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The Starostin brothers After 75 years, Russia has finally declassified a case against four soccer legends accused of plotting to assassinate Stalin

The Starostin brothers. In the upper row: Alexander and Nikolai; in the lower row: Andrey and Pyotr. 1935
The Starostin brothers. In the upper row: Alexander and Nikolai; in the lower row: Andrey and Pyotr. 1935
Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

On June 20, the newspaper Kommersant published an article revealing new details about the criminal case against Nikolai Starostin, the founder of the Spartak Moscow soccer club, and his three brothers, who played on the team — all of whom were arrested in 1942. The Federal Security Service finally declassified the first two volumes of the case in June 2018, making the documents available to researchers. The rest of the case materials will be unsealed next year. The Soviet authorities tried to convict these brothers — now legends of Russian soccer — of plotting to assassinate Joseph Stalin at the 1937 May Day Parade in a series of terrorist attacks.

In 1935, Nikolai Starostin founded the “Spartak” sports society, modeled on the “Pischevik” soccer club. A year later, the first Soviet soccer championship took place, and Spartak instantly became one of the most popular teams in the country, catapulting its players to stardom.

In July 1937, Stalin summon Alexander Kosarev (the head of the Soviet All-Union Leninist Young Communist League) and asked for an update on the fight against “enemies of the people” within the Komsomol. Kosarev explained that his organization didn’t have any enemies of the people, but Stalin didn't like that answer, and a few days later he secretly ordered a “repression operation” against “anti-Soviet elements.” Police immediately started investigating the Staristin brothers, who were among Kosarev's closest friends.

On August 13, 1937, the Spartak team returned from Paris, after winning an international tournament. The players were surprised to find, however, that nobody showed up to welcome them home. That September, Soviet newspapers started running articles slamming the Staristin brothers for supposed bourgeois sympathies and aspirations of becoming professional soccer players, which was illegal in the USSR, where all athletes at least formally combined their competitive play and industrial work.

Between December 1937 and January 1938, police arrested 11 people with personal ties to the Starostins. The first man taken into custody was Viktor Ryabokon, a referee, who later testified that Nikolai Starostin had plotted a terrorist attack against Joseph Stalin. In February, police arrested several more people close to the Staristin brothers. Everyone arrested told investigators the same story: On May 1, 1937, a group under Nikolai Starostin’s command planned to carry out a series of terrorist attacks during the May Day Parade at Red Square. A bomb was supposed to go off inside the Lenin Mausoleum, and gunmen stationed in the square and atop the “GUM” State Department Store were going to shoot Stalin. Investigators concluded that the assassination never took place due to poor planning. Researchers from the “Memorial” human rights group told Kommersant that these testimonies were almost certainly obtained through torture.

By mid-1938, most of the people arrested over the preceding six months had been sentenced to death and shot. Kosarev, the man who assured Stalin that he needn’t fear “enemies of the people” in the Komsomol, was executed in February 1939.

In March 1942, police arrested Nikolai, Andrey, and Peter Starostin. Their brother Alexander was arrested in October. Then, according to the partially declassified police records, someone apparently intervened and started protecting the Starostin brothers. Initially, prosecutors wanted to try them for treason, but these political charges were ultimately dropped for lesser economic offenses. As Nikolai Starostin wrote in his memoirs, the case “was reduced to allegations of stealing a wagon loaded with textiles, and in the end they had to sink to the absurdity of [charging us] with propagating the mores of bourgeois sports.”

In 1943, the brothers were each sentenced to 10 years in prison for alleged anti-Soviet agitation, accepting bribes, and embezzlement. In 1945, supposedly at the request of his son, Vasily (a soccer fan), Stalin pardoned Nikolai Starostin. The other brothers had to serve out their entire sentences. In 1955, the case was reopened and the original verdict was overturned.

The criminal case against the Starostins is no secret; the brothers wrote about their prison sentences in their memoirs. The case materials, however, have been sealed for 75 years, and the actual essence of the charges against them weren’t known officially until now. The “Memorial” human rights group says it will publish a special project on its website where it will explore the case files in detail for the first time.

The first people sentenced to execution by firing squad were Trofim Kadrileyev and Vladimir Strepikcheyev on January 21, 1938. By mid-1938, most of the arrested athletes had been sentenced to death. “But what’s interesting is that any mention of the Starostins disappeared from every verdict and criminal indictment. It turns out that everything during the investigation was leading up to their arrests, but when it came time for a verdict their names disappeared everywhere,” says Memorial historian Sergey Bondarenko.

Kommersant

Translation by Vasily Zhelnin