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British sports in imperial Russia: as part of our Britain and Russia series, and also our Sport and Society series, Anthony Cross describes the introduction of British games to Russia.

IT IS IN the NATURE of a truism that, wherever the British go, we take our games with us, to say nothing of our prejudices, our literature, our language, and other bag gage. It was not so much the burden of Empire as burdening the empire and we were not particularly put out if the empire in question happened to be someone else's. The Russian empire might not appear at first glance the most propitious arena in which to display and promote our sporting interests, but that would be to underestimate British adaptability as well as to be ignorant of what might be termed 'facilitating moments' in the 450 years of Brito-Russian relations.

Nevertheless, for the first two centuries or so of that intercourse the British had little time or opportunity to indulge their sporting instincts although the poet George Turbervile, visiting Russia in 1568-69, saw fit to inform his friend Parker, 'Because thou lovest to play', that:
   The common game is chess: almost
   the simplest will
   Both give a check and eke a mate; by
   practice comes their skill.
   Again they dice as fast: the poorest
   rogues of all
   Will sit them down in open field and
   there to gaming fall.

Two centuries later, in the 1790s, Jeremy Bentham's brother Samuel, who was in Russian service, sought to explain lapti, a popular Russian game, by a comparison with cricket; but by this time no less a figure than Catherine the Great had enquired of her official engraver, an Englishman by the name of James Walker, whether cricket might not be a proper sport for kings, or at least for her grandsons, the future Alexander I and his brother Constantine. Walker relates that he 'procured the apparatus' necessary to demonstrate the game, but the Grand Dukes' tutor, Baron Osten-Sacken, on examining a bat which he compared to 'the club of Hercules' and deeming the ball 'as dangerous as a four-pounder', declared 'no cricket for their Imperial Highnesses my pupils; it is too ninth to run the risk of a death-blow in play'. Alexander was to see a cricket match on his visit to England in 1814, but it is only towards the end of that century that the first cricket match to be played on Russian soil is recorded, and by then the British had tried their hands and skills at a huge variety of other sports.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the British colony, some 1,500 strong, had established itself as the most influential of foreign groups in the Russian capital St Petersburg. The last decades hall seen the setting-up of such worthy establishments as the English Subscription Library, the English Inn, the English Coffee House, the English Shop (several, indeed, vied for the name), the masonic lodge 'Perfect Union', and the 'most exclusive and most respectable' English Club (where billiards and whist were played), to accompany the English Church which commanded a central position by the River Neva on Galley Quay, which was later to be named the English Quay or Embankment, acknowledging the number of British citizens who owned or rented houses there or nearby. Prominent members in the British community were the merchants of the Russia Company, but there were hundreds of other British subjects, either in Russian service, principally the navy, or pursuing the crafts and professions which catered for the needs of their compatriots and of the growing section of the Russian gentry and nobility, for whom, it was said, 'almost every article of convenience, comfort, or luxury, must be derived from England, or it is of no estimation'. Catherine's was the reign when Anglomania, or its less virulent form, Anglophilia, first infected the Russian elite and the enthusiasm for England, its way of life, institutions and literature, inevitably included a cult of some of the English gentry's country pursuits and sporting pastimes. The British in St Petersburg, for their part, not only followed to the letter their own imported rituals but were equally happy to adapt to local conditions, especially with regard to winter sports.

The information that we have about the British at play in eighteenth century Russia, and for much of the following century, is fragmentary, to be garnered chiefly from travel accounts, memoirs, diaries and letters, but the glimpses are as fascinating as they are characteristic. The British ambassador at the beginning of Catherine's reign, the Earl of Buckinghamshire, for instance, attempted to organise rowing races on the River Neva, but one of his successors, Sir James Harris, preferred to do a little fishing and play real tennis with his secretary Richard Oakes al the jeu de paume court in the Winter Palace. It was, however, an interest in horses and hounds that united the British with a growing number from the Russian elite, including many who had visited England on their version of the Grand Tour.

The British merchants had their own pack of hounds by the 1780s, if not earlier, and it was noted that 'the frost sets in generally & puts an end to the hunting about the beginning of November'. The English Hunt flourished and some seventy years later, in 1829, an impressed English traveller wrote that:
   ... it is still kept up with great spirit;

the members consist of Englishmen and a few Russians of rank, and in the season they sport their pink before the admiring mooziks. At Garella on the Peteroff road are the stables, kennel, and menagerie. The horses are English and Cossacks principally; the pack consists of a mixed breed of fox hounds and harriers; and with these they hunt wolves, foxes, and hares, on the beautiful plains of Ingria: the wolves afford excellent sport, and several young ones are commonly kept in the menagerie; the field always makes a sportsman-like appearance.

Despite a comparatively small British presence, there was even a bunt in Moscow in the 1790s, the joint master of which was a Russian named Gusiatnikov, renowned as 'a very great Anglomaniac and very precise gentleman' with his English hounds and English hunters. It was, of course, near Moscow that Count Aleksei Orlov, brother of Catherine's erstwhile favourite Grigorii Orlov, had established his famous stud, which included already in the 1770s some twenty English stallions and thirty English mares among his 100 horses. A Cambridge don, travelling in 1800, reported that:
   the number of English horse-dealers,
   and English grooms, in Moscow, is
   very great. They are in high favour
   among the nobles. the Governor of
   the city was considered particularly
   skilful in choosing horses. It was usual
   to hear the nobles recounting the
   pedigree of their favourites, as if on
   an English race-course: 'This', say
   they, 'was the son of Eclipse; dam by
   such a one; grand-dam by another';
   and so on, through the list of names
   which their grooms have taught them,
   but which have no more real
   reference to their cattle than to the
   moon English saddles and bridles
   also sell at very advanced prices.

A noted riding-master who escorted horses from England to Russia for the Orlov stud was Charles Hughes, author of The Compleat Horseman; or, the Art of Riding Made Easy (1772) and owner of a riding-school near Blackfriar's Bridge. It was Hughes who organised a horse-race on Vasil'evskii Island in July 1792 with a silver cup as the prize. Racing became a popular pursuit for English and Russians alike, and not only in St Petersburg and Moscow. A Scottish doctor wrote of his visit to Odessa in 1825 that:
   ... we set off; after an early start, to the
   race ground, and could almost have
   believed ourselves transported to
   England. Numerous tents were
   pitched, the course was roped in,
   and an immense concourse of
   people, of all ranks, was assembled
   on foot, or drove about in different
   kinds of German, French, Polish,
   Russian, and even English,
   carriages. English gentlemen,
   dressed in all the gaudy livery of
   jockeys, rode their own horses, nine
   of whom started, and four were
   distanced at the first heat.

Shooting and fishing figured no less prominently among the pursuits of the British and there are numerous accounts of the bears shot and the bags of game acquired, of anything that flew or ran, from ospreys to otters. The British delighted in the wealth of bird and animal life--and the abundance of good trout and other fish in rivers relatively near to the capital. Already in the 1820s some of the British had formed a Piscatorial Society,
   ... the members of which rent a house
   at a place called 'The Mill', about
   thirty versts from the capital: there
   are good trouting streams in the
   neighbourhood; and as the country
   abounds in bogs, the fishermen are
   equipped in boots reaching to the top
   of the thigh, and are usually followed
   by a Rooske malchik, or boy, bearing a
   spare rod and landing net.

Although no more exact location is given, 'the Mill' was almost certainly near the village of Zarech'e towards the imperial palace of Gatchina to the south-west of St Petersburg. Fred Whishaw, the author of countless boys' adventure yarns written at the turn of the nineteenth century, including the immortal Boris the Bear-Hunter, professed himself a keener hunter than angler but devoted a chapter of his Out of Doors in Tsarland (1893) to extolling the unrivalled trout-fishing in this river, where the rights were held by a syndicate of five, three of whom were Englishmen. They had constructed 'a charming Swiss lodge' with a large veranda overlooking the river which widened into a small lake, It was here that Whishaw's cousin, James, who 'was convinced that Russia must be one of the favoured places of the world for the sportsman', caught eighteen brace of trout in May 1878, having shot his fill of capercaillie and woodcock on the previous day.

There was also good fishing near the village of Murino some twenty" kilometres to the north-east of Petersburg on the River Okhta (which falls into the Neva opposite the Smol'nyi Cathedral). Murino (now within the confines of the city and a short walk from Deviatkino metro station on the Kirovskii-Vyborg line) occupies a special place in the history of the British community. It was there that some of the more privileged families, among whom were the Whishaws and related families such as the Cattleys, Henleys and Raitts, rented summer houses on the estate of Count Vorontsov-Dashkov or bought houses nearby. As the nineteenth century wore on, Murino became increasingly 'British' not only by its summer visitors but by the sports and pastimes in which they indulged: riding, swimming, fishing, hunting, but also informal games of cricket, croquet, tennis, and, later, football, among the young folk, and then, uniquely, golf. When precisely it was decided to lay out a nine-hole golf course is not known, but James Whishaw recalls how a member of the imperial family, Grand Duke Kirill, came to Murino 'probably as the guest of a member of the Embassy, to get his first instructions on golf.

Although clubs of every conceivable kind had been part of the British scene from at least the beginning of the eighteenth century, it was from the mid-nineteenth century that dubs specifically concerned with sport became increasingly common. They were inevitably imitated in Russia. By the time of the Revolution in 190.5, activities such as rowing, sailing, cycling, fishing, tennis, cricket, football, field and ice hockey, croquet, curling and golf had been enjoyed, frequently but not only, of course, within clubs and associations as often as not British-inspired and British-run. It was in connection with the establishment in 1846 of the exclusive Imperial Yacht Club (and the spread of race-meetings) that a St Petersburg paper had suggested that 'English sport has begun to spread' (using the neologism 'sport' which, incidentally, decades later became the name of the capital's first all-Russian soccer team), but it was in the 1860s that the British themselves were to found at least two new-style sports clubs that were to prosper for over filly years: the Neva Tennis and Cricket Club and the Arrow Rowing Club. The British were also prominent in the member. ship of the St Petersburg River Yacht Club (yacht clubs were soon to be established in Moscow and other towns) and, perhaps most importantly, in the St Petersburg Circle of Lovers of Sport, founded in 1888 which soon acquired a large area on Krestovskii Island, separated from the Vyborg District of the city by the Malaia Nevka River. It was or Krestovskii (where today the Kirov Sports Stadium is to be found) that wide variety of sports were played including athletics, shooting, tennis cricket and soccer and it is mentioned with affection in many memoirs as the venue also for winter sports and pastimes. In a much more central position in the city, however was to be found the 'ground' or which many St Petersburg British teams played each other or teams from visiting British ships: it was on Vasil'evskii Island on the right bank of the Neva, where the majority of the British population lived, and specifically, the parade-ground of the First Noble Cadet Corps, near the University. There is no indication what the surface was, but it served for all manner of games from football to hockey, to cricket.

Tennis rapidly became the fashionable society game and courts were laid out iii private gardens and estates as well as in public spaces; it united, or at least was played by, affluent members of different national groups in time capital. Herbert Swann (father of Donald, of Flanders and Swann fame) remembered the excellence of the Krestovskii courts. Photographs of games of tennis, of individual players, are relatively common. William Gerhardi, for instance, includes in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Polyglot (1931), a photograph of himself as a fifteen-year-old, a year before he won the Junior Men's Doubles championship. There were also postcards on sale of the likes of the Macpherson brothers, Arthur (1892-1976) and Robert (1893-1915), who won the Russian Doubles Championship in 1914, the year before they volunteered for the British army. Vladimir Nabokov, in whose family English influences were very strong, recalls games of tennis at their estate of Vyra:
   Wallis Myer's book on lawn tennis lies
   open on a bench, and after every
   exchange my father (a first-rate
   player, with a cannonball service of
   the Frank Riseley type and a beautiful
   'lifting drive') pedantically inquires of
   my brother and me whether the
   'follow-through', that state of grace,
   has descended upon us.

Cricket, unlike tennis and, to some extent, croquet, never really attracted Russian interest and participation. The Romanovs at least continued to show some passing interest: it is said that the last of the line, Nicholas II, who as Grand Duke had acquired a love of sport, including tennis, from Iris venerable tutor Charles Heath, had a pitch laid out at his palace at Peterhof, a fitting accompaniment to the so-called English palace and park from Catherinian times and the English cottage from the early nineteenth century. There is no record, how-ever, of any match played there. It was on the Cadet Corps square in 1875 that an English Petersburg XI (or it may have been morel) was said to have played against a team from the Royal Yacht Osborne and it was certainly on that ground that by the turn of the century an annual match was played between teams from the left and right sides of the Neva called 'St Petersburg and Alexandrossky' by ES. Ashley-Cooper in hi: fancifully anecdotal Cricket Highways and Byways (1927), although probably from the Nevskii and Victoria clubs (the latter played or Krestovskii, near the Aleksandrovskii Palace). Cricket matches were also played about this period among British residents in Odessa, where the climate was far more favourable but no photographs of teams or matches there or in the capital seem to have survived. Fortunately, this is far from the case with soccer.

The claim might be made that soccer was Britain's greatest gift to Russia; Harry Charnock, the Lancastrian managing director of the Vikul Morozov textile mill at Orekhovo Zuevo, some ninety kilometres east of Moscow, was convinced that had soccer been introduced to 'all Russian factories a quarter of a century sooner, the course of Russian history? might have run differently'. Charnock had formed a joint British-Russian team from workers at the mill in 1894 and the 'Morovtsy' became force in the Moscow League (founded in 1910). Robert Bruce Lockhart who arrived in Moscow in 1912 to become the British Vice-Consul in Moscow, was immediately recruited by Charnock, much to the displesure of the British (-only) Football Club of Moscow. Lockhart was modest about his own abilities, but his medal as a member of the league winners that year remained a prize possession. Tim Charnock example was followed in other British-owned or managed factories: in distant Hughesovka in Ukraine, founded b the Welsh ironmasterJohn Hughes in 1870, golf and tennis were played by the managers, but the New Russia Company XI was a successful side in the early 1900s (probably despite, rather than due to, the efforts of a young centre forward named Nikita Khrushchev). By this time, there were in St Petersburg numerous clubs in which the British were the dominant three.

Soccer clubs were formed both from students at the British schools and colleges and from British workers at various mills and factories. The first club seems to have been Victoria, founded in 1894 from British and German residents on Vasil'evskii Island, and was soon followed by Gloria, representing the English colleges. Scots working at the Sampson Weaving Mill on the Vyborg Side near the Bol'shaia Nevka River formed the powerful Nevskii club (originally known as the Scottish Circle of Lovers of Football), while the Nevskii club, founded in 1893 at the Neva Spinning Mill, added football to its name and its earlier pursuits of cricket and tennis, playing at 11 Malaia Bolotnaia Street (later called the Street of the Red Textile Workers!). In the early twentieth century other clubs such as the Nikol'skii, the Koenig, and the British Sports Club flourished briefly; and in 1916 the Thornton Factory Sports Club (founded two years earlier by the British owners but with Russian players) began to play soccer on the Embankment the Right Bank. (later called October Embankment).

It was on September 2nd, 1901, that the first game in the newly formed St Petersburg Football League was played between the two British clubs Victoria and Nevka, ending in a 2:2 draw. In fact, there were only three teams in the league, the third being Nevskii, and of thirty-nine players who participated in the various matches for the Aspden Cup (presented by the British entrepreneur T.M. Aspden), only three were Russian (all playing for Victoria). The Nevka team were the champions that first year, but Nevskii took the title the following season. Over the next few years the league added new, mainly Russian, teams, but incidents and tension grew, leading to charges and counter-charges of foul play and prejudiced refereeing; men were sent off; crowds were in uproar. In 1909 when a new and bigger league was formed, the three major British teams, Nevskii, Neva and Victoria, withdrew and competed the following year for the Nicholson Cup, donated by the then British ambassador. In 1911, however, in a general atmosphere of improving Anglo-Russian relations, the two leagues were reconciled and British teams and players were to compete until the First World War. Enthusiasm for the game was obvious, grounds were improving, crowds were becoming more knowledgeable, standards were rising--but a salutary reminder of the gulf that existed between footballers in Russia and in England was administered by the visiting Wanderers who in 1911 heavily defeated a British Petersburg XI and a Russian XI as well as a joint St Petersburg-Moscow British XI (the last by a score of 14:0).

In his Petrograd Past and Present (1915), the long-time British resident W. Barnes Steveni suggested that 'the real Russian does not love what we call sport, and cannot understand why people should go to so much exertion for no tangible gain', but that time the situation had in fact radically changed. British residents, largely unsung and forgotten, had made a major contribution not only to encouraging sporting activities among the British but, increasingly, also among Russians. The outstanding figure was the wealthy stockbroker Arthur Macpherson, whose sons have already been mentioned as the leading tennis players of their generation. Macpherson was himself a considerable sportsman, rowing from 1888 for the Arrow Club, of which he became President in 1906; be was also the President of the Krestovskii Lawn Tennis club from 1896; and from 1910 President of the new combined Petersburg league, for which he donated a cup. He was elected to the Russian Olympic Committee, whose members petitioned the Russian Minister of Trade and Industry in 1914 for governmental recognition of Macpherson's services, stating that 'there were few in Russia who had done as much for disseminating the idea of sport and its practical implentation and support'.

The outbreak of the First World War curtailed widespread British participation in sport in Russia. During the Soviet period teams, mainly from the British Embassy in Moscow, played tennis and the occasional game of cricket. Perhaps in the 'new' Russia of the twenty-first century even cricket might find favour among the Russians (if never on the scale of soccer and tennis): Wisden included the name of Alexiy Korobkin for his exploits as opening bowler for Dover College in the summer of 2000 and The Times reported that Korobkin apparently 'spent a whole afternoon in a cafe [in St Petersburg] drawing diagrams on bits of paper as I tried to explain the rules of the game to a group of my friends'. Perhaps he will succeed where Catherine the Great's British engraver James Walker had failed.


There are many entertaining pages devoted to hunting and fishing in Fred Whishaw, Out of Doors in Tsarland (Longmans, Green, 1893) and Maxwell S Leigh (ed,), Memoirs of James Whishaw (Methuen, 1935) The opening chapter of James Riordan, Sport in Soviet Society (CUP, 1977) is very informative For St Petersburg soccer, see lurii Lukosiak, Futbol Pervye shagi 1860-1923 (St Petersburg: Soiuz khudozhnikov, 1998).

Anthony Cross is Professor of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge.
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Title Annotation:Sport & Society
Author:Cross, Anthony
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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