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Pyotr Starostin

"The same dream is haunting me - I am in the camp, I've served my sentence, but they wouldn't let me go. I wake up and sigh with relief. I'm glad it's not true."

Pyotr Starostin

 

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Einleitung

Überleben durch Willensstärke und schwierige Kompromisse

Pyotr Starostin war Mitglied der berühmten Fussballer-Familie Starostin. Seine drei Brüder waren Mitbegründer des legendären Fussballvereins Spartak Moskau. Nach seiner Verhaftung im Jahr 1942 kämpfte Pyotr Starostin in sowjetischen Gefängnissen und Lagern um sein Überleben. Er wurde schwer misshandelt, ertrug Folter, Hunger und Krankheit. Seine Geschichte zeigt die Willensstärke und die schwierigen Kompromisse, die notwendig sind, um solche extremen Umstände zu überstehen.

Die Geschichte

Pyotr Starostin

Soccer as a survial recipe for the Starostin brothers


(Entschuldigung, diese Geschichte ist in englischer Sprache / Sorry, this story is available in English so far.)

The story of the Starostin brothers, probably the most well-known soccer players in the history of Soviet sport, is characterized by two contradictory aspects - their fame and publicity on the one hand, and  the many unresolved circumstances of their life on the other. The four brothers - Nikolay, Alexander, Andrey and Pyotr - were directly involved in creating one of the most popular sports society in the USSR - Spartak Moscow in the 1930s. For decades, until the death of the last of them in 1995, the brothers were the symbol not only of Spartak, but of Soviet soccer on the whole, its entire history. From the first years after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the Starostin brothers started playing in local sports clubs, helping to create and reform the system of the first soccer championships in the new country. [1]

Later, at the peak of their fame, at the end of the 1930s (by that time Spartak won both the league championship and the national cup for two years running), the Starostins were arrested. Under normal circumstances, such an arrest would not have gone unnoticed, but in 1942 in Moscow, there were more important things to think about. The greater part of the capital city's population had been evacuated, those who stayed were preoccupied with war time events. The arrest, the trial and sentence, as well as the years of life in camps and exile are described in detail in Nikolay Starostin's book "Football Through the Years". Andrey Starostin's book "Big Football" talks about his time spent in a labor camp in Norilsk (built by Norillag workers) beyond the polar circle. Far less is known about the other two brothers - Alexander and Pyotr. Especially Pyotr, the youngest of the brothers, is much less remembered for his play on the field, having remained simply “a fourth Starostin” for many. But it's his story that sheds light on the underlying contradiction of his life - an unknown person from a famous family. Two decades after his death, the manuscript of Pyotr Starostin's memoir, covering his experiences from his arrest to his return from the camp, was published; first, as small fragments in a book from a series called "The Lives of Famous People", and then as a Spartak Moscow museum exhibit. This source allows us to reconstruct some events of his camp life, and compare it to the life of his brothers. [2] 

The 1930s – The Great Terror

The history of Soviet terror, told from different points of view - those of the victims, eye-witnesses or, in a later reconstruction, historians - provides completely different versions of the same event. However, as a rule, the focus is on the reasons and the driving force behind the events that led to an arrest. The debate around Pyotr Starostin's detention follows the same logic. 

On the one hand, there is the public and nearly legendary version of their family history: The brothers, founders of  the most popular sports club of the country, were supposedly arrested upon the order of their rival - head of the Soviet NKVD, Lavrentiy Beria, who formally supervised their main competitor, the various teams of Dynamo. This very story, with a few additional details, is told in the book of the elder brother, Nikolay. For decades this version of the arrest story played a special therapeutic role in Soviet society: for many sports fans who lost their relatives, the acts of repression against the Starostin brothers were a reflection of “their” life in the broad historic mirror. That is why their survival and return is all the more important - this version of the story acquired an almost mythological scale, like the Osiris myth or the myth about Heracles who returned from the kingdom of the dead. 

On the other hand, journalists and historians looking for political or economic motives for the brothers' arrest, challenged and later claimed to have destroyed the popular myth. The Starostin brothers de facto headed the richest sports society which was funded by a prominent trade union called  “Promcooperatsiya” - the Union of Soviet Clerks. Through this trade union, the Starostins controlled a network of sports clubs that included various sports facilities, sports shops and a complex distribution system. The brothers were accused of financial and political abuse of power - in particular financial fraud, buying their athletes/players out of the military service during the war, as well as using the money of the sports society for illegal purchases of goods from abroad.

All these accusations can be discussed from various angles and perspectives. However, these discussions often ignore a crucial detail - that the investigation itself, the official search for “evidence”, the indictment and “trial”, as well as the sentence proceeded in violation of all the laws set forth in the Soviet Criminal Code. The use of torture during investigation and of statements from alleged accomplices, some of whom had been executed earlier, turned the case itself into a farce and something completely illegal.  

Many of the factual questions concerning the case may be clarified in 2018, when the official 75 year secrecy rule expires, and the case file will be available for public review in the FSB archive. [3]

The late 1930s was an extremely eventful period in the sports life of the USSR. The first national soccer championships was held in 1935 and in 1937, the Basque national team toured the Soviet Union in support of the Republican cause in Spain's civil war. That same year, Spartak Moscow went to the Paris Exposition and then to the Workers' Summer Olympiad in Antwerp. But in addition to the success on the playing field, Spartak also for the first time attracted negative publicity. In the course of a massive official Soviet government campaign aimed at discovering internal enemies, a period that became later known as “The Great Terror”, newspapers started publishing articles about the spread of bourgeois morals in the Spartak clubs. Among the sources, published 70 years later, is the letter of denunciation of two Spartak long distance runners, Seraphim and Georgy Znamensky, against the Starostin brothers, the managers of their sports club. The letter to the sports committee alleged that the Starostins had worked in a “non-Soviet” manner, kept “extra” currency at home and supposedly bought lots of “unnecessary things" abroad. In 1937, no action was taken in the matter. However, many details from the accusations drafted at that time eventually ended up in the official case file five years later, when the arrests did take place.  

The Arrest and Investigation in Prison

Even though the Starostin brothers' biographies are quite detailed, the circumstances of their arrest are not well known. Three of the four brothers were arrested early in the morning on 21 March 1942. Before dawn, NKVD officers came for Nikolay, Andrey and Pyotr. The fourth brother - and second oldest - Alexander was at the front at that time, and was arrested only several months later. In his memoir, Nikolay Starostin remembers clearly the strange details of his arrest: "Cheka agents were always expecting armed resistance. I am usually a light sleeper, and I could not understand how strange people could have entered the apartment without any noise. (…) When they were taking me away, our housekeeper who was living with us, a very modest provincial woman, a former nun, did not even come out to say good-bye. (…) A nun as an informer? Incredible!” (pp.64-65). [4]

NKVD agents who came to take Andrey away, let him say good-bye to his newborn daughter who was at that time just a few months old. Later he remembered that he kissed his daughter already with his hands tied behind his back. The younger brother, Pyotr, also starts his story with the details of his arrest: “4 a.m.. The doorbell rings for a long time. We wake up, surprised and slightly frightened (...) I open the door. There are three men behind it. - 'Does Starostin Pyotr Petrovich live here?' 'Yes, that's me.' 'You are arrested, here's the arrest and search warrant.' I can feel my wife Zoya Alexeevna worrying behind my back. I'm trying to calm her down. This is a misunderstanding, a mistake. They are hurrying me to get dressed. My wife is hastily packing something in a backpack for me. I'm trying to convince her I won't need it. As I was going out, my 4-year-old son Andryushka asked me: 'Dad! Where are you going?'  'Go to sleep, son. I'll be back soon'”.  

The brothers were placed in Moscow's Internal (Lubyanka) Prison, a legendary incarceration and pre-trial detention center, that has been described extensively in a wide range of literature, and remains almost mythical until today. The Lubyanka building counted almost a dozen underground floors. The formal investigation of the “Starostin” case lasted for more than a year. The original charges brought against the brothers during the initial interrogations most likely carried the death penalty – setting up of a “fascist organization” and preparation of an attempt on Stalin's life. Despitesounding seemingly absurd, such charges were widely used at the end of the 1930s and became the justification of many thousands of death sentences. The interrogation tactics were varied. As it often happened, one of the investigators played the role of the “bad guy” and secured evidence from the suspect in an aggressive way, while the other, counting on the work of his colleague, moved more slowly, relying on the evidence obtained from the other defendants in the case, preparing his own “client” to  eventually sign the same charges. Judging by Nikolay's and Pyotr's memoirs, the elder brother's investigator worked more resolutely on the main details of the case with the “leader” of the accused 'criminal gang', Nikolay - organizing and taking part in sports parades in the Red Square, inpreparation of a terrorist act against the Political bureau members. 

According to Pyotr's memoirs, his first interrogation was more of a classical type: “Having finished with my profile, Elomanov [the interrogator] said: 'Well, now you tell me about your counterrevolutionary activity'. And after a pause he added 'and about your brothers, too'. I answered I was not engaged in any counterrevolutionary activity and asked him to tell me what I had been arrested for. 'So you were not engaged', Elomanov said indifferently. 'You are afraid to tell more than we know about you. You're trying to outwit me. That's not going to happen. Think! Think what you can start with!' And he turned away. I sat silently. Two hours later he asked: 'So, any ideas?' I answered again that I was not guilty of anything. In the evening he summoned the guards and cried out in the doorway: 'Think in the cell! That was the end of the first interrogation, and of all the illusions about the fallacy of the arrest and a quick return home”.  

After quite a long time, the original outline of the case created by the investigation started falling to pieces. According to Nikolay Starostin, the main detail of this story was his testimony, that there were two NKVD officers in the group of sportsmen allegedly “preparing a terrorist act” (to assassinate Stalin) in Red Square. In this case, the investigator found himself in a formal dead end, because insisting on the version of an attempted assassination (with the involvement of NKVD officials) meant discrediting the work of his own department. On the other hand, the practice shows that even these contradictions were not insoluble. It is, therefore, quite probable that some high level political decisions could have had an impact on the case, with the result that the brothers were not executed but were sentenced to a term in labor camp.

In the meantime, we learn about the use of violence in the course of investigation thanks to fragmentary information about Andrey's physical and mental condition. Due to sleep deprivation for several months, he found himself in a prison hospital, were he needed to  learn how to walk again. The interrogation of Pyotr - the youngest and the most opinionated of the whole family - also soon turned into a fight for his physical and moral well-being. “Interrogations were now accompanied by beatings with the help of two big fellows who appeared for this purpose. (…) At first, I tried to offer resistance, but it only made things worse for me, the forces were too uneven. So later I only made feeble attempts to dodge the blows in the lower face. This sort of treatment had a quick effect. A few days later I could hardly move, I was losing weight and growing weak very fast. I got adjusted to sleeping when seated with my eyes open, though it was a kind of a stupor, the loss of feeling of reality rather than sleep”. 

Among other methods of coercion in a Soviet prison, “deprivation of sleep”, by all account, was the most effective. According to the rules, prisoners were not allowed to sleep during the day, and at night they were summoned for interrogation. After a week or a week and a half of such treatment, one could secure any signed confession. The last form of active resistance was a hunger strike, though there exist only a few descriptions of hunger strikes. They are more often mentioned in the memoirs of the 1960s and 1970s. Pyotr writes: “I can't tell how much time has passed, but one night I was dragged into the cell badly beaten, and I went on a hunger strike. I wouldn't have been able to eat even if I wanted to. My lips, tongue, cheeks - they were all swollen and bleeding inside. By the end of the day a group of people came into the cell, led bythe governor of the prison. 'Enemy enemy!', he screamed at me. 'Only enemies go on hunger strikes! But we won't let you die. We'll feed you now.' And he turned to the male nurses standing near. One of them had an enema in his hand with some brownish liquid. They pulled off my pants and started the feeding torture. I have never felt more humiliated and utterly helpless, ever. Having calmed down a little bit, the prison governor turned to the doctor standing there as well: 'Take a look, what's with him?' - and he pointed at my face. The doctor opened my mouth with a spatula with difficulty, looked inside and said: 'Nothing serious, he can eat something soft'. My hunger protest failed”.  

The turning point of the investigation came when the investigator convinced the elder brother, Nikolay, that it was necessary to strike a deal and admit some of the charges brought against him, after a year of the investigation. He had a face-to-face confrontation with Pyotr. “I was brought into a spacious study. The interrogator Esaulov was there, sitting at a big table, there were more people a bit farther away, and even farther, at the wall, I saw my brother Nikolay. I peered with fear in his face, it was somewhat gray, swollen, with big purple dark rings under his eyes. I can see that he is looking at me with the same feeling. (…) Nikolay asked Esaulov not to put our conversation on record. - 'Pet!' Nikolay turned to me, then he paused to think, looking for the right words and said: 'We need to finally cross the Rubicon. Remember the biblical events that happened at that river, stop hiding and tell about everything. Otherwise things will end up very badly for us. I have already made this decision and I want to help you do it as well. I will remind you of the things you said between us and I don't think you will deny them'. I listened to Nikolay quietly and I understood perfectly well that he was trying to save our lives, because there was really no other way. I had to confess something, but I did not know what. (…) An official interrogation started. Esaulov asked Nikolay what he could tell about his brother Pyotr's criminal activity. Having evidently thought everything out beforehand, Nikolay said: 'After the Winter War and the signing of a peace treaty, Pyotr criticized the treaty, saying that it did not make up for the losses during the war. The Finnish territory handed over to the Soviet Union was too little, and did not safeguard against possible shell fire of Leningrad from the Finnishborder; and considering the casualties, the treaty looked more like a defeat than a victory. 

Upon graduation, Pyotr was saying that he should not have wasted five years to work as an engineer for 100-110 rubles per month while he was paid much more playing football. Pyotr expressed a negative opinion about sending people to the front for military defense works from the plant where he worked as a manager, thinking that people were more useful at work, all the more so because the defense was so badly organized at the local level.' He basically defined my anti-revolutionary activity for me. Having more information, Nikolay was the first to understand the hopelessness of our situation and its possible tragic consequences. I am still thankful to him for this confrontation. (…) My indictment that appeared at the trial was actually based on this material. Briefly it ran as follows: On the Finnish issue – criticism of the actions of the government and the party. On the issue of the institute and the engineers' work - libeling low-paid work of the Soviet intelligentsia. On the issues of military defense works - libeling bad management of the military defense works in the Moscow region and a negative attitude towards them”.  

The chronicle of this confrontation is one of the few episodes reconstructed in the memoirs of both brothers. Here is what Nikolay writes about it: “If Alexander and Andrey believed it was my hand-writing at once, Pyotr did not (…) The investigators had to organize a face-to-face confrontation. Pyotr appeared at that meeting so undernourished and sick that I acutely realized: we can't wait anymore. I assume my looks also made him worry“ (p. 80). When the Starostin investigative case becomes available, it will be possible to find the official record of this confrontation and compare it to the recollections of the brothers. [5]

The Trial

Pyotr Starostin: “End of November 1943. We were brought in a “Black Maria” [specific name for NKVD car] to a building near Dzerzhinsky square. We were taken out of the car. The place was crowded. The passage to the front door is very short, but still I manage to notice the faces of my wife, sisters, brothers' wives and other relatives. How did they learn it was our trial today. Strange. A big room with a door to the court room.  We, the accused, are held at a distance from each other, we are not allowed to stand close. (…) The Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR is trying us. The trial is closed, with no prosecutor or legal defenders. We are not allowed to talk to each other on the dock. We are all nervous. What will happen? The accused are being questioned. They are asking if we have any claims of complaints. Everybody says no. I guess, everybody knows that it is a sheer formality. I also knew that a sentence had already been delivered to each of us and nothing would change it. But what sentence? This question worries and frightens everyone. That is why there are no claims, protests or complaints. Then comes the culmination point - the sentence is read. Everyone is waiting for his name holding his breath. All got 10 years of concentration labor camps, Article 58, paragraphs 10 and 11 - group anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation. Life! Though behind the barbed wire”. 

The Military Collegium trial of 1943 is no longer merely a conveyor of sentences like it was in 1937-1938, but still a machine producing guilty verdicts. The investigation, original charges and “methods of work” with the brothers could really have produced a death sentence - in this regard, Pyotr Starostin's notes describe not only his subjective perception, but also the very objective circumstances. And again, as is the case with many details of the investigation itself, only when the case files become available, will it be possible to know how the sentence was arrived at.

The four brothers were deliberately sent to different camps. However, one and the same circumstance, though to a different extent, played a role in the fate of each of them. They were sportsmen, who acquired public recognition at the time when a real mass culture was only just beginning to develop in the USSR, in the mid-1930s. It is especially important that the matter concerned sports, in particular soccer. 

Numerous examples of imprisoned artists, singers, painters consistently show that although their profession could sometimes help in the camp, it never guaranteed a rescue, while soccer became a survival recipe for the Starostin brothers. “Soccer saved my life - the life I dedicated to soccer”, Nikolay Starostin wrote. Soccer not only provided exemption of general work in the camps, but also guaranteed a relative security with the so-called “blatnye” - criminal offenders who almost always opposed and confronted political prisoners. Starostin was transferred from one prisoner transport to another with tacit instruction to “leave him alone”. His soccer stories substituted traditional “novels” and detective stories to felons - they listened very carefully, “like children”, Nikolay wrote in his book.

The fate of the three elder brothers - Nikolay, Alexander and Andrey - developed in a very similar way. At some point, they all took on the training of camp soccer and hockey teams, which provided for an easing of the regime, such as accommodation outside the barrack, a pass to leave the camp temporarily, the right to personal meetings, etc. However, judging by what we know now, Pyotr’s life was much more difficult.  

He was assigned to general works in the camp in Nizhny Tagil. Pyotr never fully recovered from the beatings he had received during investigation. Two TB caverns in his lungs were operated on after he left the camps. They obviously were the result of prison life. A classical camp survival narrative almost always contains an episode in the prison hospital - the only place where you could recover, at least slightly. This is what happened also with Pyotr Starostin: “In the spring I fell ill and was hospitalized. During a doctor's round, the head of the hospital Dmitriev stopped by and, having heard my last name, asked, if I was one of the four brothers [Starostin]? I said 'yes, the youngest'. Having found out that I was working in general works and had massage skills, he said: 'Get better, we'll need you'. The lifesaver worked again. It turned out he used to play soccer himself”. 

Pyotr Starostin got a job at the camp hospital - perhaps the best way to escape general works for a political prisoner. Varlam Shalamov, who spent time in Soviet prison from 1937 to 1953, discusses in his short stories the moral aspect of various survival strategies from different perspectives. Thus, the author of the "Kolyma Tales" finally found himself in hospital as a medical attendant and got a chance to escape a slow death in a quarry. This enabled him to help the sick and alleviate their suffering, But in the hospital - according to the general principles of the camp - maximum work speed was obligatory. For this very reason Shalamov did not want to be a foreman because it meant sending his fellow-prisoners to die every day. Medical attendants and nurses, even in hospital, were part of the general camp system. One of the central episodes in Pyotr's memoirs illustrates this: “I remember another amusing incident from my medical practice, connected with massage therapy. There was a chronically ill patient in our hospital. They said he had made himself a 'mostyrka', i.e. deliberately injured himself not to go to work. He stayed in hospital for more than six months and no treatment could help. He walked on crutches because he could not put weight on one of his feet. Suddenly Dmitriev had an idea to try massage therapy. I was charged with it and I went to see the patient. It was a semi-literate man from a Mordovian village with a sly face, about 50 year old. When he showed his leg to me, I was stunned – I had never seen anything like that in my life. He had a shapeless clod for a foot, stiff as bark. A similar, but a more massive one, connected the knee and the hip joint. 'What can I do with this leg?', I thought. For more than a month I rubbed and squeezed my patient's leg twice a day. At that he continued groaning, moaning and twitching. And suddenly the first signs of recovery appeared. The foot and the knee joint started bending a bit, the tissues grew more flexible and rudiments of muscular tissue appeared. Then the revival became even more noticeable. The medical staff started talking about it. Dmitriev examined the patient with surprise and smiled at me patronizingly. Once, during one of the sessions, looking around, my Mordovian started shoving some bread to me. I refused to accept his gratitude for my effort, but he whispered 'Take it! Take! Just stop massaging me, or they will send me back to work'". 

What does it mean to help people in a camp hospital - if their treatment leads to their soon and painful death? The memoir writer is only partially aware of this absurd logic having to do with all the other camp works. In his system of values, can the camp still be a place for “honest work” (to a considerable extent this is the logic of Solzhenitsyns's character from “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”). Is survival an act of heroism? To what extent can you help your fellow-prisoners? Is real protest possible within the camp labor system? From Shalamov's point of view, survival itself is a form of protest, together with contempt, resentment to labor in any of its “official” forms. But Pyotr Starostin, judging by his memoir, would not agree with this part of ensuring camp survival - in that sense he’s much more Solzhenitsyn type of hero, not Shalamov’s. 

Release from Prison

After the termination of their camp sentences, none of the brothers were allowed to come back to Moscow. According to the rules of that time, they acquired the status of persons “exiled for life”. Thus Nikolay, for instance, started working in exile in Kazakhstan as a football coach. Pyotr's life at the camp production site was not easy either, however. With time, many details of his life became instead reminiscent of a Soviet industrial novel. 

As was the case with millions of other prisoners, the situation of the Starostin brothers changed radically with Stalin's death. They were never forgotten in the sports world, and that's why they were rehabilitated and returned relatively fast to Moscow, with the first transports, during Khruschev's rule. “Lubyanka again. The room where I wait for the man I was referred to. Behind the wall I can hear a voice;  'The Starostins are here again'. As if for a reason, different people come in and cast hasty glances at me. There are three familiar volumes of the Act of Indictment on the table in the room. I am questioned by lieutenant colonel (I've forgotten his name), there is an ensign (lieutenant) and a stenographer close by. A complete metamorphosis, it is not an interrogation, but a friendly conversation. Sometimes the lieutenant colonel, turning the pages, uttered 'Rascals, what were they doing...'. The conversation lasted for two days”. [6]

After the camp Pyotr's life, unlike those of his brothers, was not in any way connected with soccer. Nikolay and Andrey Starostin remained prominent public figures. Official Soviet soccer functionaries, journalists, memoir writers. One of the delayed consequences of Pyotr's harsh life in the camp and prison beatings was an amputation of a part of his leg. Nikolay wrote about him as “the most talented” of all the brothers in his book "Football Through the Years". However, that was the most attention he got. After his imprisonment, he lived the life of a common man. Public opinion concerning the camp issue also changed. In the bestseller of the 1960s, "Big Football”, Andrey Starostin did not write anything about his camp experience. However, in Nikolay's final memoir, published during the time of Perestroika, arrest, prison and camp occupy the central part of the narration. The camp turned into the main topic of reflection, casting light on a “forgotten”, “painful” spot in biography that many former prisoners felt should better be left in oblivion. It probably served as one of incentives for Pyotr to write down his memoirs in 1989. For him, just like for millions of other camp survivors, these memories remained a part of their inner world forever: “The same dream is haunting me - I am in the camp, I've served my sentence, but they wouldn't let me go. I wake up and sigh with relief. I'm glad it's not true”.

Bibliography

Pyotr Starostin memoirs, unpublished. Manuscript from the Spartak Moscow Club museum 

Memoirs about political repressions in the USSR, archived in Memorial Society. Catalogue. Moscow, 2007. 

Nikolay Starostin. Football through the Years (Футбол сквозь годы). Moscow, 1989. 

Andrey Starostin. Big Football (Большой футбол). Moscow, 1957. 

Varlam Shalamov. Kolyma Tales (Колымские рассказы). Moscow, 1998. 

Alexander Solzhenitsyn. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Один день Ивана Денисовича). Moscow, 1963. 

“He looks like the White Army soldier”, denunciation of Znamensky brothers against Starostins http://bg.ru/society/on_pohozh_na_belogvardejtsa-15414/

Susanne Berger

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