Saturday, February 1, 2014

Comrade Jim: The Spy who Played for Spartak

Jim Jepps kicks off Guest Post February on Inside Left with a review of Jim Riordan's autobiography.. Riordan who passed away two years ago was a scholar, an author, a lifelong working class fighter and the only Briton to play in the Soviet football league. You can find more of Jim Jepps' writing at his website and find on Twitter here.

Although technically accurate, the title of Jim Riordan's memoir Comrade Jim: The Spy who Played for Spartak may lead you believe this is the autobiography of a sporting legend who led a double life scoring in the final seconds by day and smuggling micro-film across the border by night. In fact Comrade Jim is a far more modest reminiscence of the author's five years in Russia as a young communist and keen amateur sportsman, describing how his growing unease with the realities of life under "socialism" in many ways tempered his commitment for a better society and opposition to authoritarianism.

Later in life Riordan became a respected academic and a little while ago this very site said that "[h]is works on the history of physical culture in Soviet Russia – most notably Sport in Soviet Society – remain the starting point for any serious investigation into the subject. His small book Sports, Politics and Communism is eminently readable and The Story of Worker Sport (edited with Arnd Kruger) is simply fascinating. Anyone who has an interest in left wing politics and sport simply must get a look at this incredible book."

Riordan's spying days were brief and completely unconnected with his moment of sporting glory. As part of his national service he spent 1954-6 in Berlin covertly translating Russian communications for the RAF. The time was crucial to the story in that the Air Force taught him Russian and gave him the chance to play for the British Army on the Rhine team which was (wrongly) assumed by his later Russian friends to have be rather more prestigious than it actually was, opening doors that perhaps rightly should have been closed to him.

The truly fascinating sections of the book begin with Riordan's time in Moscow. While some of these recollections have been clarified with the benefit of hindsight, meeting face to face those who had suffered terribly under Stalin's rule and the discomfort of others at his more relaxed, less dogmatic approach to politics underscored the desire for a more humane approach to political life, one that left space to play.

Some of his comrades disapproved of the fact that he played with the Diplomatic Corps on Sundays, but as football was barred to the comrades of the Higher Party School (although table-tennis and swimming were allowed) what was he to do? Besides "British Embassy Footmen... and students were hardly an imperialist coterie." The "rest of the world" team they played was captained by the Kenyan Ambassador who had no boots, playing in bare feet, but did provide the ball, and his batman, who refereed. It conjures up a very different Cold War Moscow than we might have imagined.

Going to Spartak games he realised that "football played a special role in Soviet society. The stadium was somewhere you could let off steam, curse and shout abuse at authority (in the shape of the referee and the linesman)".

However, football had not always been such a safe space as the example of the Starostin brothers, who had set up Spartak, shows. Spartak was founded in 1935 as a civil society team as an alternative to the currently existing NKVD and army teams. While popular with the football going public, going up against the favourite secret service team of the psychotic Beria, chief of the security forces and football fanatic, was fraught with danger. When Spartak beat his team in a 1939 semi-final Beria stormed out of the stadium. Despite Spartak then going on to win in the final Beria forced the semi-final game to be re-played, only to have Spartak to win again, this time 3 to 2.

All four brothers and many of the team who played that day were to pay a heavy price for their footballing victories. Their crimes, among a list of trumped up charges, were to include plotting to assassinate Stalin and attempting to "instill into our sport the mores of the capitalist world". Like winning, presumably.

Part of the evidence against the Starstins was having played overseas games in the twenties against rival communist clubs in France and Germany. The idea that foreigners were a danger, even to football, made it all the more of a risk for Spartak to have fielded Jim Riordan, even if it was only for two games until they realised he wasn't good enough! But that's a tale I'll let Riordan tell.

As a whole the book is a fascinating blend of sports anecdotes, musings on the nature of memories, particularly in post-Communist Russia, and simple memoir from a very different place. It's touching when an older man, who sadly died in 2012, looks back while "facing up to the brevity of my future" but beautiful too when they have such joyous memories, even if this episode of his life did not end entirely happily.

As he later explained to the FT "In 1966, after five years in Moscow, I began to get into trouble. I wrote an article for a communist magazine that ended up being headlined “The Growing Pains of Soviet Youth”. The party called me in to explain how pains can grow worse as socialism develops. Overnight, I became a non-person. At work, I had been one of the boys but now my friends ignored me. It was time for me to leave."

For students of Soviet cultural and sporting history this is a lovely little book, but for all of us on the left it's a gentle reminder that socialism without any space for love and play isn't fit for real, breathing humans.