Anatoly Kuznetsov and Dynamo Kyiv’s ‘almost incredible’ story

Dynamo Kyiv, 1941
Dynamo Kyiv in 1941 before Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, commenced on Jun 22. Dynamo was to have played CDKA of Kyiv, now Arsenal Kyiv, in an exhibition that day at the new Republic Sports Stadium. (

A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
a Jew.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “Babi Yar”

Anatoly Kuznetsov, smuggling reels of 35mm film inside his jacket, arrived at the London offices of the Daily Telegraph on 24 Jul 1969 to declare himself in exile. These reels contained images of the uncensored manuscript for Babi Yar. For additional security, Kuznetsov had buried a film cache in an undisclosed location in the former USSR, “where,” he writes, “I hope it still is to this day.”

Subsequent versions of the “document in the form of a novel,” which had been heavily elided when it first appeared in 1966 in the Moscow magazine Yunost, feature unique text-critical notations. Boldface type restores the excisions of Soviet authorities; text in brackets supplies Kuznetsov’s additions from the late 1960s.

Lev Kassil, Goalkeeper of the Republic

In Vratar respubliki (Goalkeeper
of the Republic, 1939), Kassil
created another image in
Soviet football iconography.

In the second of the book’s three parts Kuznetsov recounts the wartime ordeal of Dynamo Kyiv of Ukraine. Competing as FC Start in the Nazi-occupied city, a reconstituted Kyiv side prevailed 5–3 in a specially scheduled fixture to end the season. The match on 9 Aug 1942, billed as the German opponent’s chance to avenge an earlier defeat, became known as the Death Match based on legends propagated in part by Lev Kassil and a 1962 Soviet film, Tretiy taym (The Third Period). Later appropriated for the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Victory, the story line involves Start players defying halftime threats from German authorities and being executed near the infamous Babi Yar ravine immediately after the match.

The reality of what Kuznetsov terms “this almost incredible story” is more complicated. Soviet censors, however, did not alter this section of Kuznetsov’s work, even though—in dialectical fashion—he punctures the legend by retelling it and then noting variations from untidy reality. In a later insertion, Kuznetsov lingers over how the tale had calcified in Stalinist times: “[N]ote how precise the legend is—” he writes in parentheses, “authorities always summon people.”

Beyond its adoption by propagandists on either side of the Iron Curtain, the Dynamo story offers non-Ukrainians a soulful connection to the country—an encapsulation of the national narrative of occupation and resistance. “The objective of the Ukrainian people is restoration and reconstruction,” John Steinbeck said during a 1947 trip to the USSR with photographer Robert Capa. So it remains as the nation prepares to co-host, with Poland, the 2012 European Championships and to escape a marginalized position between Europe and Russia.

“It’s the biggest political and social project in the 18-year history of independent Ukraine,” deputy prime minister Ivan Vasiukyk tells the BBC. “It is one of the very practical steps for integrating Ukraine into the European community.”

Vlad Lavrov, writer for the Kyiv Post, says that the event raises the possibility of visa-free travel to Europe—valuable for a country, unlike Poland, outside the European Union.

Yet Ukraine’s co-hosting status remains perilous, with Michel Platini‘s May visit producing only tepid endorsement of Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv and Donetsk as Euro cities. Dnipropetrovs’k and Odessa were eliminated from consideration and Nov 30 set as UEFA’s next check on Ukraine’s progress on stadiums and infrastructure improvements.

Writer Yury Olesha claims to have been present at the dawn of football in Odessa early in the 20th century. But the first Ukrainian football demonstration dates to 1892 in Lviv, once part of Poland. And while Kuznetsov reconstructs the wartime Dynamo legend—preserved in statuary and in memory such that Babi Yar became known as the place “where the footballers were shot”—the story bypasses more stunning narratives of Jewish footballers who perished in what has been called the “Holocaust by bullets.”

Nadworna soccer team

Memorial list of Nadworna soccer players,
in Yiddish, in the order provided above:
Berger, Uzi
Bartfeld, Maks
Brumberger, Simeon
Diamond, Moniv
Hamburger, Yosef
Fuchs, Yehoshua
Fisher, Natan
Ratsprecher, Shaya
Rothfeld, Boniv
Rothstein, Moshe
Rothstein, Shlomo
Bitkower, Maks

Let this be among the first pleas for Euro 2012 organizers to honor the footballers of Nadworna, Ukraine, a shtetl in eastern Galicia—now part of western Ukraine—north of the Carpathian Mountains. Jews lived in Ukraine before the word “Ukraine” came into existence, notes Anna Reid. By the time of the Nazi invasion, Ukraine’s Jewish population numbered three million. Of the 5.3 million Ukrainians who died in World War II, 2.25 million were Jews.

Fr. Patrick Desbois after eight years of research estimates that 1.5 million died from Nazi bullets in mass executions, of which Babi Yar outside Kyiv is the most notorious example. He and the ecumenical association Yahad-In Unum have located more than 500 mass graves and recorded video testimony from close to 800 survivors. Some recall how the slayings became so routine that Einsatzgruppen firing squads would play a gramophone or suck on mints as the work progressed. Children played at games of “shooting Jews.”

Bella Knoll, in “Memories from Nadworna,” recalls before her emigration to Palestine in 1935 how Ukrainian anti-Semitism tainted community life between the wars. Jews, Poles and Ukrainians had separate football teams. Matches took place on Sundays on a field adjoining the River Bishchitza.

If it happened that our team won then the Ukrainians would beat us for it. On this particular Sunday I went to watch the football match and when in the end our team won—how pleased I was!

On our way home we had to cross a narrow bridge over the river. We were walking together with the Jewish team. Suddenly, there pounced upon us some Ukrainian boys; they caught one of the boys from our team and wanted to drown him in the river. As it happened this particular boy was from the Berger family. Now in this family there were more sons, brothers of the boy who had been attacked. The whole family worked as wagoners, and the boys were strong-built and brave and had strong Jewish feelings. They did not hesitate to return blow for blow when attacked by the “goyim” and they quickly rescued their brother from his attackers.

Uzi Berger—it is not known whether he is related to the Berger in Knoll’s account—numbered among the players ultimately killed by the Nazis. It is not clear from memorial records precisely how the Nadworna footballers died, whether in the 6 Oct 1941 execution of 2,500 Jews in a forest outside town or in 1942 at Belzec death camp. Nor is it known why 12 kaduregel players are set apart in an alphabetical listing of victims. Does it reflect their prominence in the community, or were they murdered as a unit? The Jewish community in Nadworna—all its institutions, civil and religious—ceased to exist, like more than 90 percent of the Jews in Galicia. “All was swept from the earth,” says Nadworna rabbi Samuel Hubner.

Certainly these were not the only soccer players to die in the Nazi death factory. For starters, Andy Dougan acknowledges that, before Dynamo’s Nikolai Korotkykh, Ivan Kuzmenko, Alexei Klimenko and Nikolai Trusevich died at the hands of the Gestapo and Siretz concentration camp executioners, squad player Lazar Kogen and referee Lev Chernobylsky, one of the club’s first managers, had been murdered at Babi Yar. Both were Jews. Neither is typically included in retellings of the Dynamo story.

Ha-koach Kalisz, ca. 1933
Ha-koach of Kalisz, Poland, ca. 1933. (© United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.)

Zionist-fueled sporting enthusiasm in central and eastern Europe led to the establishment of Jewish football clubs, meant to help instill zeal for a return to Palestine. At Hakoah stadium in Vienna, visiting supporters hailed the 1925 Austrian champions with shouts of “Hoppauf, Herr Jud!” On a U.S. tour that year, the team played before 45,000 at the Polo Grounds in New York. Sides named Hakoah, meaning “The Strength,” formed throughout central Europe.

Hakoah Vienna temporarily disbanded in 1938 as the result of German policies that banned Jews from municipal sports grounds. Jews had been expelled from German soccer clubs in 1933. Former national coach Otto Nerz, decrying the professionalism that Jews allegedly propagated within the Third Reich, in 1943 envisioned a “final solution” in soccer and in all other recreation: “In the end there will be left a Europe free from Jews with sports free from Jews.”

While Karel Berkhoff in an exhaustive survey of Ukrainian society under Nazi occupation includes less than one page on sport—“sports played a small role in people’s lives,” he says—he perhaps understates the capacity of FC Start to consolidate anti-Nazi sentiment. As in much of Dynamo: Defending the Honour of Kiev, Dougan’s sourcing on the Start-Flakelf match is unclear—presumably eyewitness testimony and Ukrainian- and Russian-language resources compiled by Kyiv-based journalist Vitaly Yerenkov. In reconstructing the pre-match atmosphere Dougan says that Kyivan women with twists of lace in their hair joined in Ukrainian folk songs. FC Start, he concludes, was a “walking advertisement for resistance.”

But the players had no design on making political statements, according to the last survivor from the team, Makar Goncharenko. He died in 1996. To Goncharenko, Start served as a “convenient toy” for Nazi occupiers. “In reality,” Goncharenko said in 1992, “this toy only seemed to be under control, it had its own character and its own understanding of the rules of the game. There were nine victories in nine games, they scored 56 goals and conceded only 11 and it was not a legend, it was true.”

Again, as a metaphor for Ukrainian history, these Dynamo players fit well. After Kyiv’s recapture by the Red Army in Nov 1943, Soviet tribunals regarded the Start players as collaborators for having played football against Germans. Over time, their stories were exploited to suit ideological needs. Says Yerenkov in the documentary series History of Football: The Beautiful Game:

Their tragedy was they were never allowed just to be themselves and to play the game they loved. They had to be the banners of Stalinism, they had to keep a low profile after the war and pretend that nothing happened. So all their lives they were basically tools of this big machine called history and state. Unfortunately, eventually the state did not treat them very well.

Perhaps the gravest injustice to the Kyiv players and to the millions of others murdered by totalitarian rage is that the four Start footballers stand in for the nameless victims. Their deaths, although it sounds callous, were not so extraordinary in context. “Not so very different from many other deaths,” is how Goncharenko says it.

Kuznetsov implores readers to “put aside your affairs and your amusements for a moment. Things are not going well in this world.” In other words, football might be used for good or evil, as an implement of remembering or forgetting. It would be a missed opportunity if in 2012 the Jewish heritage of Lviv and Kyiv and numerous other pockets of grassroots and professional football were not acknowledged as part of the game’s legacy to Ukraine, and part of Ukraine’s legacy to world football.

Memorializing Babi Yar has been an awkward process. That Jews died as part of the massacres was not recognized at the site until 1991. At one point, the ravine was filled in; a planned Jewish community center was scuttled, even as Jewish ritual and lifeways returned. “There is once again Jewish life in Kiev,” Erhard Roy Wiehn writes in an introduction to a book of photographs produced in Germany for the 50th anniversary of the Ukrainian shoah. Wiehn revels in the local gefilte fish and treads across the Dynamo complex, where the memorial to Korotkykh, Kuzmenko, Klimenko and Trusevich stands. For Jews, “Babi-Yar always remains present … even the weather is a reminder of it.”


Karel C. Berkhoff, “Dina Pronicheva’s Story of Surviving the Babi Yar Massacre: German, Jewish, Soviet, Russian, and Ukrainian Records,” in The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization, ed. Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 291–317; idem, Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004); Israel Carmi, ed., Nadworna: Sefer edut ve-zikaron (Tel Aviv: Landsmanshaft of Nadworna in Israel and America, 1975), translated as “Nadworna, Stanislav District: Memorial and Records (Ukraine),” project coordinator Ada Green,, 1999; Marcus Christenson, “The Real Golden Balls,” FourFourTwo, Mar 05, 48–53; Patrick Desbois, The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); Andy Dougan, Dynamo: Defending the Honour of Kiev (London: Fourth Estate, 2001); The Fatal Eleven: Footballers Playing for Their Lives, directed by Claus Bredenbrock (Dortmund, Germany: colourFIELD, 2005); Anatoly Kuznetsov, Babi Yar, trans. David Floyd (London: Sphere Books, 1972); Rudolf Oswald, “Nazi Ideology and the End of Central European Soccer Professionalism, 1938–1941,” in Emancipation through Muscles: Jews and Sports in Europe, ed. Michael Brenner and Gideon Reuveni (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 156–68; Anna Reid, Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2000); Alan Sillitoe, “Red Wine and a New Beginning,” New Statesman, 15 Nov 07; Wolodymyr Stojko and Volodymyr Serhiychuk, “John Steinbeck in Ukraine: What the Secret Soviet Archives Reveal,” The Ukrainian Quarterly 51 (spring 1995): 62–77; Tony Taylor, “The Game of Death: Playing Soccer with the Nazis,” National Centre for History Education—Commonwealth History Project,; Erhard Roy Wiehn, “Jewish Life in Kiev: Fifty Years after the Shoáh,” trans. Adwoa K. Buahene, in Jewish Life in Kiev, ed. Erhard Roy Wiehn (Konstanz, Germany: Hartung-Gorre, 1992); Jonathan Wilson, “Science and Sincerity,” chap. 13 in Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics (London: Orion, 2008), 235–52; idem, “Power to the People,” FourFourTwo, Dec 04, 78–84.

Additional reading

For more on Ukrainian football, see earlier treatments of football and Chernobyl and the diaspora Ukraine United of Toronto. On globalization in women’s soccer in Ukraine, see contributor Tim Grainey‘s article on FC Naftokhimik of Kalush (10 Jul 09).

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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