Sergey Novikov stood outside the town in North Russia, staring at a signboard. It read: “No recording, photographs, or video or cinema.” He was there to take photographs. It was one of the many towns that are noted as “Closed Cities”, or Zatos in local speak.
Established in 1940’s to serve as nuclear weapon development or disposal sites or as mineral-extraction sites, these cities were not on any maps. They had encrypted names and the residents couldn’t mention the name of their place. Even though Soviet Union collapsed decades back, the Zatos are still closed.
Now there are 41 closed cities with 1.2 million residents, where even other Russians aren’t allowed without a pass. “Budget subsidies, safer cities, good medical services have led the authorities and residents to retain the barriers,” Novokov says. He was at one of the Zatos, where submarines are repaired. And he was there to take photographs of people playing football, for his Grassroots Football project where he left the cities, and lurched ahead into rural hinterland, Zatos, and provincial towns to track life through the prism of football. At that Zato, after prior permission, he was taken around by two handlers.
Novikov believes that Russia is “witnessing a conscious political backsliding towards Soviet times now and sports (football in particular) is the national idea again”. It’s a fascinating project which has thrown up images of the current state of Russian society.
A group of people playing at a park in the shadows of a gorgeous abandoned church at Fedina. Gold-painted church domes that sparkle in the light adjacent to the field. Bushy overgrown parks crawl with the footballers’ shins even as factory plumes fill the air in Vladivostok region or by the gorgeous Volga river. In 2011, his photo book, titled FC Volga United, came out about football fans who live along Volga, Europe’s longest river. He has also documented the crumbling old movie halls of Russia, and his work has been nominated for several awards.
“Rural Russia isn’t always a united society. Problems with work, finance, political issues hit them; some don’t have any work; many are underpaid. Football plays a major role here. These are towns with just 10,000 residents. Banal life with everyday problems, far away from the lives of big cities. It’s easy to forget they exist. I saw that football helped build a bridge between people, gave them a sense of public space. It’s a slow life, and football has a way of making them feel good,” Novikov says.
In a football culture, where private oligarchs are funnelling money into urban clubs and swelling their own egos, rural and provincial Russia can’t get their hands in the money pot. To them, the weekend football games are more than just leisure, which in itself isn’t something to be sneezed at for the hardworking and often poor people.
Russia has used the world cup in ways that some other host countries have done in the past. Novokov says the government raised the taxes at the start of the world cup. “Then they increased the pension age. Both obviously hit the people hard. But any protest meetings are banned during the tournament. The euphoria over the world cup, and the genuine happiness that people have felt by their football team and the presence of world at their home has been used to political gains.” It’s to the memories of his visit to hinterland that we return. In North West Russia, at Karelia, the people built a wooden fence – that looks like a fortress of middle-ages of Russia. “I was amazed. It’s their way of retaining touch with the past.” Or the time at far east Russia, in places like Vladivostok, people live with the risk of radiation. There are electric plants from last century which have created problems to people at some places. “People just live there. They play football, and don’t care about their health. They are the ones who giving power to the rest of the country. They have nowhere to go, this is the reality for them. It was something to see them resigned to the situation, and happily playing football in the weekends, their real source of joy.”
The amateur football local leagues are the real engine of football in the country, Novakov feels. In these regions, more than the big urban clubs like Dinamo or Spartak, it’s the local teams that are still associated with the old-Soviet era work-based identities that trigger loyalty. “Teams like Metallurg (metal maker) or Gornyak (miner) which are linked to the industrialisation of this vast country. No entry tickets, no television coverage – these clubs thrive on the old idea that workers’ leisure lives should be connected with weekend sports.”
Rise of groundhoppers
In his travels, Novokov noted the rise of “Groundhoppers” – people, often from urban areas, who go without a reason to watch a game in countryside, almost as part of tourism. “They even publish magazines. Even in Europe, I hear about these groundhoppers and it’s a concept that is fast catching up in Russia. Again, football is bridging people across class and in its own way, narrowing the rural-urban divide.”
Novikov also observed the role of church in the communities. Not just the visual imagery of churches in the vicinity of grounds, but also in graffiti. In one place, he saw a sign sprawled across the boundary wall: ‘Holy Russia keeps orthodox beliefs.’
“For some reason, a year later after I had clicked the photo, I heard that signage was erased by the monastery. An Argentine magazine had published the picture, and I wrote to the club. They were so proud and called it their ‘biggest achievement of the club’. Next day, they apparently celebrated the event, and scribbled back the sign.”
Despite the romanticising of the local amateur leagues, as witnessed by the groundhoppers, the truth is that the big money still follows the urban football culture. “The goal of my Grassroots project is to explore the lower amateur league of working class, and its harmonius influence on the local community.”
It’s been quite a ride for football in Russia: from its fascinating origins in late 1880’s when Charnock brothers from England -Clem, Harry, and James who moved to Russia to set up cotton mills – first introduced football in Moscow when Clem kicked a ball into a group of workers who fled thinking it was a bomb. A century later, as Novikov has recorded it for posterity, football is the prime leisure and community-building activity in provincial and rural Russia.