The Moscow Stadium Disaster 1982

Last updated : 02 January 2009 By Retro Ranger
Like most Rangers fans of a certain age, especially those of us who were at Ibrox on that dreadful day 38 years ago, safety at football grounds is a topic which always grabs my attention so I was fascinated to tune into ESPN Classic recently and see a documentary about the 1982 disaster at the Lenin Stadium (now known as the Luzhniki) in Moscow.
The basics of the tragedy are as follows.  Spartak Moscow met Dutch club Haarlem in the first leg of a UEFA Cup tie in October 20, 1982, just 15,000 attended the match at a stadium which had a capacity of close to 100,000 and, as was commonplace at that time, the police shepherded all the spectators into one area of the ground.  Leading 1-0, Spartak added a second goal in the dying seconds of the game, there was a crush on an exit stairway and, although the Soviet authorities did their damnedest to deny it, there was a catastrophic loss of life.
As the ESPN programme revealed, what followed was a shameful cover-up, with fans being blamed for causing the tragedy when, in truth, a long history of bad feeling between the younger element among the Spartak support and the authorities came to a tragic head when the police embarked on a vengeance mission which can never be forgotten nor forgiven.
Unlike the modernized Luzhniki, the old stadium was largely uncovered so, in the depths of a Russian winter, there was a lot of snow around and, in the course of the game, some fans started throwing snowballs.  Apparently it was all seen as a bit of a laugh, only for somebody in authority to decide to teach the fans a lesson.  All but one of the exit gates were closed so all the fans were channeled in one direction for the police to root out the ring-leaders and crack a few heads in the process.
"I'd seen scuffles between police and Spartak supporters," said Henk van Gelderen who, as an official at the Dutch Embassy in Moscow, was attached to the Haarlem party.  "I think the police wanted to create a really narrow exit so they could pull out some they saw as troublemakers.  But a stampede ensued on the upstairs landing, the pressure became so intense and even some police officers, along with the fans, came crashing down the stairs.  It was a catastrophe."
After much stalling, the authorities decided to declare just 66 fatalities.  Were they worried about exceeding the death toll from the Ibrox Disaster?  Furthermore, in the face of growing demands for information, in a line possibly stolen from the our tragedy, the authorities claimed the accident occurred when, hearing the injury time goal go in, some fans decided to turn back, causing mayhem on the stairway.  For years the myth has been peddled that Rangers fans were pouring out of Ibrox after Jimmy Johnstone's last minute goal, only to turn back when Colin Stein equalized in injury time.  This drivel has been repeated so often that many now accept it as fact but the true version of events, backed up by testimony to the official inquiry, is that the game had been over for ten minutes or so before the first 999 call was received by the emergency services.  Spartak fans are equally adamant that there was no about-turn on their exit passageway.
"It is not true that supporters turned back," declared survivor Mikhail Kuzenkov.  "I'd already collapsed before the goal was scored.  About three minutes before the end we wanted to leave but, after we'd gone ten yards, the crowd had become more and more compact.  It was impossible to move your arms or legs, I finished up on the ground, with a mass of people of top of me.  Somehow my elbows were tucked into my chest and, although I passed out, I survived.  But I remember having this strange vision, in black and white, of bodies being left beside the Lenin Monument, as if I was watching it all from above." 
"In the panic, people were jostling each other and somebody fell," another survivor, Aleksej Kosygin, pointed out.  "Some tried to climb a fence, the banister snapped and they plunged on to the concrete below.  But with just one small exit gate open, there was nowhere to go.  All around people were pressing against me, I was about to pass out, there were already some on the ground and I stepped on someone.  He was a goner but I couldn't help it, I couldn't put my feet down anywhere else.  I just couldn't move.  Then suddenly the crush seemed to lift me up, I could get some air and I began to breathe again."
Unaware of any incident, families throughout Moscow waited for their sons to come home but KGB Major Yuri Novostruyev, whose son Misha was one of those who had not returned, was quickly able to establish that something out of the ordinary had occurred.
"I spoke to some colleagues and they told me there had been a tragedy," he said.  "I'd hoped Misha was just injured but my sister, a doctor, confirmed he was dead.  Having been identified, Misha was in the official mortuary where I believe there were 66 bodies.  But I know of at least one other casualty who died later and there were others in different mortuaries."
But still the city at large was unaware of the stadium disaster.  Alla Kostyleva, mother of teenage victim Lyosha, showed a newspaper cutting from the following day and it was brief in the extreme.  'As spectators made their way out of a football match at the Lenin Stadium, an accident took place as a result of non-compliance with safety regulations.  There were casualties.  An inquiry will be held.'
Rumours, however, had began to spread and slowly but surely the authorities were forced to relent and acknowledge that there had been an event of some gravity.  Major Novostuyev, while looking into the circumstances of the death of his son, was certainly aware of a number of different versions of events in circulation.
"The main story was that a stand had collapsed so I went to the stadium to check it out," he said.  "That story was obviously untrue but I found the damaged exit stairway, with only one gate open, so I believe that too many fans were pushed down one stairway and, for whatever reason, somebody fell.  After that, it would have been chaotic."
The actual death toll will probably never be known.  As a very popular club, Spartak had many supporters outwith the city, yet all the named dead were from Moscow.  Apparently, those from elsewhere had a falsified time, place and cause of death entered on their death certificates.  And Mikhail Kuzenkov confirmed that, in his hospital ward with eleven other casualties, ten were from outside Moscow.
"All the official documents from the ambulances, the militia and the hospitals have been destroyed," explained journalist Sergei Toporov of Soviet Sport.  "The official death toll stands at 67 but I think 350 is a more plausible figure."
With the break up of the Soviet Union, more information has got into the public domain and there is widespread acknowledgement that the official figure only scratched on the surface of the truth.  However, Yuri Novostruyev cannot accept Soviet Sport's tally.
"They would have had to keep more than 200 deaths under wraps," he maintained.  "It's impossible, even under the regime at that time.  In theory, I suppose they can cover up anything, persuade people to have funerals in secret, but it's just not feasible.  I don't think we'll ever know the true number."
Police monitored every funeral to make sure there were no overt displays of defiance and it is known that all the graves were kept under observation for years afterwards to guard against any further dissent.  Strangely, despite the number of casualties, only the gravestone of Lyosha Kostyleva makes any reference to the stadium disaster.
The official investigation into the disaster was undoubtedly a state-sponsored sham.  A pre-determined scenario had been established, with the fans being blamed, there was to be no deviation from the party line and, even all these years later, there are those who were on duty on that fateful day who refuse to accept any responsibility for the tragedy.
"The Spartak fans were not well behaved," Militia General Nikolai Merikov declared repetitively.  "We drummed up some troops to look after things like spectators being badly behaved, drunk or trying to slip in without paying.  The people were freezing cold, they were running to keep warm, a drunken man fell and the others tripped over him.  It just became a huge barrier of human bodies."
"They didn't want to hear what happened," countered Mikhail Kuzenkov.  "They said it was all the fault of the fanatic Spartak following but we weren't interested in drinking or rioting.  We were all tested for alcohol that night and it was expressly forbidden for us or our parents to talk about it.  They interrupted my testimony and told me my story wasn't consistent with the official version.  They wouldn't let me finish."
The Soviet system demanded that a scapegoat be found and they found one in stadium manager Yuri Panchikhin.  When interviewed by the authorities, he admitted to feelings of guilt, this was interpreted as a confession and he was sentenced to three years 'corrective labour', although he was released after serving 18 months.  The programme ended poignantly with the stadium manager and his wife meeting the parents of Misha Novostruyev and the former KGB man quickly confirmed that Panchikhin had been coerced into pleading guilty to a raft of breaches of crowd control legislation.
A combination of circumstances caused the Ibrox Disaster of 1971 and, if blame was to be attached to any individuals, they could be guilty of little more than ignorance, although there had been a few warning signs at previous big games.  On the other hand, the Moscow tragedy was due entirely to excessive police action, aggravated by the sinister conspiracy to hush up the entire episode.  Spartak fans are delighted that the event has now been marked by the erection of a monument just outside the stadium and last year they welcomed Haarlem back to play a commemorative match against the Spartak old boys on the 25th anniversary of the disaster.
But there remains great resentment that the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth will probably never be known.