Northern soul: how I fell in love with St Petersburg — through its football team

Everyone needs a helping hand when they first move to Russia. For one Calvert Journal, he learned to feel at home in St Petersburg through literature — and football

25 May 2018

“How did you get into that, then?” It’s a question you hear often if you tell people you work in, or with, or on Russia. There’s an instinctual curiosity to locate the catalyst, the magic switch that sent you down this road. But the frequency with which I’m asked this question doesn’t make it any less strange. What exactly does it mean to “get into” a country? National languages, histories, cultures — these are impossible canvases, not hobbies, and a lifetime of engagement will only scratch the surface. I’m not sure I am “into” Russia. It’s part of what I do, and there are pressures both external and internal that make the dynamic testing; like any country, Russia can be difficult, and in the current climate there are plenty of people looking to cast aspersions. Still, here we are.

Ten years ago, I moved to St Petersburg and “got into” the city and its football team, Zenit. I was an ingénu student with very little Russian and even less of a plan. Like anyone who first moves to a foreign country they have until then only encountered in books and films, I was dependent on clichés. When your command of the language, or lack of it, keeps you skimming off the surface of the world around you, ignorant of ironies and subtexts, clichés are a pretty useful blunt instrument. So is football. Zenit proved important for me in garnering a sense of place, and self, in an environment I hardly understood.

Zenit proved important for me in garnering a sense of place in an environment I hardly understood

Some of the clichés about Petersburg are hard to deny. The air quality is terrible; the weather is worse. During the long winters it seems like the sun absconds for weeks on end — the sky goes from dark to light grey and back to dark again, and that’s how you know a day has passed. There’s more sleet than snow. Conversely, in the midsummer “white nights” the sun sets only fitfully, and midnight is transformed into a mauve and amber dusk that gets the residents twitching. But this was the first city I’d ever lived in, and I was easily charmed. I fell hard for one of Petersburg’s most persistent self-images: the city as anti-Moscow, sophisticated and European (“the Venice of the North”, as some guidebooks still have it) where the capital was hectic, burly and business-like; a neglected but stubborn old beauty, cynical, world-weary. Petersburg in this telling was defined — some would say created — by writers and artists, disaffected Soviet bohemians in tatty overcoats. I read the iconic Leningrad poetry of Joseph Brodsky, who wrote of “the second Petersburg, the one made of verses and of Russian prose,” a “narcissistic” city produced by “the northern light, both pale and diffused, one in which both memory and eye operate with unusual sharpness.” This was the imaginary Petersburg I had in my head as I walked its embankments for a year, an insufferable and melancholic 20-year-old.

And there as a counterpart to this cultural self-image were Zenit St Petersburg, my adopted team. The juxtaposition of poetic ennui and petro-dollar funded footballing superstars might seem counterintuitive, but both Brodsky and Zenit, with typical Petersburg sullen pride, told me that the city, which I was falling for even as I struggled to get my head around it, was something to invest in.

By the time I left Petersburg a year later, the city, country and club came with me

In part this was just a matter of good timing. The year before I arrived in Russia, Zenit had won their first ever European trophy, the UEFA Cup. I had watched their progress from England and fallen for their crop of homegrown players — the surly midfielder Igor Denisov, lackadaisical wing wizard Andrey Arshavin, who had also starred for Russia at that summer’s European Championships — managed by the avuncular Dutch coach Dick Advocaat. The apotheosis of that team came in the semi-final, when Zenit obliterated German titans Bayern Munich 4-0. My first night in Petersburg just happened to be the night that Zenit beat Manchester United in the European Super Cup and I watched ecstatic fans scale the railings and lampposts of Palace Square like extras in an Eisenstein film. It made an impression. That winter, continental royalty came to Zenit’s frostbitten Petrovsky stadium, a lovely old neoclassical pile perched on the Malaya Neva river, as they hosted Juventus and Real Madrid. It all felt like part of the same reverie, one I was buying into because I didn’t know any better. By the time I left Petersburg a year later, the city, country and club came with me. I’d “got into” them all at once.

Of course, the romance of that first year dissipated quick enough. For critics of both, there are some parallels between supporting Zenit and working on Russia, as I’ve done in a number of guises since I was a teenager. Zenit are owned by Gazprom, and as such have become a kind of shorthand for the bloating influence of the petrochemical industries that prop up Russia’s economy as well as nouveaux riches football clubs across Europe — they’re derided domestically for relying on their cash reserves at the expense of long-term planning and smart coaching. That there are also a number of less than savoury links between Gazprom and the city administration is an unseemly parallel.

Zenit also have a reputation as the most potent embodiment of what is seen in the West as Russia’s intractable racism problem. Russian football is renowned abroad for ugly outbursts of fan racism, and Zenit shot to public attention in Britain in 2013 when their most grotesque fan group, Landskrona, published a manifesto demanding that the club sign no black or gay players; the Daily Mail, with a glorious lack of self-awareness, even sent a reporter to peek “inside the twisted world of the fans proud to support Europe’s most racist club.” The spurious selective blindness of western liberalism aside, it can be hard to know how to counter the heckles of Zenito- and Russophobes when they question why on earth you’d invest in a country and a club as prone to the gruesome as they are to the sublime.

But then all love stories are ultimately about disabusing yourself of those first, romantic illusions and making do regardless. Things never got better for Zenit than they were when I arrived — all Gazprom’s billions couldn’t win them more European silverware, and after a few more league titles with Italian manager Luciano Spalletti, they are now faltering, losing ground to the old Moscow aristocracy of Spartak and CSKA. In a sense this is just Zenit reverting to type: the club were historical underachievers, winning just one Soviet league (1984) despite being the sole representatives of the nation’s second city, a powerhouse of five million people. The old Petersburg arrogance isn’t best suited to modern sporting success; it often seems like the players are sulking on the pitch these days (not that I’d have it any other way).

I didn’t go back to Petersburg for nine years after I left, by which point it had undergone a wave of regeneration and emerged as a fresh young style capital that I didn’t wholly recognise. Zenit have moved to the cavernous bowl of their World Cup stadium and are once again looking for a new manager I know now that the city of my dreams, of Brodsky and Arshavin, was a fantasy produced by youthful ignorance, but it doesn’t matter. Petersburg has always been an unreal city, conjured up out of a northern swamp on a whim by Peter the Great, a kind of autocratic pet project. Success here is usually temporary and illusory. What better place to fall in love?

After he was fired by Zenit, Spalletti gave an interview in which he unwittingly recalled the “northern light, both pale and diffused” that Brodsky had described 40 years previously. To me it is perfectly fitting that it was a foreigner and a football man who so succinctly captured the city that I fell for: “More than anything in Petersburg I love the light. This shining, this glint that blinds me. There are days when it is so bright all around that I struggle to open my eyes. In fairytales, this kind of shining signals the appearance of something out of the ordinary — something miraculous.”

Text: Samuel Goff
Top image: Daria Piskareva and Serj Berezkin