Zenit St. Petersburg, founded in 1925, has evolved over time to become not only the premier football club St. Petersburg, but also a significant cultural institution. This importance stems from the fact that Zenit is the only major professional sports team in a city of 5 million inhabitants. To put this into perspective, Chicago, a city of under 3 million people, is home to 5 major professional sports team. This monopoly on sporting support can be seen in a multitude of ways, most noticeably through the sea of laser blue and white jerseys that flood the city streets. It is no coincidence that when Zenit played in Manchester, the British Consulate General in St. Petersburg prepared to process up to 12,000 visa applications. By contrast, the Consulate generally processes only about 22,000 of these applications per year (“St. Petersburg Times” 1). The foundation of Zenit’s cultural legitimacy comes through its mass popularity. It is no hyperbole when Zenit’s website states that “Zenit long ago became one of St. Petersburg’s key brands, alongside the Hermitage Museum, the Mariinsky Theater, and the fountains of Peterhof” (“What role does Zenit play in the life of the city?”). To most inhabitants, the culture of Zenit is the culture of the masses of Petersburg. Zenit is one of the few cultural landmarks not tied to the grand façade of Petersburg. It is a reminder that Petersburg is not just the phantasmagorical creation of Peter the Great, but also a real city that is home to 5 million people. The position of Zenit St. Petersburg serves a critical function as a microcosm of Petersburg as a whole. Zenit St. Petersburg is a club full of paradoxes, and the problems it faces are the very same ones that plague the city of St. Petersburg and Russia in general. The Zenit experience is the Petersburg experience, for better or worse.
Zenit St. Petersburg, in comparison to its rivals in Moscow, is a club without much of a storied history. Formed in 1925, Zenit were originally known as Stalinets, in honor of Stalin but also a play on Russian word for steel. After 1939, however, when the Zenit team lost in that year’s USSR Cup, Stalin ordered that they change their name since he viewed that they were no longer worthy of being named after him. Zenit’s history in the Soviet League is not an illustrious one, only winning one title, in 1984. One embarrassing episode for the club came in 1967 when the team should have been relegated, though it was decided that relegating the only team from St. Petersburg on the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution would be unwise. After the fall of the Soviet Union Zenit have since joined the Russian League where they have been relatively decent. Fortunes took a turn in 2005, when Russian oil company Gazprom took control of the club. This ownership change did not prevent some from speculating about the true reason for Gazprom’s purchase, however. As one businessman in Moscow stated, “It is public knowledge in Russia…that an executive position at Gazprom has been set aside for President Putin for when he eventually retires from political life. Putin is a native of St. Petersburg, and this is undoubtedly the reason why Gazprom have taken control of Zenit, rather than, say, any of the Moscow clubs. While, admittedly, the president is not actually that great a football fan, it’s obvious that he would still enjoy seeing his home-town side rise to the top in Russia” (Bennetts 126). The links between the Putin regime and Gazprom go much farther than just speculation, however. Like many of Russia’s largest companies which formed from Soviet state enterprises, there are suspiciously close connections between the two institutions. For example, from 2002 to 2008 the Chairman of Gazprom was none other than Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s second-in-command and President of Russia from 2008 to 2012.
The influence of Gazprom can be seen in many different aspects of Zenit St. Petersburg, most blatantly on the front of each jersey as the team’s official sponsor. On a fundamental level, the introduction of Gazprom has stacked the deck in favor of Zenit. The influx of wealth that has been introduced since Gazprom’s takeover is nothing short of astounding. The annual budget of Zenit in 2009 was $99 million, over 52% more than its nearest rival Spartak Moscow (“St. Petersburg Times”). This infusion of cash is also seen in the new signings. After the purchase by Gazprom, the club was able to secure the services of high-profile soccer stars Hulk and Axel Witsel during the summer transfer window of 2012, enjoying the increase in international prestige associated with such visible signings.
This culture of wealth has not been completely without problems, however. There has been a growing divide between the new, mostly foreign, players and the domestic players, who were around before the club was bought out by Gazprom. One incident that brought this issue to the fore was the Igor Denisov wage scandal. Denisov, an integral member of the squad before the additions of Hulk and Witsel, voiced his disapproval at these signings. He argued that Hulk and Witsel were not worth the astronomical wages being paid to them, and that “the principles of how the club is run are the most important as well as the respect of the Russian players, especially us – the St Petersburg natives who have always made up the core of a team like Zenit” (“Demoted Denisov demands wage parity at Zenit”). This rift in the locker room ended up with the club demoting Denisov to train with the youth team and eventually he was sold to Anzhi Makhachkala, another club in the Russian Premier League. While Denisov’s transfer might imply that the issue has been handled, the employment of these foreign players irks not just some Russian players, but other groups in St. Petersburg as well.
Landscrona is the largest supporters’ club for Zenit St. Petersburg. After the signings of Hulk and Witsel, however, the group released a manifesto that demanded the club field an all-white, heterosexual team. Not coincidental here is that both Hulk and Witsel are black players, with the former from Brazil and the latter from Belgium. Later in the manifesto Landscrona stated that “dark-skinned players are all but forced down Zenit’s throat now, which only brings out a negative reaction”. On the topic of homosexuals, the declaration stated that gay players were “unworthy of our great city” (“St. Petersburg Times”). While racism and homophobia are still tacitly accepted in Russian general culture, the problem is even more acute in St. Petersburg, where even former Zenit coach Dick Advocaat said it would be impossible to sign a black player for the club. The club’s response to Landscrona stressed that the “team’s policy is aimed at development and integration into the world soccer community, and holds no archaic views” (“St. Petersburg Times”). While this may in fact be the case, it is very interesting that Hulk and Witsel were the first black players to ever sign for Zenit, making them the last team in the Russian Premier League to have at least one black player. The power of this socially engrained racism is so strong that the fans in Landscrona do not even believe themselves to be racist and that “the absence of black Zenit players is just an important tradition that underlines the team’s identity and nothing more” (“St. Petersburg Times”). The action of Landscrona just highlights the paradoxical structure of Russian society as it dives into the 21st century. Russia is hosting the 2018 World Cup, the largest sporting event in the world, but it is still a place where fans at a sporting event can throw bananas at black players with little fear of repercussions. While the standard line in Russia is that racism is not tolerated, the actions of Russian clubs, particularly Zenit, do little to discourage racist behavior. In this way, the actions of the clubs mirror the reality of racial relations in Russia at the present. As recently as 2006 a survey done by Alexander Brod, director of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, showed that over 50% of Russians exhibited racist or xenophobic tendencies (Gedeyeva). It is in this culture of casual racism in which Zenit operates, allowing for the stadium experience to be tainted by the poison of racism.
Another of the issues that plagues the stadium experience is that of hooliganism and violence at, and after, Zenit games. While it is a perfectly acceptable cultural reaction to get emotional or riled up by the events of a game, Zenit fans often take this reaction way past the point of acceptable behavior and into hooliganism. This trend of hooliganism is one that plagues all of Russian soccer, not just Zenit fans. When comparing Russian hooliganism to traditional English hooliganism, one anonymous fan said, “Basically, in recent years, British fans have just shouted a lot and chucked bottles. I was at the 2006 World Cup and saw how they behaved. They’d find a camera, chant, wave their fists and run off. Ridiculous. In Russia, there is nothing of the sort. When two groups of fans meet, they get right down to business, and fight until the opposing fans are either on the floor, or run away. It’s the same all over Eastern Europe right now. We respect the English tradition of hooliganism, but we no longer fear them. They are weak, right now, compared to Russia, Poland, Serbia and so on” (Bennetts 141). These words are not an exaggeration, as evidenced by the actions of Zenit supporters over the past few years. For example, after a 2009 game between Zenit and Spartak Moscow over 500 Zenit fans were detained by police out of the 8000 visiting Zenit fans who attended the match. Most were detained for starting fights, breaking chairs, and throwing smoke bombs or fireworks (Titova). Another time Zenit had to forfeit a game against Dinamo Moscow, when a Zenit fan threw a firecracker at Dinamo goalkeeper Anton Shunin and injured him, prompting the referee to call the game (“St. Petersburg Times”). Just as with racism, a casual acceptance of hooliganism plagues the Russian soccer landscape, and Russian society. This acceptance of hooliganism can also be seen in the fact that Zenit protested the forfeit loss, even though one of its fans injured an opposing player. Incidents like these place a black mark on the spectator experience of a Russian soccer game, and challenge Russia and St. Petersburg as they prepare for the 2018 World Cup. The World Cup is a pivotal moment for Russia, not only because it puts the international spotlight on the nation, but because it creates the need for new Russian infrastructure to support the event, mainly in the creation of new stadiums.
Throughout its history, Zenit has played in a variety of stadiums, which have illustrated the shifting cultural landscapes that both the team, and sport in general, have occupied in Russian and Soviet life. The first, and current, stadium used by Zenit is the Petrovsky Stadium, which was built in 1925, around the same time as the formation of Zenit. This stadium was built right before the heyday of Soviet physical culture, which helps to explain why it is relatively small and only has seating for 21 thousand spectators. It was during this period that there raged a debate about the place of sport and physical culture in the Soviet Communist experiment. Initially, the idea of competitive sports in the Soviet Union was one that was met with skepticism. One side of the debate focused on how sports were, at least initially, seen as a bourgeois pursuit that put itself at odds with the proletarian aspirations of the USSR. Eventually, however, the supporters of organized sports won out, arguing that organized sports in the USSR was different than sports in capitalist countries, since sports in the USSR strove to embody the ideals of socialism. From this, the idea of a physical culture (fizkul’tura), of a disciplined and fit socialist body housing an agile socialist mind, became a strong social current in the Stalin era. “In 1931, Soviet leaders announced an annual Physical Culture Day which was to become the apotheosis of Stalinist body culture. Such festivities were as much political theatre with sport as theme as they were a means of advertising Soviet sporting achievement” (Riordan 90). The idea of the body culture went much further beyond just the striving of the people; it became a tool of propaganda to meld human health with the attainment of socialist ideals. This idea was helped with the aid of posters and photographs portraying the quintessential Soviet citizens, both fit and supporting Soviet ideals and the Soviet work ethic. The logic behind such a concept was that increased physical health would also lead to increased mental and emotional health in pursuit of Soviet ideals in other facets of life.
It was in this context of hyper-physical culture in which the next of Zenit’s stadiums was built. Kirov Stadium initially started construction in 1932, but was only completed in 1950, due to World War II and construction delays. Kirov Stadium would remain Zenit’s home from its opening to 1989. This stadium was immense, packing in over 100,000 people, a shining testament to Soviet power, ingenuity and strength. Just as the propaganda in Soviet physical culture highlighted the ideological vigor and natural superiority of the Soviet citizens, massive stadiums, such as Kirov, served as a symbol of the preeminence of the Soviet political system and communist ideals. The idea of the super-stadium as a grand display of political might was part of Soviet interest in architectural ‘gigantism’ as a way of conveying socialist superiority. Another immense stadium built during this time was the Bagirov Stadium in Baku, which held over 80 thousand spectators. There were even plans to build the Stalin Izmailovsky Stadium in Moscow, which would have held 350,000 spectators and would have served as one of the landmark architectural sites in the world, further bolstering the political legitimacy of the Soviet system (O’Mahoney). This proposed stadium remained just a proposal, however, with the plans falling through and the stadium never being built.
Kirov Stadium was demolished in 2006 in order to make way for a new stadium for Zenit, Gazprom Arena. The design of the stadium, nicknamed the Spaceship, helps to highlight the growing Russian wealth in the 21st century and its changing perception in the international community. The main features of this arena are its sliding roof, a pitch that can be slid to outside the stadium and a system of heating to keep snow off the roofs, which allows for games to be played in most any conditions. Just as Kirov stadium served as a representation of the awe of the Soviet Union, the new Gazprom Arena represents the shifting cultural landscape in Russia. The stadium sports a sleek design; though the ultimate effect of the arena is to create a subdued atmosphere. It is almost as if the stadium exists there solely because it was meant to exist there, a paradigm of Russia’s return to prominence it deserves in the international system after the fall of the USSR and the chaos of the 90s. The choice of the Spaceship becomes even more interesting when compared to the other possible designs for the stadium. Many of the other plans for the stadium wished to emphasize different historical aspects of St. Petersburg or Russia in general (“Stadium designs for the new football stadium”). One of the proposals called for “recreating the idea of the former Kirov Stadium where Zenit played, with cascades of stairs, fountains and columns in Art Deco style on top of a hill”. Another of the proposals called for a multi-colored stadium, finding inspiration in the vibrant onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Church on Spilled Blood. Yet another of the potential designs called for the arena to have a golden dome, reminiscent to the design for the second stage of the Mariinsky Theater. It is very interesting to note that even though Gazprom was one of the main funders of this new stadium, the actual decision for which stadium to build was made by City Hall. By choosing the Spaceship design, City Hall showed a steadfast maintenance to Zenit’s cultural appeal as distinct from both the relics of the Soviet Era, and Petersburg’s classical, tsarist past. Zenit’s cultural cache in Petersburg society comes from the fact that it is one of the only cultural institutions in Petersburg specifically formulated solely for the residents of the city on the Neva. The implicit paradox of this situation, however, is that the current driving force behind this institution for the people is Gazprom, a prominent symbol of Russian oligarchic culture and elitism.
When the construction of Gazprom Arena was announced in the summer of 2006, it was billed as a progressive and functional development that would be finished by 2009 and cost only $225 million. Gazprom chairman Alexei Miller even went on record saying that the arena, “will be ready for the beginning of the 2009 football season” (Dranitsyna). It is now 2013 and the stadium has yet to be completed, with no specific date slated for its completion, but many believe it to be around 2015. The cost of the arena has also increased substantially, with the original estimations of $225 million growing to a figure of over a billion dollars. When the stadium was initially announced, City Hall said it would finance the project from the city’s coffers, as a show of mutual cooperation since Gazprom Neft had recently just registered as a taxpayer in St. Petersburg. For this purpose it earmarked around $283 million for the project. Now as the costs have risen, however, the city expects Gazprom to pay the difference between the original and updated cost of the stadium. While this may seem like a victory for City Hall initially, Gazprom’s main shareholder is the Russian state. And as one wry observer pointed out, “the main difference between private and state money is that no manager will be killed or even fired for inefficient use of the latter. And the modern stadium is a pathway to glory not profit” (Scherbakova).
In conclusion, Zenit St. Petersburg has established itself as not just the primary sports team in one of Europe’s largest cities, but also as a significant cultural institute. The club is a paradigm of St. Petersburg as a whole, full of paradoxes, such as the future promise versus the present reality. Or the contradiction that the team is run by oligarchs, but is primarily enjoyed by the people. The inherent problem when trying to create a cohesive narrative about Zenit is that the realities of the situation never arrange themselves succinctly into a clear story. Zenit serves as a microcosm for Petersburg as a whole, since the intricacies of Zenit clearly mirror larger tendencies of Petersburg culture. It is not just too simple to write off Zenit as just a sports team and disregard its broader impact on society, but also naïve. Zenit is an interesting representation of Petersburg, since the club is almost as complicated and paradoxical as the city itself.