The Soviet Sports Machine

Hannah Markisohn

For much of the twentieth century, international sports provided a way for countries to compete internationally without going to war. Instead, they sought to exert their superiority over others in very-conspicuous sports fora. Athletes became superstars, and their dominance and successes were attributed to their country. In many nations, these wins were interpreted as products of their ideology, and for the Soviet Union, these sports victories represented triumphs of socialism over capitalism, as a way for the U.S.S.R. to validate its socialist way of life. The Soviet Union placed a large emphasis on sport as a way not only to keep its citizens healthy and prepared for military ventures, but as a way to show the ultimate success of its socialist regime. Sports became a vehicle through which members of society were enriched and the individual, in turn, was able to enrich society. (1)

Soviet Sports Schools

Sports schools began to emerge almost immediately after the fall of the tsarist system. They were created by the new socialist regime with the dual intent to keep the Soviet population healthy, especially with regard to the lower classes, and as a way to produce successful athletes. At first, Soviet leaders associated international competition with capitalism and thus refused to participate in international sports. The government needed a cheap and effective way to improve the basic health of its impoverished citizens, however, and Soviet leaders eventually found that sports competitions offered a solution to this social problem. Thus the Soviet interest in sport reflected the high importance that the government placed on "the health of the people and for the physical education of its young citizens." (2) As time went on, many of the people who had lived in abject poverty under the tsarist system benefitted from the health and hygiene rewards that the new Soviet sports movement offered.

The first of the sports schools opened in the 1930s in major cities such as Moscow and Leningrad. The construction of these sports schools helped to re-establish a close link between sports, the military, and the government. (3) This was done through the set-up of a government committee called the U.S.S.R. Sports Committee which helped to organize elements within the sports movement such as: "the individual sports federations, the various sports societies, sports schools, coaching, research, competition, medicine, etc." (4) These various elements were seen in sport before the Soviet Union took power; however the emphasis on these elements from the government was a new concept. This Committee held much of the power in regard to sport; in particular, the Sports Committee is given credit for the Soviet reentrance into the Olympics.

In 1930, "Stalin signed the decree organizing physical education throughout all Soviet Russia. Private sporting clubs and organizations were abolished and athletes of every kind were placed in the hands of the state." (5) With this enactment, the first sports schools for children, controlled by the state, appeared in the Soviet Union in 1936. (6) This decree from Stalin was designed to indoctrinate young people within the Soviet Union in order to further socialist ideology and stamp out the old tsarist way of thinking in the younger generations. (7) Because of this, sports education formally began in the U.S.S.R. in the first grade (in the ten-year school system), with boys and girls each receiving a minimum of two hours of physical education per week in addition to other organized sports in which the children might have participated. (8) In this way, sports become integrated into people's lives from a very young age, which made the mentality that sports talent must be grown from an early age all the more prominent in later generations. (9) Thus, committees such as the U.S.S.R. Sports Committee were set up with their sole focus on sport. This committee made it "no secret that their ultimate aim is to produce Olympic Winners. It is also openly acknowledged that the Soviet leadership regard success in the Olympics as an indicator of a nation's health and power." (10) With this thinking in place, Soviet leaders began to utilize the military in Red Army schools as a pool for developing talent for the national teams, in the process allowing athletes to serve their country in a multitude of ways. (11)

By the 1940s sports schools were popping up all over the country. The importance of these sports schools cannot be overstated in the eyes of the Soviet leaders. The U.S.S.R. especially valued talent in music, the arts, and sports at an early age. "Talent is nurtured within the state system, not in private clubs. It is therefore free and open to all." (12) Those who demonstrated potential would receive free developmental support. By making sport free and open to all, the Soviet leadership believed that the best athletes would emerge, and that with these best athletes the Soviet Union would soon dominate the sports world.

The Red Army schools emphasized the idea that it was due to the state that athletes, who were also soldiers, were able to reach their full potential. It was with the help of these schools, run by the Red Army, that athletes were able to achieve a high level of dominance. These schools were another way for the Soviet leadership to show their people that it was through the socialist regime that they were able to "achieve maximum efficiency in its sports challenge," which in turn allowed Soviet athletes to triumph over Western ones. (13) The Red Army Hockey Club, as it was known in the U.S. and Canada, was a key creation of the development of the sports movement, and, with its creation, "Stalin would create athletes to dominate the west." (14) The Soviet dominance would last from the 1950s through 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, but was already beginning to wane by the mid-1980s.

Russia competed in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, but due to ideological differences claimed by Russia after the Revolution of 1917, the 1912 Olympics were the last games in which Russia competed until the 1952 Helsinki Games. Thus for the better part of fifty years ideological differences kept the Soviet Union out of Olympic competition. Intentional decisions made in the 1940s and 1950s regarding sport were what eventually allowed the Soviets to become successful in many different Olympic sports. Once the Soviet government realized that it could use international competition to show and promote the validity of the Soviet system, its leaders initiated the process of once again becoming involved in international sports.

By 1945, "it was clear that the Soviet Union had decided to reverse its policy on competing in Western sports organizations" where they not only intended to compete, but to dominate. (15) Soviet leaders began to watch how international competition affected international relations. They came to the conclusion that it was another way to fight political and ideological battles, and that sports had a way to reach people in a way that politics would be unable to. Consequently, in the early 1950s this led to petitioning the International Olympic Committee to recognize the Soviet sports systems as part of the Olympic movement.

Starting in April of 1951, "Soviet leaders, recognizing the prestige value of sports success as a prop for their ailing regime, set up a Russian Olympic Committee." (16) This meant that the goal of training athletes expanded from winning international competitions, to competing for, and winning, gold medals during both the summer and winter Olympic Games. Henceforth, it was expected that these athletes would acknowledge that it was through the Soviet system that they were able to win on an international and Olympic level. Athletes would need not only to excel in the competitions, but increasingly would also have to be politically reliable.

The Emergence of Soviet Dominance in International Competition:

International Hockey

The Soviet dominance in sports throughout a wide variety of competitions, including the Olympics, over the latter half of the twentieth century is crucial to understanding the Soviet Union. Although Soviet athletes excelled in a number of sports, their dominance in hockey during the second half of the twentieth century makes hockey an ideal case study of the Soviet sports machine and the elite athletes that it produced. The emergence of sports as a vehicle for social change did not go unnoticed by the Soviet leadership who specifically began to use it for their own political agendas. (17) Increasingly, pressure was put on athletes to win each and every event in which they competed.

Victory, specifically in terms of international competition, was the ultimate goal of the Soviet leadership. "Every new sports victory is a victory for the Soviet form of society and the socialist sports system," and through these victories Soviet leaders had proof that their socialist way of life was triumphing over "the decaying culture of capitalist states." (18) Publicly at least, Soviet athletes viewed competition for their country as an honor rather than an obligation. When Soviet athletes were asked why they took up sport, in regard to competing for their country, these were the most typical replies: "to defend the colours of the USSR, to bring fame to the USSR and Soviet sports, the desire to win, a sense of one's own importance, the fact that your team, your people, and your country needs you." (19) Of course, such answers may have been the result of indoctrination and political pressure. Nevertheless, these answers show how important it was not only to the government, but also to the Soviet people, that they emerge victorious. Sport was an effective mechanism for the U.S.S.R. to promote the benefits of communism within their own country and also abroad.

This idea of victory at all costs can be clearly seen in the Soviet hockey team. Time and time again, at least until the 1980 Olympic Games, the Red Army hockey team was a well-oiled machine that seemed unbeatable. However, the Canadian form of the sport was not the first form of hockey introduced to the Russian people. Before the Revolution of 1917, the Russians had played a sort of Russian hockey that allowed them to adapt more easily to the Canadian style. This Russian style was adapted from the Nordic countries and it closely "resembled field hockey on ice." (20) Initially there were no facilities for it; thus the players had to wait for those long winter months when the conditions outside allowed them to play. It was often referred to as "winter football" and many of soccer's greatest stars played hockey in the off-season. (21) This meant that when Canadian hockey was first adopted, many of the first generations of players already knew not only how to skate, but also had a basic understanding of speed and passing--two crucial elements for Canadian hockey. This was the major factor that allowed for what many thought was a fast rise to dominance in the hockey arena in the 1950s. This rise was not expected by much of the international community because they believed that the U.S.S.R. would have a difficult time establishing a system, coaching staff, rules and regulations, and so forth. Due to this, their quick rise surprised many who were not knowledgeable about the sports schools that had been functioning in the Soviet Union since the 1930s.

The 1960 Olympics in Rome signaled an important turning point in Soviet Olympic history. Rome 1960 marked "the first time the USSR outpointed the USA in the team scoring in athletics." (22) This trend would continue at Tokyo 1964, Munich 1972, and Montreal 1976. The battle for the overall Olympic winner--in terms of a gold medal count--was an area in which the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were determined to best each other. This became increasingly important during the Cold War when the Olympics were simply another battle to win during the war. Despite the final standings in international and Olympic competition, both the Soviet and U.S. governments saw sports as another battle of the Cold War that must be won. This shows that, when ideological differences were involved in sport, every competition was a battle that must be won.

Within the Socialist bloc, countries were free to copy the Soviet Union in their approach to sports. This became increasingly important because countries such as the U.S.S.R. began to see sport as "an efficacious means of advertising the advantages of socialism and demonstrating the advantages of socialism and demonstrating the superiority of the socialist way of life." (23) Essentially, Soviet athletes were able to function as "cultural ambassadors wherever they visited, perpetuating a softer image of communism and contributing to a broader Soviet Policy of forming contacts and alliances." (24) Many countries, especially the U.S., did not want the Soviets to be shown in any way other than in a harsh light. By making the Soviets seem villainous and powerful on the Olympic playing field, beating them would become a "David versus Goliath" moment that could work to the United States' advantage. (25)

When examining the Red Army hockey machine, it is impossible to talk about Soviet hockey without mentioning Anatoli Tarasov, the father of Soviet hockey. As the "head coach of the Red Army . . . he developed the (hockey) program" that would be considered the basis for much of the hockey that we watch today. (26) It is due to Tarasov's direction and vision, that the Soviet team was able to dominate the sport of hockey. He implemented the famous style of hockey that has been associated with the Soviets since the twentieth century and started the successful hockey team almost entirely from scratch. For Tarasov, hockey was another form of art, and the creativity and originality found in art were also required in hockey. Tarasov is also credited with finding such talents as Vladislav Tretiak, Boris Mikhailov, and Vladimir Petrov.

For many people, the coach of the Red Army who is most remembered is Viktor Tikhonov, who took over when Tarasov was ousted from his role as head coach in 1972. (27) Tikhonov ruled the Red Army team like tyrant, pushing his players to the extreme in all facets of training and for many ruling their personal lives as an added bonus. This style of coaching, incompatible with the personalities of many athletes, seemed to create a constant state of tension between Tikhonov and his players, an "us versus you" mentality. (28) Initially, many thought that Tikhonov would be a natural fit, seeing as he had played hockey for the Soviet Union. Yet instead of connecting with his players, like many had thought would happen, he exercised complete control over his players and was a demanding coach on his best days. Viacheslav Fetisov, former defenseman for the U.S.S.R. and the Detroit Red Wings, asserted that it was only due to Tikhonov's connections rather than talent and qualification that he had been able to get the job as head coach of the Soviet hockey team. (29) Fetisov also claimed that the team did not respect Tikhonov; they followed his direction and decisions, but on a personal level the respect was not there because it was never earned. Despite this, athletes in the U.S.S.R., could never have achieved the level of success that they did without their highly-trained coaching staff. (30)

The hockey team quickly became a powerhouse in the 1950s, but it was not until the 1960s that the rest of the world began to take notice of what would come to be called the Soviet Sports Machine. In the 1972 Summit Series, the Soviets came extremely close to beating the Canadian team that was composed of NHL stars. Despite the fact that the Soviet Union had won every hockey Olympic and World Championship from 1963 to 1971, many observers still had doubts about the abilities of the Soviet hockey team. (31) Though the Soviets did not beat the Canadian team, this closely-contested series showed the world that they were a force to be reckoned with and not a team that should be counted out. For many countries, this served as a wake-up call for two things: first, although the Canadians played the game well, they were no longer necessarily the best; and second, the Soviet style of hockey must be studied and copied in order to compete on the same level. The Soviets by this time had become the epitome of a successful hockey team, well-conditioned and working together seamlessly to produce win after win.

The majority of Soviet hockey team members were officers in the Red Army, yet instead of doing traditional army duties, the chief "military" duty of these athletes was to play hockey for their country. (32) They were paid what was typical for most officers in the army, yet where they differed was bonuses. If the team won a gold medal or came in first in an international competition, such as a world championship, the players would receive a bonus usually equaling out to about $2500. (33) For many, these bonuses provided a big incentive because they were only living on an army salary and playing hockey eleven months out of the year, leaving little or no time to earn additional money by any other means. There were also perks associated with this type of service such as international travel and a high level of prominence. Fame came for many athletes, but those who were officers in the army received a government backing that brought on an entirely new form of recognition at home in the Soviet Union. Hockey players became superstars for the people of the Soviet Union, and when, in 1980, they fell from the pedestal upon which they had been placed, the hockey team no longer had the same allure it once held for many in the U.S.S.R.

Between 1964 and 1976 the Soviet hockey team earned the Olympic gold medal in every Olympics. They also dominated international competition. In the World Championships between 1963 and 1979 the Soviets only missed the gold in three years, and even then still managed to earn silver in two cases and bronze in the other. In the 1974 Summit Series, which many expected the Canadians to easily win, the Soviets emerged victorious. Going into the 1980s there was the expectation that the Soviet hockey team would continue its streak of dominating the competition.

1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics:

The Implications of a Silver Medal

During the winter Olympics that took place at Lake Placid in 1980, the U.S.S.R. hockey team unexpectedly lost to the U.S. team. As tensions were reaching their peak, the 1980 Olympics "had this Cold War flavor to it," claimed journalist Lawrence Martin. (34) This was true in more ways than one. The Soviets had long been recognized as the most dominant team in the hockey world, but going into the 1980 Olympics, the Soviet athletes had an extra layer of international hostility due to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that had begun in December of 1979. (35) The U.S. even led a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics that were to take place in Moscow that ended with the U.S. and many other countries not participating, making it one of the smallest turnouts (in terms of countries competing) since the 1956 Olympics. Thus the Winter Games were deemed even more crucial for the Soviets to win because the Soviets wanted to be in a winning position going into the Moscow games later in 1980. (36)

Going into the matchup against the U.S. team, the Soviets were extremely confident--just weeks before they had easily beaten the U.S. in Madison Square Garden. (37) The mentality of the Soviet people and the government going into the 1980 Winter Olympic Games was, according to journalist Lawrence Martin, "we're the best and we're the best because of the Soviet system, because of socialism that's why we're the best." (38) This made the loss for both the Soviet government and the people all the more painful to experience. The Soviet players had proven themselves time and time again over the last decade, continuously coming out victorious in both the Olympics and in other international competitions. They had been playing together for a long time; being in the Red Army program together seemed to bring a sort of closeness and understanding between the players. (39) Along those lines, with an average age of twenty-one the American team was less experienced; by comparison the Soviet players were on average, at least five years older. (40) Thus when the Soviets lost, much of the world was shocked.

The match started off fairly predictably, as the Soviets quickly took the lead in the first period. But the U.S. seemed able to keep up like no other team before them had done. When the Americans were able to gain the lead and win the game, the Soviet players looked on in awe of the Americans. To see the reaction that winning elicited from the opposing team was not something that had been experienced by Soviet players for a long time. (41) What many forget about this Olympics is that the Soviets still won the silver medal, but this was little consolation for the Soviet leaders, who viewed this as a loss in terms of the Cold War, as well as for the players, who were not accustomed to losing on a world stage. This was hardly the strong front the Soviets wished to put on for the world, that the U.S. could beat them in a sporting match.

The silver medal was seen as a humbling experience by many, and it was something with which the Soviet leadership struggled to cope. To put it succinctly, the U.S. team outplayed the Soviet team, and the loss was not something that Tikhonov or his players had ever anticipated. Their defeat showed that the Soviets could be beaten, which was not what the Soviet government wanted the world either to know or to see. The Soviet response led to a reform of some parts of the sports schools and system in order to avoid another loss like Lake Placid. The hockey program was overhauled and coaching staff changed, while the players remained employed, at least initially. This may have been an overreaction on the part of the Soviet leadership, but to the Soviets, winning at hockey was the ultimate political goal, which in turn meant that the prospect of not winning was totally unacceptable.

Despite what many in the Soviet Union would call a great and terrible loss, the hockey team quickly bounced back to victory. The Soviet hockey team continued to dominate until the late 1980s when the Soviet Union began to crumble from within. This showed that the 'problem' may not have been the system. Some of the veteran players and coaching staff were let go and younger players were brought in by Tarasov, whom he thought he could more easily control. (42) Despite this Olympic loss, the Soviet team had won the hockey gold medal six times between the 1964 and 1988 games. Yes, the loss at the height of the Cold War was not desirable, but as a whole the Soviet hockey team remained a dominant force that few were ever able to defeat, at least until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. This was simply a rare instance where the Big Red Sports machine hit a glitch, because when the Soviet sports machine got going, it was mighty hard to stop. (43)

The Decline of the Soviet Union

After the loss at the 1980 Winter Olympics, the many problems within the Soviet system gradually came into full view. By 1991, the Soviet Union had collapsed and was supplanted by Russia and a dozen or so other independent countries. Each of these countries, including Russia, had its own sports machine with varying degrees of success.

Now that the Soviet Union no longer existed, changes in sport were beginning to take place in Russia. The decline of the Soviet Union was something that loomed in the back of the minds of many. The relationship between the Soviet government and its athletes had not been as strong as many people had once believed. In particular, the government's treatment of its hockey players who wanted to gain permission to play in the National Hockey League (NHL) was strikingly bad. The Soviet leadership feared that their players might defect, showing the world that their athletes were leaving due to a failing system. Despite the truth in that fear, the government was reluctant to admit this to the world, and thus tension between Soviet leadership and athletes only continued to worsen as the Soviet Union declined in the last decades of the twentieth century. The government repeatedly took credit for their athletes' successes to show the validity of the Soviet system rather than give the credit due to the individuals who were competing, proving that the authorities continued to believe that the system was more important than the individual. Over time, this began to anger Soviet athletes who had consistently put in time and effort to be as successful as possible in their sport for their country.

Soviet hockey players now seemed to be pawns in a game of chess that was being played against the whole world. Consequently, when the Soviet players wanted to play for the NHL in the U.S. and Canada, the Soviet government opposed them at every juncture. Some hockey players did in fact hope to defect in order to escape a system to which they felt that they had been subjected for far too long. To many of the Soviet players, too, the appeal of far greater income was enticing. The Soviet players, we have noted, were paid an army salary, and since the Soviet Union economy was failing, their income was small at best. Another reason that players such as Fetisov found the NHL so appealing was the new coaching staff that they would have in the U.S. Fetisov had a profound dislike of head coach Tikhonov and little respect for the man.

Vladislav Tretiak retired at age thirty-two because he simply could not stand to play hockey any longer; he was burned out. Considering that these players were training eleven months out of the year, with the majority of that time being away from their family, it seems surprising that more players did not burn out. (44) Tretiak's retirement seems to have been the product of years of grueling practices and ill treatment of the players by Tikhonov. Many of the Soviet players could only subject themselves to this type of treatment for so long before a change became necessary. Players such as Tretiak seized the initiative and took what actions they deemed necessary for themselves. To his credit, although Tretiak did ultimately quit the Soviet hockey team, he never tried to capitalize on his hockey success by trying his luck in the U.S. Nonetheless, his retirement angered many Soviets, especially those with leadership roles within the government, who believed that these players had a responsibility to their country, which after all had made them into what they were. In gratitude, they should do whatever was required of them to promote the Soviet Union and its communist political ideology, rather than being disloyal.

By 1985, the Soviet Union was stagnating economically, no longer able to compete with the economies of Western countries; the reality that was the Iron Curtain which had existed for so long no longer existed, according to journalist Vladimir Pozner. (45) Sports, for all its importance to Soviet leadership, had never generated much revenue for the government, and "the pressing needs of perestroika further decreased what had already been limited support." (46) This led to the Soviet government's loaning players to professional teams in North America on the condition that the Soviet government receive as payment a large part of their salary. Thus the Soviet players' success was still being tied to the Soviet government, but now with the players supporting the government financially rather than the reverse. (47) Despite angering players such as Fetisov, the Soviet practice did not deter their desire to leave and play in the NHL. (48)

Nonetheless, the results were confusing at best. North American teams drafted Soviet players, and despite the Soviet government's still claiming the players who left to play in the NHL and also despite receiving a portion of their salaries, the Soviet leaders remained hesitant to allow 'their' players to leave. This paranoia was largely unjustified. Viacheslav Fetisov, for example, wanted to play for the New Jersey Devils, yet although "he wished to play in the NHL, he did not wish to defect." (49) This was the perspective of many of the players wishing to play in the NHL. While they wanted a different life for themselves, defecting was not an option.

During this time the Soviet Union had very strict rules about the individual's role in sport and society. According to Soviet leaders it was the individual's job to obey and not question the system. (50) If the individual were to disobey Soviet leadership or "if he tried to have a say, that could end his career," according to journalist Lawrence Martin. (51) It was due to this that we can see the government becoming increasingly frustrated with athletes' requests to play for Western countries. However, the Soviet leadership did understand that many things within their system were failing, and by allowing concessions to be made in certain matters, the focus could be placed on the areas where it was desperately needed--like fixing the failing economy.

Much of this desperation to keep athletes in the Soviet Union came from the situation with Alexander Mogilny, a hockey player for the Red Army team who "defected to the U.S. while playing in a tournament for the Soviet Union." (52) This created a panic within the Soviet leadership, who feared that if one person deflected that this might start a wave of other athletes wanting to follow suit. This possibility--Soviet star athletes defecting after they had brought prestige to the Soviet Union--was something that the Soviet government could ill afford. Soviet leaders needed their athletes to continue to dominate in international and Olympic competitions and show the world, especially the Western world, that they were winning due to their superior socialist political system.

Consequently, when Fetisov had officially resigned his officer's commission and had secured Tikhonov's signature on the necessary documents, there was resistance from the government when it came to actually allowing Fetisov to leave the U.S.S.R. and play in the U.S. for the NHL. Fetisov claimed that Tikhonov and the Soviet officials were dragging their feet in accepting his resignation because they did not wish to lose such a valuable player, and they especially did not wish to lose the said player to the U.S. (53) As time went on, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, the Russian government eventually allowed players to leave on the condition that they would return to Russia to play for the Russian team in international and Olympic competitions when it was required of them.

After initially dragging its feet, the Soviet government eventually granted Fetisov and eight other Soviet players permission to leave the Soviet Union and play for the National Hockey League. Fetisov had been drafted in the NHL back in 1978, but had been unable to leave the Soviet Union at that time. Fetisov reentered the NHL Entry Draft in 1989, however, and was drafted by the New Jersey Devils. (54) He remained in New Jersey until 1995, when he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings. Despite his Fetisov's obvious talent, however, he did not prosper - at least not initially - in the way that many had hoped he would do. In New Jersey, Fetisov struggled to adapt to this new, more simplistic style of playing, and it was not until he was traded to Detroit that he was able to shine. This struggle to adapt to a new mode of playing the game of hockey also proved problematic for other Soviet players when coming to the NHL. These players were trying to cope with a new language, new surroundings, and people who held different values than the ones they had lived by in the U.S.S.R. (55) By the time the Red Wings acquired Fetisov, and eventually, the top four other Russian hockey stars--the so-called "Russian Five"--they had decided to capitalize on the Soviet style of play rather than trying to force the Russians to adopt the simplistic style of the NHL. (56)

The Russian Five changed the way Soviet players were viewed in the NHL and increased their potential value to other teams. The Russian Five consisted of three forwards: Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, and Vyacheslav Kozlov; and two defensemen: Vladimir Konstantinov and Viacheslav Fetisov. (57) The five had played together in the Soviet Union, had each been coached by Tikhanov, and were all superb players. They had each contributed, at some point or another, to the success of the Red Army Hockey Club. For the first time in the NHL the Soviet style of hockey was present and extremely successful. The Red Wings decision to reunite these players allowed them to once again bring back their Soviet-style hockey roots. With the Russian Five, the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997 and remained a dominant team for close to a decade. (58) This decision also helped to foster a change of the style of hockey played within the NHL, one that would continue to evolve and dominate the NHL for years to come.

The Soviet Union officially collapsed in 1991. Gorbachev's policies were not taking the country by storm like many had hoped they would. Instead they created an environment that allowed for many more domestic issues to emerge, and Gorbachev was not able to fix them. Thus when the country decided to join the Commonwealth of Independent States, Gorbachev stepped down because he believed he was no longer fit to lead the country in the new direction it wanted to go. (59) Gorbachev's speech in December of 1991 marked the end of an ideology that had taken control of Russia for the better part of a century.

By the time that the Russian Five helped the Detroit Red Wings secure the 1997 Stanley Cup, the Soviet Union had fallen. However, the ideology that they were the best and would get that way through any means necessary did not disappear with the fall of the socialist system. The fall of the Soviet Union, of course, led to the disbanding of the Ministry of Sport. The succeeding Olympics were filled with disappointment for both the people and government as the idea of individual athletes competing to bring prestige and honor to the country seemed no longer to have a place in the Russian state. Journalist, Vladimir Pozner observed, "We kind of forgot about the patriotism." (60) Despite these ongoing problems, however, Russian leaders after the fall of the Soviet Union continued to be shaped by the U.S.S.R. because that had been the regime under which they had grown up. (61)

After the success of the Russian Five in the NHL, the Soviet style of play became common in the NHL. The Russian Five had opened the door for a merging of styles of play. They also served to open the door for many other foreign athletes from both socialist and non-socialist countries, to play in the NHL. The Soviet hockey players set a precedent for international athletes to play in the U.S. and prosper.

What Happened to the Soviet Athletes?

For many Soviet athletes retiring from their sport meant turning to coaching. This allowed them to stay within a system in which they had grown up and to which they had dedicated their lives. Some former athletes even accepted positions within the new government. It seemed as though the Soviet athletes were coming full circle within the system that had created them.

Soon after the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997, one of the members of their unit was injured in a car accident that effectively ended his hockey career. Fetisov was injured in the accident as well, but was able to recover quickly from his injuries, and, by 2002, Fetisov was working as a coach of the Russian Olympic hockey team. The Russians won a gold medal, but Fetisov soon retired as a coach when, during the same Olympics, President Vladimir Putin offered him a position as Minister of Sport. Fetisov was henceforth in charge of the Federal Agency for Sport and Physical Education, but retired in 2008 to become a member of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation. He is still heavily involved in hockey and sports in general as a chairman on the World Anti-Doping Agency's Athlete's Committee, which is ironic considering the doping scandal that has plagued Russia since the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Another prominent member of the Red Army hockey team was Vladislav Tretiak who, following his retirement in 1982, turned to coaching. He specializes in mentoring goalies, but is still involved in all aspects of coaching. In 2006, he was elected as the head of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, which helped to cement his status as one of the Russia's hockey elite. Beginning in the 1990s he started Goalie Schools in Canada and the United States that still train players to this day. While these schools have produced many tremendous goaltenders, including Martin Brodeur, they are also said to be some of the most grueling hockey schools.

Less prominent players have been involved on a smaller scale. Most are still involved in hockey through coaching, though not on the large scale seen in Fetisov or Tretiak. Despite the grueling training regime to which they were subjected during their time in the Red Army Schools, it seems as though their love of the game is still there. Their willingness to stay involved in their sport speaks to their commitment to their sport and the game. Despite the negativity that surrounds Soviet hockey, it is hard for one to claim that they players had anything but love for the game.


Sports, throughout the twentieth century, were a non-violent means of war. The Soviet Union made use of it, and in sports such as hockey became a dominant force. The Red Army hockey team's success was attributed to the Soviet Union and communism; hence when they won, it was a win for the entirety of the Soviet Union. Sports was a way of life for many in the Soviet Union; over time, many athletes became unhappy with their treatment within the system. The takeaway from this is that the intersection between sports and politics was not always good, especially inside the U.S.S.R., but the success of the Soviet Sports Machine cannot be understated.

1. James Riordan, Soviet Sport Background to the Olympics (New York: Washington Mews Books, a Division of New York University Press, 1980), 41.

2. Valerie Shteinbakh, The Soviet Contribution to the Olympics (Novosti Press Agency Publishing House, 1980), 7.

3. Ibid., 34.

4. Ibid., 42.

5. John R. Tunis, "The Dictators Discover Sport," Foreign Affairs 14, no. 4 (1936): 608.

6. Shteinbakh, The Soviet Contribution to the Olympics, 12.

7. Tunis, "The Dictators Discover Sport," 606.

8. Joseph A. Marchiony, "The Rise of the Soviet Athletes," Comparative Education Review 7, no. 1 (1963): 20.

9. Riordan, Soviet Sport Background to the Olympics, 68.

10. Ibid., 69.

11. Red Army, DVD directed by Gabe Polsky, 2015.

12. Ibid., 17.

13. Riordan, Soviet Sport Background to the Olympics, 160.

14. The term "Red Army Hockey Club" was mainly used by Western countries such as the U.S. and Canada. However, in many other places, including the Soviet Union itself, it was called the Central Sport Club of the Army or CSKA.

15. Toby C. Rider, Cold War Games: Propaganda, the Olympics, and U.S. Foreign Policy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 43.

16. Riordan, Soviet Sport Background to the Olympics, 146.

17. Ibid., 42.

18. Ibid., 15.

19. Shteinbakh, The Soviet Contribution to the Olympics, 31.

20. Robert Edelman, Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the USSR (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 32.

21. Ibid., 74.

22. Shteinbakh, The Soviet Contribution to the Olympics, 58.

23. Ibid., 153.

24. Rider, Cold War Games: Propaganda, the Olympics, and U.S. Foreign Policy, 83.

25. This idea of sport being used a part of the socialist agenda was nothing new; however, the success of the sports machine was the vehicle for socialist ideology to spread itself throughout Western culture. With the overall success of Soviet countries, as a whole, in the Olympics, countries such as the U.S. began to worry about the widespread implications this success would have in their own nations. Many of the top teams in the 1980s were from socialist countries which only served to help the Soviets and their socialist agenda. To the Soviets and other socialist countries, this only served to prove the superiority of socialism.

26. Red Army, DVD directed by Gabe Polsky.

27. Of Miracles and Men, directed by Jonathan Hock, 2015, ESPN 30 for 30 TV Documentary.

28. Ibid.

29. Red Army, DVD directed by Gabe Polsky.

30. Riordan, Soviet Sport Background to the Olympics, 91.

31. Jeff Merton, "The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Russian Hockey," February 14, 2002,

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34. Red Army, DVD directed by Gabe Polsky.

35. Of Miracles and Men, directed by Jonathan Hock.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid.

38. Red Army, DVD directed by Gabe Polsky.

39. Of Miracles and Men, directed by Jonathan Hock.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid.

42. Red Army, DVD directed by Gabe Polsky.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid.

46. Robert Edelman, Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the USSR (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 216.

47. Red Army, DVD directed by Gabe Polsky.

48. Edelman, Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the USSR, 221.

49. Ibid., 224.

50. Red Army, DVD directed by Gabe Polsky.

51. Ibid.

52. Ibid.

53. Edelman, Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the USSR, 224.

54. Red Army, DVD directed by Gabe Polsky.

55. Edelman, Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the USSR, 226.

56. Red Army, DVD directed by Gabe Polsky.

57. Ibid.

58. Ibid.

59. Mihkail Gorbachev, "The End of the Soviet Union: the text of Gorbachev's Farewell Address (1991),"

60. Red Army, DVD directed by Gabe Polsky.

61. Ibid.