The Luzhniki Disaster – The History of Football’s Chernobyl

The Luzhniki Disaster – The History of Football’s Chernobyl

Vadim Furmanov –

Ever since 25 people lost their lives at Ibrox stadium in Glasgow when the West Stand collapsed during a match between Scotland and England in 1902, the history of football has been plagued by all manners of stadium disasters. All around the world, from Nepal to Buenos Aires, from Johannesburg to Sheffield, fans have gone to see a game of football and did not come back. Some of the more prominent of these catastrophes are household names to even the casual fan; the Heysel disaster was the catalyst for the banishment of English clubs from European competition, while the victims of the Hillsborough disaster have only recently been vindicated and absolved of the vile allegations brought upon them by The Sun.

The Luzhniki Disaster of 1982 in Moscow is not one such household name. For nearly a decade, even Soviet citizens were unaware that something dreadful had occurred at the stadium on October 20 of that year. It was not until the reforms of Gorbachev that the press began to report on the disaster and the people learned the truth, or as close to the truth as was possible, so many years removed from the tragedy.  The Luzhniki disaster, its subsequent cover-up, and the much-delayed unmasking of the truth offer a glimpse into 1980s Soviet society, from the secrecy and tenseness of the late Brezhnev years through the relative openness and liberalism of Gorbachev’s glasnost. Its social and political significance was not lost on the football historian David Goldblatt, who has deemed it ‘football’s Chernobyl.’

The Match

October 20, 1982, was an unseasonably cold autumn day in Moscow.  The temperature was −10 °C, just two degrees warmer than the record low for that date, recorded in 1898. Unsurprisingly, Spartak’s second round UEFA Cup tie against HFC Haarlem was sparsely attended.  Only 16,500 fans showed up, compared to the 68,500 who were at Spartak’s 3-2 defeat of Arsenal in the first round in September in much milder conditions.  Viktor Kokryshev, then the director of the Grand Sports Arena of the Central Lenin Stadium, as the Luzhniki was then known, recalls:

“There was a lot of snow, and it was cold, about 10 degrees below freezing.  Before the beginning of the match, we were able to clear only two stands: the East stand and the West stand.  I called my former classmate from the Institute of Physical Education, Vyacheslav Koloskov, and suggested changing the venue of the match.  ‘Not enough time, UEFA won’t agree to it,’ he replied.  There weren’t many fans, about 16.5 thousand.  The majority, about 12,000, decided to go to the East stand and filled it up about halfway.  After the recently held Olympics, when the Luzhniki was filled up to capacity, the situation did not look dangerous.”

Spartak took the lead in the 16th minute through Edgar Gess and did not relinquish their advantage.  Some fans, eager to escape the harsh conditions, began to make an exit shortly before full time.  Sergei Shevtsov added a second goal for Spartak to make it 2-0 with seconds remaining.  But by then, the tragedy was well underway.

The Luzhniki Disaster

Over 30 years on, it is extraordinarily difficult to separate the truth from the fiction and obtain an accurate picture of what transpired on that day.  The only facts are that 66 people lost their lives on that day, and 61 more were injured in a crush on their way out of the stadium.  Even these figures are subject to debate but are accepted, including by the late Leonid Romanov, former head of the Spartak fan club.

Beyond the number of casualties, however, the details of the disaster remain muddled by cover-up and misinformation.  In an article for The Guardian on the 25th anniversary, Jonathan Wilson writes that Shvetsov’s goal was at least somewhat responsible for the Luzhniki disaster because fans who were already on their way out of the ground turned around and were met by “a wall of spectators still set on leaving.”  Shvetsov himself regrets the goal, saying “it would have been better if I had not scored it.”

Aleksandr Shpeyer, the detective, appointed by the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office to lead the investigation, vehemently denied that it had anything to do with the disaster.  In an interview he gave to the newspaper Izvestiya in 1989, Shpeyer claimed that the goal: “did not exacerbate the situation but perhaps even alleviated it.  Many of the fans who were leaving from the upper tier into the passageway ran back [because of the goal] and relieved the pressure on those who were already descending the stairs.  Downstairs, among the mass of people, within the crush, it was impossible to even to turn your head, or turn around, or certainly not to go in the opposite direction, as some claim.”

When asked about the cause of the tragedy, Shpeyer simply responded: “It was, of course, a tragic accident.  It is impossible always to prevent such events.  But to do everything possible to prevent them, this is the responsibility of the heads of the sporting and cultural facilities.”

Shpeyer, also, contends that all the gates were open; the majority of the fans simply chose to utilise the one closest to the Metro station.  Such a simple explanation absolves the authorities of any responsibility and reduces the entire affair to a matter of chance.  A convenient one for the officials, admittedly, but how accurate is it?  There is another version of events that implicates some of the more rowdy fans but places most of the blame those in charge.

The Luzhniki Stadium in the 1980s (Felix Maschek, Hamburg CC-by-sa 3.0/de)

The Luzhniki Stadium in the 1980s. (Felix Maschek, Hamburg CC-by-sa 3.0/de)

Though not nearly at the level of the organised hooliganism of 1980s Britain, by the time of the Luzhniki disaster crowd trouble was becoming a problem in the Soviet Union as well.  It was notoriously easy to bring alcohol into the stadium, and many fans were keeping warm with liquor.  During the match a small group of fans, apparently bored by events on the pitch, decided to turn their attention toward the police presence, throwing snowballs, pieces of ice, and empty bottles at the officers.  Kokryshev alleges that after the match the police officers were intent on punishing the disorderly contingent:

“There is a version, in my view, the one closest to the truth, that the police officers, slightly shifted the gates.  The passageway became narrower – this way it was easier to filter the crowd.  Those above did not know this and continued to push on towards those who were below.  People descended into the crowd of thousands, a situation that at any moment risked becoming critical.  The slippery steps had nothing to do with it; everything was happening in the passageway, where it was dry.”

Vladimir Alyoshin, who became the director of the stadium just months after the disaster, supports this view.  He contended in a 2007 interview with Sport-Express that the policemen, in their attempt to seise the troublemakers from the crowd, created the dangerous conditions that directly led to the catastrophe. He lamented the fact that though most people now accept that the police were responsible, they have not been brought to justice.

According to some witnesses, the catalyst for the crush was a woman’s loose shoe.  The massive crowd of fans were descending the stairs toward the only empty gate, allegedly made even narrower by the police to weed out the troublemakers.  When the woman’s shoe came off, several men slowed down and attempted to help her, enough to create a deadly crush.  A witness at the scene, Volodya Andreev, recalls:

“It was awful.  We couldn’t move, the crowd was pushing from above and from below.  There was no way of dealing with the distraught people.  I saw how a police officer, a major I think, jumped into the crowd to stop it.  But what could he do?  It was too late.  And he remained in the crowd.”

Before it was all over, 66 people had perished. But it would be seven years until Spartak fans and the Soviet people learned of the disaster.

Luzhniki Disaster – The Aftermath

The disaster was hardly discussed in the Soviet press.  Both Sovetski Sport and Futbol-Hokey failed even to mention the Luzhniki disaster in their reports of the match, choosing to focus instead on the severity of the weather and Spartak’s heroics.  Only the local daily Vechernaya Moskva devoted a few lines that hardly do justice to the magnitude of the tragedy, and even manage to imply that the victims are at fault:

“On 20 October, after a football match at the Grand Sports Arena of the Central Lenin Stadium, an accident occurred as the fans were leaving as a result of disturbances in the peoples’ movement. There were injuries.  An investigation is underway.”

In classic Soviet fashion, news of the Luzhniki disaster was suppressed, and scapegoats were quickly identified.  The political situation was tense; Leonid Brezhnev was weeks from death, and Yuri Andropov had not yet been declared his successor.  High-level Soviet authorities had more important matters to deal with that the deaths of some football hooligans, but a cover-up was still necessary. Four officials were implicated: the aforementioned director Viktor Kokryshev, stadium manager Yuri Panchikhin, Deputy Director K. Lyzhin and police chief Major Koryagin, who was in charge of the police at the East Stand.

The disaster occurred on a Wednesday.  On that Friday a meeting of the Moscow City Communist Party Committee took place.  An official of the Ministry of the Interior announced that the investigation was completed, the causes of the disaster were identified, and that the guilty would be punished. The Moscow prosecutor proclaimed that “the preliminary investigation has revealed that, at the fault of the stadium officials, the gates meant to be used as an exit for the supporters were closed.”

The so-called preliminary investigation of the Luzhniki disaster took place without interviewing witnesses, gathering evidence, or doing any actual investigatory work.  But the Party had spoken.  When the Deputy Director of the Sporting Committee of the USSR attempted to defend Kokryshev, he was told by the First Secretary not to protect criminals.  Kokryshev was duly expelled from the Communist Party.

The Luzhniki Disaster Memorial located on the grounds of the stadium. (Chivista CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The Luzhniki Disaster Memorial located on the grounds of the stadium. (Chivista CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The farcical trial of Kokryshev and Panchikhin took place in February of 1983; both were presumed guilty.  They each received three years in prison, but as a result of the amnesty on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the formation of the USSR, Kokryshev did not serve any time, and Panchikhin’s sentence was reduced to 1.5 years.  Lyzhin, a World War II veteran, did not stand trial after a heart attack, while Major Koryagin was given amnesty for injuries sustained while attempting to prevent more people from entering the crush.

As for the deceased, they were taken to several morgues around the city.  Thirteen days later they were buried at different cemeteries to prevent the construction of a monument and a place of pilgrimage for the victims’ families.  For that same reason, for the next several years no matches took place at the Luzhniki in late October, though the official explanation for this was the poor state of the grass.

The cover-up was complete.  There was little in the way of meaningful dissent, which was simply impossible in early 80s Soviet society.  Though Detective Shpeyer’s account of the tragedy may be inadequate, his statement that the lack of coverage has less to do with the explicit actions of the authorities, but rather was a result of “the socio-political situation that existed in the country at the time” rings true.  But the socio-political situation was about to change drastically.

Glasnost: The Magnitute of the Luzhniki Disaster is Revealed

The late 1980s under the new General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev saw a liberalisation of Soviet society.  Two new policies, Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring), paved the way for an unheard-of degree of press freedom.  Pressure on the government was rising from all segments of society, especially in the aftermath of the Chernobyl Disaster, the implications of which were too significant for even the Soviet authorities to cover them up.

In 1989, Soviet newspapers finally began to report on the disaster, seven years after it occurred. Just three days after 96 fans lost their lives at Hillsborough, Sovetsky Sport became the first to break the taboo with their article ‘The Black Secret of the Luzhniki.’  “In history,” the article begins, “sooner or later everything floats to the surface.”  The authors continue:

“We knew and did not know about this tragedy.  We believed it, and we did not believe it.  How could you believe that at the main stadium of the country, with its vast experience in hosting massive events, scores of people could lose their lives in a matter of minutes?”

The Luzhniki Stadium on a cold winter night. (Lokomotiv74 CC-BY-3.0)

The Luzhniki Stadium on a cold winter night. (Lokomotiv74 CC-BY-3.0)

And yet, it happened, and, extraordinarily for a Soviet publication, they began to point fingers at the authorities.  The officials at Luzhniki were criticised for ushering all the fans into just one stand.  But the brunt of their criticism was directed at the police and the nightmarish narrow passageway out of the stadium which the newspaper alleged was the only available exit, an allegation denied by Shpeyer.

Shpeyer also rejected the accusations that the police had anything to do with the disaster whatsoever. In the interview in Izvestiia, which came out shortly after the Sovetski Sport article, he claimed that the police were not even present when the crush took place, a claim he supports by the purported lack of injured officers.  Yet Major Koryagin himself was seriously hurt; something about Shpeyer’s account seems suspect.

It must be said, that everything written about the disaster so many years after the fact must be taken with a grain of salt.  Sovetsky Sport’s article proved inflammatory and sensationalist.  Their speculations regarding the number of dead being in the hundreds were unfounded, yet were seised upon by the international media to such a rabid extent that somehow the figure of 340 fatalities became accepted as accurate.  Even to this day, it is often cited. In his exhaustive football history, The Ball is Round, David Goldblatt refers to “over 300 killed.”

Sovetsky Sport later published an article admitting to exaggeration and sensationalism.  But the haphazard reporting should not distract from the significance of the moment.  The facts may have been distorted, but the sheer existence of such a critical voice in the media is indicative of a sociopolitical environment in the Soviet Union drastically different from that which existed seven years prior.

We will probably never learn who was responsible for the tragedy.  Was only one gate open, as Sovetski Sport alleged, or were most of the fans just in a hurry to get home and thus rushed to the closest exit? Did police presence exacerbate the situation, or were they absent entirely?   If there is a responsible party, by now, they have surely escaped justice.  The only truth we know is that 66 people, many of them adolescents, went to see a football match and never returned.

Memory of the Luzhniki Disaster

After the revelations of the Glasnost era and the fall of the Soviet Union, knowledge of the tragedy of the Luzhniki disaster became more common knowledge.  A monument was finally erected in 1992, the ten-year anniversary, and on the 25th anniversary in 2007 a commemorative match was played between former players of Spartak and Haarlem.

The Luzhniki stadium was renovated in the mid-1990s and is now a UEFA Category 4 Stadium.  It hosted the 2008 UEFA Champions League Final between Manchester United and Chelsea and will host seven matches at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, including the opening match and the final.  One hopes that the 66 people who lost their lives on October 20, 1982, will not be forgotten during the festivities.

Vadim Furmanov is a first-year student at the Duke University School of Law. Originally from Ukraine, Vadim has resided in Chicago since 1994 (though currently temporarily relocated to North Carolina) and is a passionate supporter of both Dynamo Kyiv and the Ukrainian national team. He writes primarily about Ukrainian football, as well as the intersection between football, politics, and history. You can follow Vadim on Twitter @vfurmanov.