|Rugby union in the Soviet Union|
|Governing body||Rugby Federation of the Soviet Union|
|National team(s)||Soviet Union|
|First played||1880s, Moscow|
|Registered players||10,000 (in 1974)|
Rugby union in the Soviet Union was a moderately popular sport. It was most popular in the Georgian SSR; parts of the Russian SFSR such as Moscow and certain regions in Siberia like Krasnoyarsk; and Alma-Ata, the capital of the Kazakh SSR. Rugby enjoyed a more limited popularity in the Ukrainian SSR, Minsk in the Byelorussian SSR and parts of the RSFSR such as Leningrad and areas in Southern Russia, including Krasnodar. Rugby gained a significant following due to the vast size of the Soviet Union, but was never a major sport; despite many attempts to develop the sport, which Soviet citizens came to nickname the "leather melon" due to the shape of the ball.Still, an early championship in 1960 gives an idea of the sheer scale of Soviet rugby: one hundred teams from over thirty cities took part.
Although the name "Russia" or "Soviet Russia" was often used as a synonym for the USSR, this did not give a true reflection in rugby terms: there were regularly six or seven Georgians in the USSR side.Russians made up only about half of the Soviet population, the other half, nearly a hundred million Soviet citizens, were not Russians.
Sports clubs were invariably not autonomous bodies, but were part of Palaces of Culture, or Universities, or Military Bodies, such as air force academies and the Red Army itself. These were the so called Voluntary Sports Societies of the Soviet Union. As David Lane writes in the Politics and Society in the USSR:
These Palaces of Culture were run by trade unions, who both financed them, and also took any revenue raised from them in matches etc.Each sports club had its own rules and membership cards, and was subsidised by trade union dues. To join a club, a person paid the small sum of thirty kopecks a year.
Clubs were named for their trade union.For example, RC Lokomotiv Moscow (now a rugby league club) was part of the Lokomotiv Society, which was in turn connected to the All-Union Voluntary Sports Society of rail transport workers' Trade Unions. (The "RC" stands for "Rugby Club") Ironically, this naming system has proven surprisingly resilient and even today is to be found in the names of various Eastern European sports clubs, long after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The main name elements in sports clubs, with their trade union affiliations were as follows (an example of a rugby club with the element is also listed):
As well as the trade unions, there were two non-T.U. prefixes:
In the 1938 Soviet Championship for example, the first, second and third places were all won by Moscow teams - Dynamo, Spartak and Burevestnik respectively.
The well-known expatriate Romanian rugby writer, Chris Thau wrote in the late 1980s about Soviet rugby's failure to break into the international mainstream:
Climate was a particular problem for rugby in the Soviet Union. In 1978, a game in the RSFSR set the record for one of the coldest matches ever to be played. Krasnoyarsk played Polyechika Alma at -23' C. Because Krasnoyarsk had travelled over 2,000 km to be there, the game was not called off. Instead, players resorted to wearing balaclavas, gloves, and several pairs of tracksuits to combat the cold. The extreme climate of the former USSR remains a problem in many regions, with winter sometimes being a split season, or the game of snow rugby being played.
Many parts of the region spend a large part of the year under a blanket of snow.In northern parts of the USSR, most open ground was permafrost, leading to further problems with pitches, especially with the placement of goalposts. Other regions such as Soviet Central Asia often had desert climates, leading to temperature extremes, and water shortages for the pitch.
Like almost everything else in the USSR, rugby was ultimately answerable to the Soviet government, albeit through a number of different channels. Officially, the Rugby Federation of the USSR (RFUSSR; sometimes translated as the "Rugby Union of the Soviet Union") was the top governing body of Soviet rugby and centrally controlled. However, as a Soviet organisation, it was in fact part of a complex web of administrations, bureaucracies and so on, and linked to the Soviet government rather than being an independent body on the lines of the major rugby nations. The RFUSSR was answerable to, and funded by the USSR Committee on Physical Culture and Sport which was the umbrella organisation for all Soviet sport, and this in turn was attached to the USSR Council of Ministers.
In reality, Soviet rugby operated under two or three different systems, which more or less ran in parallel, and only one of which was directly related to rugby:
Lastly, there was the CSKA (Central Army Sports Club), which administered rugby in garrisons throughout the Soviet Union and was centrally rather than nationally controlled.For children, there were the Sports schools (ДЮСШ), but these tended to concentrate more on Olympic sports, and neglected rugby.
Equipment and amenities came from the state's Glavsportprom, and the state sports publishing agency was Sovetsky Sport.Dinamo was the biggest sports manufacturer, and had many retail sports shops; its profits were ploughed back into the organisation.
The RFUSSR was founded in 1936, and re-established in 1968, the Rugby Federation of the USSR was founded.Over the years, the various rugby unions of each of the SSRs were set up - most of the national governing bodies of the Soviet successor states can trace themselves back to these.
In the latter years of the USSR, Soviet rugby also affiliated to two international bodies. In 1975, the RFUSSR became a member of FIRA-AER, which was then the largest rugby governing body in the world.This was followed, just over a decade later by membership of the International Rugby Football Board.
In the first half of the 20th century, Soviet citizens endured the brunt of two world wars, two revolutions (1905 & 1917), a devastating Civil War, and a number of famines. In addition, there was some severe political repression, notably the Great Purge in the 1930s, which led to many people being sent to the Gulag. It is understandable that under such circumstances, a team sport such as rugby could not flourish and was low on the list of people's priorities. Only with the less repressive regime of the post-Stalin period did Soviet rugby begin to establish a firm base.
The Soviet Union had a number of different indigenous football codes, some of which bore a resemblance to rugby. Amongst these were lelo burti (Georgia), shvalyga (Russia and the Ukraine), and kila. (Russia and the Ukraine), aimtskachara (Abkhazia),and various forms of buzkashi also existed in Soviet Central Asia.
Rugby football in the Russian Empire pre-dated the Russian Revolution by a number of years, but it was only played sporadically. It appears to have been the first (non-indigenous) football code to be played in Russia, around a decade before the introduction of association football.Mr Hopper, a Scotsman, who worked in Moscow arranged a match in the 1880s; the first soccer match was in 1892. In 1886, however, the Russian police clamped down on rugby because they considered it "brutal, and liable to incite demonstrations and riots" Condemnation by the tsar's police probably deterred many people from playing, and records of rugby over the next thirty years are sparse. Some rugby union was still being played in 1908.
The first official match, played in Moscow, did not take place until 1923 several years after the Revolution, and in the same year, the first formal rugby teams in the USSR were organised by M.S. Koslov (М. С. Козлов), A.A. Markushevich (А. А. Маркушевич), A.V. Pravdin (А. В. Правдин), N.Ia. Kolli (Н. Я. Колли) and others.
Given the vast area of the USSR, and its complex and turbulent history, it seems more likely that rugby had multiple introductions and reintroductions to various regions completely independent of one another.
For example, it seems that rugby was introduced to Georgia independently of its introduction to Russia, and moreover, the game bears a distinct resemblance to a pre-existing Georgian folk sport known as lelo . There were several unsuccessful attempts to introduce rugby into Georgia, the earliest known being in 1928.
Amongst Bolsheviks, there were two main schools of thought when it came to sports planning and debate - the Proletkul'tists and the Hygienists:
The Hygienists thought sport implied competition (which communism was supposed to oppose) and was injurious to health.They favoured:
The Hygienists did not like team sports, but preferred athletics, swimming and rowing - as long as they were solo events against the clock, or one's previous best.The Hygienists had control over the Supreme Council of Physical Culture (the government sports body), most of the sporting press, the Ministry of Health, and physical education colleges. Moreover, they excluded PE from schools, and by extension team sports, arguing that "the existence of physical education teachers is a sign of pedagogical illiteracy."
The Proletkul'tists considered sport bourgeois, and preferred mass displays and folk sports, and their influence persisted around a decade after the Revolution.As a result Soviet sport during the 1920s tended to be fairly isolationist, with the exception of the Spartakiad.
The promotion of sport gained support from other quarters. For example, in 1926, the Ukrainian Party Central Committee passed a resolution in which they expressed the hope that:
Although nominally a proletkul'tist, the first Soviet People's Commissar of Enlightenment responsible for culture and education, Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky (Анатолий Васильевич Луначарский - 1875-1933) had other ideas. He was one of the early Russian rugby enthusiasts, and "called for a careful study of foreign sporting experience and the inclusion of everything worthwhile into Soviet sport, particularly boxing and rugby."Lunacharsky was one of the most genuinely cosmopolitan and intellectual of the early Bolsheviks, and a prolific writer on all kinds of cultural and leisure activity from the "high" arts to sports, and was a significant contributor to физикультура и спорт (Fizkul'tura i sport), the leading Soviet sports magazine of the time. However, Lunacharsky received some opposition from some others within the Proletkult movement, as James Riordan points out:
In his book, Thoughts on Sport, Lunacharsky hardly allayed this charge, saying:
Lunacharsky would later die in France (coincidentally at Menton, where William Webb Ellis was buried), and had the honour of being buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. In the 1930s, his works were banned, and would not appear again until the late 1950s, when he was rehabilitated and seen as one of the most open-minded and forward thinking of the Russian Revolutionaries.
Soviet rugby might have had a much higher profile in the pre-war period if Lunarcharsky had lived a few years longer. But judging by what happened to his writings, it is unlikely that Lunarcharsky could have avoided Stalin's purges - and would have ended up dead or in a prison camp.
There was a close link-up between Soviet sport and the military, as the USSR felt itself to be hemmed in by unfriendly states.GTO ("Gotov k trudu i oborone) - Ready for defence and labour - was the name of the national fitness programme, which was established in 1931.
After the end of the Civil War, rugby began to take root. Rugby was introduced into several secondary schools and colleges in 1926, and again in 1932.
In 1934, two teams played an exhibition match in Moscow initiating the Moscow Championship,and matches were being played in a number of other Soviet cities. According to Victor and Jennifer Louis,
In October, 1935, Moscow played Minsk, and won 6-0.
The first Soviet Championship took place in 1936, and there was another in 1939.In 1937, there was an unofficial All-Union competition in which two Moscow based teams played ones from Minsk and Gorky.
In 1938, the USSR Cup was held, and Dynamo Moscow won.
An ongoing problem in the 1930s was a lack of proper facilities and equipment.The games also did not receive sufficient publicity to generate a public interest, so that the Soviet authorities large gave up in their effort until after the Stalinist period.
Play continued at a low level during the 1940s, but the games were one-offs, and were non-championship.
Attempts to establish rugby in Georgia took place in 1940 and in 1947.
The only two tournaments were held in Tbilisi (1947) and Kyiv (1949). Even in Moscow only 3 rugby clubs continue to play and slowly disband.
In 1949, rugby union was forbidden throughout the USSR during the "fight against cosmopolitanism". [mostly untrue, but would have suffered persecution]
Soviet teams once more began to be formed in the late 1950s,and the game underwent a renaissance, thanks to the efforts of B.M. Egupov (Б. М. Егупов), G.G. Mrelashvili (Г. Г. Мрелашвили) and A.A. Sorokin (А. А. Сорокин). This is the same period in which the rugby advocate Lunacharsky was rehabilitated, and his writings were released from censorship.
Competition was resumed in 1957-58, after a "complete absence of 10 years".
Llanelli toured Czechoslovakia and the USSR in the 1950s.In 1957, led by Rhys Williams, Llanelli played in the final of the World Youth Games in Moscow. Llanelli lost to the Romanian side Grivita Rosie. It was a game marred by such "hideous and appalling violence" that it hindered the development of the game in Russia for a number of years.
The Moscow Civil Guard were called out as a result of the brawl between Llanelli and Bucharest.
Rugby was reintroduced to Georgia by Jacques Haspekian, an Armenian man from Marseilles in France who taught the game to students in the late 1950s through to the mid-1960s, although he then subsequently returned in France. He is still alive and living in Marseilles, he was interviewed on French radio on the occasion of Georgia playing France in the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
The very first rugby session was held on October 15, 1959 in Tbilisi, at the racecourse, where 20 people attended the meeting. The first Georgian club formed was the GPI (Georgian Polytechnical Institute), now known as "Qochebi".
Along with the revival in the late 1950s, rugby received another boost in the 1960s, when Soviet industry started to manufacture its own equipment.The 1960s saw massive Soviet investment in sport - for example, while between 1953 and 1964, the government spent an average of 16 million rubles per year, in 1965, it spent no less than 40 million. In August 1966, the Soviet government drew up a spending plan, which resulted in some republics increasing their sports spending by as much as 6 or 7 times. In the Russian RFSR, in 1967, the expenditure was more than double the amount spent in all the post-war years put together.
Serious efforts to organise the sport took place in the early 1960s, when championships were held between clubs,and the Soviet Championship recommenced in 1966. The decade was a golden age for, with a large number of new teams being set up in many parts of the Soviet Union, including areas such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. A school for coaches was opened during this period, and physical training colleges throughout the USSR introduced lectures on rugby union as part of their courses. The students of the MHTS in Moscow were also a major force in the promotion of the game.
In 1967, rugby was introduced to Moldavia.
In the 1960s too, Soviet rugby started to reach out, often without hope of immediate success, to international competition in order to acquire experience.The Soviet international team played their first match against a foreign side in 1960, when they played a Polish side.
In the 1960s, a number of the national bodies were set up, such as Lithuania's in 1961,Latvia's in 1963, Georgia's 1964, and Russia's in 1966.
In 1968, the Rugby Federation of the USSR was founded.
In 1974, there were 10,000 registered Soviet rugby players, including more than 200 Soviet Masters of Sport. In the same year, twenty teams took part in the national championships. Notable Soviet players of this period included B.P. Gavrilov (Б. П. Гаврилов), A.G. Grigor'iants (А. Г. Григорьянц) and I.I. Kiziriia (И. И. Кизирия), all of whom were Masters of Sport.
In 1973, Moscow Slava RFC toured Wales. After a game in which Slava played Rhymney RFC, and lost 10-8, there was some banter in the bar -
In 1975, the Soviet national team played their first ever match.
In 1977, James Riordan was able to predict,
At the time, this was not bad prognostication; however, political and economic factors within the Eastern Bloc in the 1980s ensured this was not to be.
The former All Black scrum half Chris Laidlaw, writing at the end of the 1970s, saw rugby as a positive force in east-west relations at the time:
Chris Laidlaw writing of the open secret of shamateurism in Soviet sport said:
A notable Russian player of the 1980s was Igor Mironov who played for the Barbarians several times during the period.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia states that "all Socialist countries" in Europe played rugby during this period.
Soviet Rugby was beginning to emerge as a significant presence on the world stage. Soviet delegates were amongst those who went to the centenary congress of the International Rugby Football Board in 1986.Soviet women did not make much headway into team sport, especially rugby, until the advent of perestroika .
The USSR supposedly turned down its invitation to the 1987 Rugby World Cup, because of its distaste for the apartheid regime of South Africa. However, South Africa was not invited in the end. While the Great Soviet Encyclopedia states that rugby is popular in Great Britain, New Zealand, France, Romania and Australia, it tellingly makes no mention of South Africa.Chris Thau says that France approached the USSR before 1987 on the issue, and that the Soviets said that they would be happy to participate if South Africa was not invited. In the end, South Africa was not invited, but the USSR did not attend either. It has been said that:
The Soviets leaned on other nations heavily:
In 1988, Edgard Taturian, the Soviet director of rugby coaching, said in an outspoken interview that the USSR required ten times as many coaches and referees as it had.He admitted that a more holistic approach was needed:
Crawley RFC was due to tour Russia in early 1980s, and had both raised funds, and gained approval from the Soviet Embassy. However, they received a stern letter from the Rugby Football Union telling them that "you're not big enough or good enough."They toured country only in 1989.
A running joke in French rugby circles ran that FIRA's nightmare was to have "Yugoslavia playing Bulgaria refereed by a Soviet."
Some members of the Soviet Union were also veterans at this point - for example, Igor Mironov, Roman Khairulin and Alexander Tikonov had all been playing at international level for over a decade.Igor Frantsusov, the scrum-half had been playing for slightly less time, but was still a veteran in rugby terms.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was a severe blow to rugby in the region,which resulted in the removal of state subsidies, and forced many of the smaller clubs to dissolve or start afresh. In the case of Russia, the two main centres, Moscow and Siberia were thousands of miles apart. Georgia was one of the few places with a large number of clubs remaining, partly because it had become popular there, and its league was based in a relatively compact area.
While the USSR's dissolution was ongoing, in 1990 the Soviet rugby team visited Ireland and the United States for the first time. [ citation needed ]In this period, the Soviet Union women's national rugby union team played for the first time, and enjoyed a brief existence.
The Soviet Union did not take part in the qualification rounds for the 1991 Rugby World Cup - European qualification. The 1991 Rugby World Cup coincided with the final stages of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The RWC itself took place in October and November 1991, around two months after the unsuccessful coup d'état attempt against Gorbachev, which is often seen as being the end of the Soviet Union. In November 1991, Boris Yeltsin issued a decree banning the CPSU throughout the Russian republic.
As a stopgap measure, the former USSR competed under the Commonwealth of Independent States banner, this arrangement terminating in 1992. The side played four matches before its dissolution.
The most successful "successor" rugby team has been that of Georgia, which competed in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, the 2007 Rugby World Cup, and the 2011 Rugby World Cup. In 2007, they nearly upset Ireland, missing out on a potential winning try late in the match, and defeated Namibia 30-0. In 2011, they had a respectable performance against Scotland, losing 15–6, defeated Romania 25–9. No other ex-Soviet nation other than Georgia and Russia has ever qualified for the Rugby World Cup.
Russia remains to date the next most successful team after Georgia, participating in the 2011 Rugby World Cup; however, the rest of the former USSR has not fared so well. A notable exception was the Latvian rugby union sevens team which succeeded in reaching the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 1993.This surprised the international rugby community, as at the time there were only two rugby pitches in the entire country. There are some other notable exceptions, e.g. the Ukraine who were able to call on the services of Igor Bokov the former Soviet coach.
The era also brought a new challenge in the form of rugby league. Although rugby league in England had traditionally played on its working class credentials, in the Soviet Union it had been seen as a bourgeois pursuit, due to its links with business through professionalism. When the Soviet Union collapsed, rugby league[ who? ] tried to buy out Russian rugby union. A notable defector was RC Lokomotiv, the former train workers club in Moscow.
In the mid-1990s, Russia had 222 clubs, and 6,000 players spread out across the entire country [rather speculative and untrue figure];Georgia had 40 clubs; the Ukraine had 20 clubs and 750 players; Latvia had only 8 clubs; and Lithuania had 14 clubs;
Although such tournaments as the Soviet Cup and the Soviet Championship existed, rugby never reached its full potential in the Soviet Union. Of the two Rugby codes, Rugby union was the more popular; Rugby league only attracting fans and athletes after the collapse of Communism.
Victor and Jennifer Louis wrote in 1980 that:
Chris Thau identified two major problems hindering the spread rugby in the late Soviet Union:
However, by 1989 Rugby was well-established across the Eastern bloc. Since the dissolution of the USSR, Rugby has become particularly popular in Georgia, where it is the de facto national sport.
After the Second World War, there was competition with the west and not just in sport. From the late 1950s-early 1970s, there was a reduction in Soviet people's work time, which caused an increase in their leisure time.Sport was seen as:
With this in mind, participation in sport was strongly encouraged from the grass roots level upwards.
In 1926, 18% of the Soviet population lived in towns, but by 1978, this had risen to 63% (164 million)Each new planned town included a sports centre.
The 1930s saw the
The Soviet government spent 12,600 million rubles on sport and health each year in the 1970s and 1980s, which was approximately 0.03% of the state budget.
Rather like their Olympic counterparts, Soviet rugby players had a fair degree of shamateurism. Both the Olympics and rugby union were officially amateur, but this was not really the case. For example, the Dinamo clubs were sponsored and financed by the KGB, but no one could say that openly that some athletes were full-time shamateurs, and received bonuses for winning including dollars.Masters of Sport were full time, and paid by their sports society. They received 180 rubles each year, plus 30-40 rubles if they were capped for the USSR team paid for by the USSR sports committee. There were frequently unofficial bonuses, and some people could be Masters of Sport for life, meaning that they would receive pay long after their retirement.
National champions included teams from the sports clubs of the Moscow Higher Technical School (МВТУ), the Iu. A. Gagarin Air Force Academy (ВВА им. Ю. А. Гагарина; the future VVA-Podmoskovye Monino), and Fili ("Фили").
The two largest and most successful sports clubs were the Central House of the Red Army (the Central Sports Club of the Army, TSSK), and Динамо (Dinamo/Dynamo - the security services).
Between 1961 and 1974, the Soviet team took part in more than 100 international matches.
The USSR side consisted of representatives of all constituent republics within the Soviet Union.
They played their first game against a Polish team in 1960.
|Year||Winner||Second place||Third place|
There was also a women's team, but they only played several games.
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