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Repression of athletes under Stalin
Repression of athletes under Stalin

During the Great Terror, hundreds of famous athletes and champions ended up in camps and were even shot. Some of them were real stars.

Operational order of the NKVD No. 00447 "On the operation to repress former kulaks, criminals and other anti-Soviet elements" was signed on July 30, 1937. It initiated the so-called Great Terror. Anyone could fall into the category of "other anti-Soviet elements" - according to the denunciation of various people, they were suspected of espionage, and even of preparing a conspiracy against Stalin.

Over a year and a half, more than a million people were arrested, about 700 thousand were shot, the rest were sent to the GULAG. Thousands of prisoners and executioners were closely associated with sports. Here are just a few of them.

1. The founder of the chess movement Vasily Russo died in the camps


Vasily Russo was a painter and sculptor. But thanks to him, the USSR became a chess power and brought up so many champions.

In 1900, young Vasily Russo came from provincial Odessa to the capital Petersburg to study at the Academy of Arts. By chance, he ended up in the Dominik restaurant, where they played chess. He himself learned to play and at first was, among other things, completely mesmerized by checkers, "this insidious, such deceptively simple and equally mysteriously complex game."

After the Civil War, Russo ended up in Moscow and in 1920-23, according to his recollections, he carried out "work on the dissemination of chess and checkers in Moscow." In 1924, the chairman of the Supreme Council of Physical Culture and Sports, Konstantin Mekhonoshin, invited Russo to take over the organization of the chess and checkers movement throughout the Soviet Union.


Enthusiast Russo not only opened numerous circles, but also organized a chess and checkers championship, the All-Union chess and checkers section, he published a magazine dedicated to these sports, wrote manuals, was a real fan of his work.

However, during the Great Terror, Mehonoshin was shot. He was one of the associates of Leon Trotsky, who was Stalin's worst enemy in the party struggle. In the late 1930s, Stalin decided to get rid of all Trotskyists.

Rousseau, Mekhonoshin's protégé and subordinate, was also arrested on an absurd occasion. The chess player was sentenced to five years in the camps. Rousseau's health deteriorated greatly from hard work in logging and a very meager diet, which deteriorated with the outbreak of World War II, and he died in 1942, shortly before the end of his term.

2. The record jumper spent 10 years in the camps


By nature, Nikolai Kovtun had excellent data - at the age of 17 he took part in his first athletics competitions, and without any preparation he jumped 1.70 m in height and more than 6 m in length.

From provincial Rostov-on-Don, where Kovtun studied at the institute and trained, he was called to Moscow. The coach admired his talent, and even rivals considered Kovtun a genius: he jumped brilliantly both in height and in length. In just three workouts, the athlete mastered pole vaulting and immediately showed excellent results.

In 1937, Nikolai Kovtun was the first Soviet high jumper to cross the 2.01 meter mark. The coach was sure that he would be able to take a new record, but in the same year Nikolai was arrested right in training.

The apartment was searched, and the wife of the "enemy of the people" with a baby was ordered to leave Moscow, and even demanded to renounce her husband, but she remained loyal to him.

Kovtun was sentenced to 10 years in camps and sent to serve his sentence in the Far North in the camps of Norilsk and Vorkuta, notorious for their terrible working conditions in extreme frosts, as well as a meager diet.

Pole vault

What was the reason for arresting the young jumper? He was unlucky with his place of birth … Kovtun was born in Chinese Harbin, a city on the border with Russia.His parents built the Sino-Eastern Railway there. After the revolution, the Soviets sold the road to the Chinese, and thousands of builders returned to their homeland. However, in 1937, all of a sudden, all "Harbinians" and their family members were recognized as spies, allegedly preparing sabotage in favor of Japan.

After ten years of camps and hunger, Kovtun was nevertheless reunited with his family in 1947. The wife of the "enemy of the people" was not hired all this time, and because of the war there was widespread hunger. However, soon Kovtun fell under a new wave of repressions, in 1948 a state decree was issued on the sending of "especially dangerous state criminals" to lifelong exile in remote parts of the country. Thus, the former prisoners, who witnessed the horrors of the Great Terror, wanted to "hide" away.

After Stalin's death, Kovtun was rehabilitated. He worked as a physical education teacher, later was in charge of the track and field arena at the Institute of Physical Education. His records, which had previously been deleted from the history of sports, were also rehabilitated.

3. Tennis player Archil Mdivani was shot


Archil Mdivani has been playing tennis since childhood. It was the sport of the elites in the 1920s, and Archil's father, Budu Mdivani, was a prominent Georgian politician and wanted to give his son all the best. When his father was appointed trade representative of the USSR in France, Archil visited him and watched European tennis, more daring than Soviet. Archil showed the tricks he saw later on the court in the USSR and collected sold-out games for his games. He moved to Leningrad, became a multiple champion and one of the best tennis players in the 1930s.

Archil Mdivani on the court

The apolitical Mdivani also suffered from its origins. His father was a Bolshevik and a high-ranking party worker who was sent to important positions abroad on more than one occasion. However, in the early 1920s, he supported Lenin, and not Stalin, on the issues of the party's national policy, and after Lenin's death, he completely opposed Stalin - on the side of Leon Trotsky. In the late 1920s, he was arrested and served three years, but later this will be remembered to him during the Great Terror.

In 1937, the tennis player's father, mother and brothers were arrested and put on the "execution lists." These were lists of especially dangerous "pests" that were signed personally by Stalin or members of the party elite. Those on these lists were to be shot without trial or investigation.

There was a legend that the insidious Stalinist colleague Lavrenty Beria decided to play a trick on the tennis player and promised to release his family from prison if he won the tournament.

Lavrenty Beria

Archil played with his last strength and won, but at the banquet after the game he realized that it was a deception and his family would not be released. He flared up and publicly declared to Beria that there could be no "enemies of the people" in his family. Beria could not forgive such insolence.

Archil was soon arrested. He was sentenced to death for his connection with the head of the counter-revolutionary Trotskyist organization Buda Mdivani (that is, for his connection with his own father), and also accused of preparing an attempt on Beria.

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