10th September 2020
In 1980, I was one of a party of students on a “cultural exchange” to the Soviet Union organised by the National Union of Students. It was actually my second trip. Two years earlier, I had visited Minsk, Smolensk and Moscow. This time, the itinerary comprised Moscow, Riga and Leningrad (which is now St Petersburg once again, of course).
On neither occasion was there any need for me to have any particular left-wing sympathies – or, indeed, any political interests at all – in order to be selected for the respective tour parties. I simply responded to the advertisements in a student newspaper and, a few weeks later, joined the companies of 15 or so others who were curious about what they might find – or, more accurately, be shown – behind the Iron Curtain.
In An Ordinary Spectator, I reported on how, during the first visit, we had found ourselves in a cavernous and largely empty sports hall in Minsk watching some of the group-stage matches in the 1978 Women’s World Volleyball Championships: Belgium vs Tunisia, Mexico vs Holland and Yugoslavia vs Italy. It had been our collective decision, part of the way through the second game, that we were ersatz Dutchmen and that we would suddenly start to cheer wildly whenever Holland won a point. I’m sure that this was instrumental in enabling our new-found heroines to level the score at two sets all, though it wasn’t sufficient to take them to victory.
In this blog, I wish to recall something from my return visit to Moscow in 1980. My diary of the trip for Wednesday 10th September 1980 – 40 years ago to the day – records the following entry for when I had some spare time to myself one late afternoon:
“… to the large beriozka… and then, most enjoyably, a quick walk down to the Lenin Stadium, which I entered and in which I sat for about quarter of an hour – the tartan track, the somewhat spartan seating, no covering, the posher orange and red-backed seats on the far side, the flag poles, the bowl for the Olympic torch, the green football pitch in the centre of the stadium, the televisual screens at each end. And, especially beautifully, the sun going down at the point directly behind one of the large square blocks of floodlights. A splendid little bonus to the trip. For some reason I felt quite exalted as I walked past the large statue of Lenin down the main boulevard away from the stadium”.
It was exactly four decades ago and I can remember it very clearly. What surprised me at the time – and continues to do so in retrospect – is that I was allowed to enter the stadium and take my seat in the stand without any hindrance. I don’t doubt that I was being observed by someone, from somewhere, but there was no hint of an official coming to tell me to vacate the premises. (I enjoyed exactly the same type of unencumbered access to the Melbourne Cricket Ground – which had been the main venue for the 1956 Summer Olympics – when I visited that city in 1987).
As I sat in the Lenin Stadium, I was aware that, only a few weeks earlier, it had been the venue of some dramatic athletics events which had brought gold medals for Allan Wells (100 metres), Steve Ovett (800 metres), Sebastian Coe (1,500 metres) and Daley Thompson (decathlon). Elsewhere, there had been Olympic success for Duncan Goodhew in the swimming pool.
In some respects, it was strange that there had been any British athletes there at all. In the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, the USA had led a boycott of the Games, which had been supported by 65 other nations, including Canada and West Germany. However, the UK was not amongst them. The Conservative Government, which had been elected with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister for the first time in 1979, supported the boycott, but left any final decision over participation to the National Olympic Committee and the individual athletes. In the event, the Games were boycotted by the British associations governing equestrianism, hockey and yachting.
In September 1980 – and for some time afterwards – the Cold War remained a central feature of global geopolitics. The old guard Soviet leadership – headed by Leonid Brezhnev – was still in place; two months later the USA would elect a new right-wing president in Ronald Reagan; the Soviet Union would lead a boycott of the Los Angeles Olympic Games by 14 Eastern Bloc countries in 1984; the fall of the Berlin Wall was nine years away…
The Lenin Stadium, which had been built in 1956, was extensively renovated in 1996 with, amongst other things, a roof being added. It had been renamed as the Luzhniki Stadium four years earlier. However, this structure was itself demolished and rebuilt in 2017, in time for Russia hosting the soccer World Cup the following year.
Today, I doubt that the casual visitor to the Grand Sports Arena of the Luzhniki Olympic Complex – to give it its full title – would be able to walk in off the street and take a seat in the stand. The security-conscious times in which we live would put paid to that. And that’s before one acknowledges being a Western visitor amid the general tension in East-West relations that never really seems to go away.
However, one cheering fact revealed in the stadium’s Wikipedia entry is that parts of the cover and the façade wall of the old structure were retained in the latest design, thus ensuring that not all of the 1980 Lenin Stadium has been lost.
For my part, I also have something from that time. The beriozka I mentioned at the beginning of my diary entry was a store in which good quality items could only be purchased with western currency. On my visit, I bought an elegant wooden letter-rack, complete with Olympic rings, which – 40 years on – retains its place in my study.