Russian winter hit early, it was a freezing day and the steps were covered in ice,” said Alexander Prosvetov, who was 27 at the time and a journalist at Sport Express.

Since less than a fifth of the tickets was sold, the stadium authorities crammed fans into the east section, leaving the rest of the arena mostly empty.

“Only one exit was open to make it easier for the police to control the crowd,” said Provestov, who now sits on Russia’s Olympic committee.

“It was a terrible mistake.”

With Spartak leading 1-0 in the final minutes, several hundred fans decided to leave and they hurried into a tunnel that joined the stairs at the exit. 

Twenty seconds before the final whistle, Spartak’s Sergei Shvetsov scored a second goal. 

“I wish I hadn’t scored,” he would later say. 

Hearing the crowd roar, some departing fans tried to turn back. 

As they did, they collided with people on their way out. 

“People were trampled on, crushed,” said Prosvetov. “I saw a policeman dragging a lifeless body. When we came out, we saw bodies hanging over the ramps.”

Vladimir was pulled out of the crowd by a colleague, who was on the fringes. 

“It was chaos. I knew something awful was happening,” he said.

Officially, 66 fans were crushed to death, two-thirds under the age of 20. 

“A big question hangs over that number,” said Prosvetov. Witnesses, including the former tennis star, Andrei Chesnokov, claim there were more victims.

On February 8, 1983, a trial took place which resulted in the stadium chief being convicted and sentenced to three years of corrective labour. He ended up serving 18 months.

Only one short article appeared the day after the tragedy in Moscow’s evening paper, Vechernaya Moskva, stating: “An incident occurred yesterday in Luzhniki. After the football match, some spectators were injured.”

For years, the deaths and the trial were censored from the press. According to British journalist and former Spartak player, Jim Riordan, no more Spartak matches were scheduled for October to stop families laying flowers or otherwise marking their loss.

“In the Soviet Union, everything was supposed to be good. There were no such things as tragedies. If I wanted to write about it, I would have had to stick the article to a tree without anyone seeing me. You couldn’t write anything without permission from above. It was unthinkable,” said Prosvetov.

Russia’s forgotten football tragedy
The brochure for the game on October 20, 1982 between Spartak and Haarlem which ended in tragedy [Al Jazeera]

The victims’ relatives struggled to find answers. 

Reporting on the tragedy in the early 2000s, Prosvetov interviewed one mother who had spent the whole night looking for her 20-year-old son Oleg. 

She called the hospital, contacted the police, but only later found out from an investigator’s file that he had lain lifeless all night near the monument to Lenin, where the other corpses were stacked before being taken to the morgue at 6am. 

Prosvetov said he learned that a burial took place “very quietly” before the morning, with police present.

“The only way people found out was by word of mouth,” said Alexei Oksin, a journalist at Ekho Moskvy, who was 18 at the time. “I was there and I didn’t know what happened.” 

Martin Haar, the Haarlem captain of the 1982 match, said that unlike many Spartak followers, they had almost no idea about what happened.

The truth – or at least part of it – did not come out until 1989, when the policy of “glasnost”, or openness, started to lift the Iron Curtain. As communism started to disintegrate in central and Eastern Europe, the Soviet government began publicly addressing its shortcomings and long-hidden tragedies were being unearthed in the press. 

The Luzhniki disaster was just one. 

It was also revealed that in March 1975, 21 people were killed in a stampede during a match between Soviet and Canadian youth hockey teams at Moscow’s Sokolniki Arena. 

An investigation found that an intoxicated electrician cut off all the lights while people were leaving the stadium. 

One exit was open to Soviet people, while the other two were only open to foreigners.

The facts about the Luzhniki crush are still muddled. 

Witnesses and Vladimir Alyoshin, who became the director of the stadium months after the disaster, said the police’s attempt to control the crowd created the dangerous conditions directly leading to the catastrophe.

However, Aleksandr Shpeyer, the detective who led the investigation, contended that all the gates were open.

Speaking in a 1989 interview with the newspaper Izvestiya, he said: “It is impossible to always prevent such events.”

David Goldblatt, author of The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, described the disaster as the “Chernobyl of football”.

It showed “the same mechanisms of denial, of refusal to pass bad news upwards, a slow trickling out of the truth” as the state’s response to the 1986 nuclear explosion at the Chernobyl power plant, he said.

That year, 1989, was also the year that almost 100 Liverpool fans were crushed to death in Hillsborough before an FA Cup semi-final.

The Spartak fans, who also died supporting their club, were denied the international sympathy that poured in for Liverpool fans and the victims’ families.

More than 30 years on, the bereaved people gathering at Luzhniki Stadium on Saturday still do not have a clear answer about what happened.

Source: Al Jazeera