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. (fcdynamo.kiev.ua)

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.”

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