Stalin’s secret stadium

While work continues on transforming Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium for the 2018 World Cup, across town Andy Potts uncovers a forgotten arena that was set to be a Stalinist showpiece when instigated 80 years ago.

Little remains of the dream that was the projected Stalin Stadium. Originally, this gargantuan landmark was intended to be the sporting showcase of the city – of the entire USSR, in fact – accommodating 120,000 spectators and rivalling Berlin’s Olympic Stadium for glory.

aircraft 2
FOP Izmailovo/Andy Potts

Today, there’s just a solitary stand, largely overgrown, and the improbable sight of a Soviet fighter jet poised to strafe the away dug-out. Amateurs from a local university team warm up beside ageing artillery. Welcome to FOP Izmailovo, home of Sportakademklub, stalwarts of Russia’s Division 3 (Moscow).

Back in 1935, the magazine Soviet Architecture discussed the need for a showcase venue in the Soviet capital, capable of staging large-scale events. The success of the 1936 Berlin Olympics – both as a sporting event and a propaganda tool for the Third Reich – put this idea into sharp focus. Plans were drawn up for a huge stadium to the east of the city, close to the forests of Izmailovsky Park.

The new venue would outstrip the Dynamo Stadium, Russia’s oldest extant arena, with three times the capacity and a design way ahead of the rather plain constructivist bowl on Leningradsky Prospekt. The Stalin Stadium would become the home of the Spartakiad, the grandiose festival of Soviet sporting endeavour established in 1923 as a rival to the ‘bourgeois’ Olympics.

tank traps and entrance
FOP Izmailovo/Andy Potts

Work began in 1936. One stand, with seating for 10,000, was duly built. Beneath the complex, according to unconfirmed reports, a 15-km tunnel provides a direct transport link to the Kremlin. The presence of a Stalin-era bunker, now a museum operated by the Russian Army, open by arrangement, lends credence to the claim of a huge hidden passage – the truth remains buried as deep as the alleged roadway.

The work was never finished. War broke out in 1939, first in Finland then on home soil. New stadiums were no longer a priority. In the post-war period, this grandiose project was quietly dropped.

South of the city centre, today’s site for the Luzhniki became home of the Lenin Central Stadium, hastily built after Stalin’s death in 1953 and opened in 1956. It was here that the Olympics came, as well as the Champions League Final of 2008.

Izmailovo spent decades as a rather second-rate athletics facility. That lone stand never saw anything like the crowds it would have been able to hold. The track was used as a local training ground.

honour guard
Sportakademklub/Andy Potts

It wasn’t until 1989 (!) that the venue was at last officially opened as the FOP Izmailovo. Its military connections give it some unusual features: players warm up alongside artillery cannons, tanks patrol the car park and a fighter jet is ready to fire off a few rounds from the seating. Visitors pick their way across a building site, past the kind of auto workshop that might be a murder scene from cult TV detective series ‘Taggart’. Those who speak Russian can sweet-talk their way past a bored security guard, then venture across a car park where tanks face off against a field of ‘hedgehogs’, giant hunks of twisted metal deployed on Moscow’s borders to fend off the Panzer divisions in 1941. This is another contribution from the adjoining branch of the Armed Forces Museum.

Football crowds are unsurprisingly sparse. The atmosphere is slightly eerie, thanks to a strange hum from an otherwise defunct PA system. It’s the kind of noise you’d anticipate from a radio transmitter in a post-apocalyptic world of no broadcasts – amid the remains of military might, it’s an odd thing to encounter.

Sportakademklub are now an affiliate of the nearby University of Physical Education, Sport, Youth and Tourism. Formed in the early 1990s in the town of Sergiyev Posad, an hour’s train ride north of Moscow, they steadily drifted towards the capital as they achieved greater success in the amateur league.

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Sportakademklub/Andy Potts

For a while they even turned pro. In 2008, while based at Moscow’s Krylya Sovietov Stadium, Sportklub’s orange shirts featured in the second tier against the likes of Torpedo Moscow and Ural Yekaterinburg. But a single season at that level proved financially unsustainable. The club voluntarily dropped to the regional third tier and eventually found themselves back in the amateur game.

In 2015, they briefly flickered into prominence once more when they formed the core of Russia’s football team at the Universiade in Korea. A ninth-placed finish was a disappointment and the squad quickly returned to obscurity.

The same obscurity threatens the long-term future of the would-be Stalin Stadium. Plans to build a world-class athletics facility here seem hard to imagine, given the double whammy of tumbling exchange rates and the international doping scandal. Yet the site, no longer dominated by the once-notorious Cherkizovsky market, represents a prime chunk of Moscow real estate. Enhanced transport connections are already under construction.

FOP Izmailovo, an idea whose time never really came, could soon be consigned to the wrecking ball of history.

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