In an effort to legitimise their rule, the National Socialists decided to relax restrictions of certain cultural activities in the territories they occupied in 1942. In Paris, this meant permitting a return to the café culture – a hallmark of Parisian society. And on the Eastern Front, the Nazis decided to organise a summer Football league in Kiev.
During and after Operation Barbarossa, the Kievans put up a futile but continued resistance to the rule of the Reich. Nazi officers stationed in Kiev eventually became tired of this continued resistance and sought another tactic. It was hoped that a summer of soccer would promote the Nazi party’s style of governance and discredit the USSR’s Stalinist regime that had previously ruled Kiev. Most teams represented soldiers or servicemen from axis nations stationed in Ukraine, and one of the most unlikely teams in 1942 summer league was known as FC Start.
Officially FC Start represented “Bakery no. 3” of Kiev managed by the plump Iosif Kordik. Born in the Austro-Hungarian empire, ethnically Czech Kordik spoke fluent, accent-free German and qualified as racially pure enough to continue living as a free-citizen in Nazi-occupied Kiev – a fact that surely helped his elevation to the position as manager of the city’s largest bakery.
A capricious, egotistical man, Kordik enjoyed employing Kiev’s leading sports stars and athletes to work in his bakery. Though his decision to do so undoubtedly saved the lives his employees, comparisons between Iosif Kordik and Oscar Schindler are unwarranted. He was motivated by social climbing, not by altruism or compassion.
Thus, when the Kievan summer league was announced, by pure chance a core group of FC Dynamo Kyiv and FC Lokomotiv Kyiv players were working for the same organisation. Kordik’s bakery had amassed an incredible roster of Footballing talent, and knowing that the opportunity to play again would benefit his employees, Kordik proudly entered his own team. Though it was allegedly the only one they could find, FC Start’s deep red kit was notably similar to the red of the USSR flag.
In spite of being thoroughly malnourished, fatigued and poorly equipped, its players’ fitness and experience gave FC Start a competitive edge in the league. Kordik’s team won all nine games it contested, scoring 56 goals and conceding only 11 in the process. The team’s strongest result was a 11-0 rout of a side of Romanian troops. Kievan spectators identified with the starving, Ukrainian-speaking players – many of them they knew from their days playing for Dynamo and Lokomotiv. The fact that they routinely trounced teams of well-fed foreigners in the face of a regime that claimed racial superiority over Slavs only further elevated the team’s popularity.
With this context, FC Start’s seventh game took on an otherworldly significance. Flakelf was a team of Luftwaffe employees and associates. A straight competition against serving officers of the Nazi air force provided the ultimate opportunity for catharsis for the Kievans. True to form, FC Start won the match against Flakelf on the 6th of August 1942 5-1, but sewed the seeds for their own demise in doing so.
A day later, a revenge match between FC Start and Flakelf to be held on the 9th was announced. Flakelf reportedly brought in ringers from across the occupied territories to compete in the fixture. A Russian-speaking SS officer in full uniform greeted the Start players in their dressing room prior to kick-off and apparently implied that their cause would be better served if they performed the fascist salute ahead of kick-off. Another SS officer was drafted in as the match referee. Staatssicherheit personal filled the sheltered tribune of the Zenit Stadium while police and trained dogs flanked the open-air stands where the Kievan people watched the contest.
Against the odds and with some alleged (and understandable) trepidation, FC Start approached the match as they had done all others. The Ukrainians wons 5-3, but the result cannot be described as being in their favour. The repercussions that Kordik and his band of Dynamo and Lokomotiv Kyiv players came a little over a week later. Gestapo officers entered Kordik’s office at Bakery no. 3 and issued him temporary leave. Then, one by one, the names of Football players working below were summoned into the office where they were duly arrested.
14 players were transported to a Gestapo prison in Kiev. There, the majority of them were interrogated and tortured daily for three weeks. As FC Dynamo Kyiv had links to the NKVD Soviet central intelligence service (later known as the KGB), Nazi officials stationed in Kiev took advantage of the situation to try wrangle any useful intelligence from the Dynamo players about the NKVD, as well as punishing them for their on-pitch defiance.
Most FC Dynamo Kyiv players were nominally employees of the NKVD, competing under the Dynamo umbrella organisation but not actually performing the duties of the state security force. Nikolai Korotkykh was an exception. The nature of the former policeman’s work became known to the Nazis interrogating him. Korotkykh was beaten to death in custody. The remainder of the FC Start players were sent to the Seritz labour camp north of Kiev where they were starved and forcibly worked in retched, inhuman conditions.
The physical fitness of the FC Start players facilitated their survival in conditions that slaughtered the average Seritz inmate. The players held on for months until the advance of the Red Army that winter forced prompted Nazi officials to take action. Seritz inmates were decimated. On the 24th of February 1943, camp guards decided to arbitrarily execute their victims. Alexei Klimenko, Ivan Kuzmenko and Nikolai Trusevich, three more FC Start and FC Dynamo Kyiv players, also lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis.
A rumour exists of a modern tradition that FC Dynamo Kyiv players undertake on their wedding day. During the reception, the bride and groom take a moment to visit the Valeriy Lobanovskyi Dynamo Stadium on the hillside overlooking the Dnieper River. There, the bride will place her bouquet at the feet of four giant men cast into granite. Both will make a short prayer of thanks before returning to their festivities.
I hope this rumour is true. Regardless, the courage, resistance and ultimate sacrifice of these FC Dynamo Kyiv players has been immortalised in the statue of Alexei Klimenko, Nikolai Korotkykh, Ivan Kuzmenko and Nikolai Trusevich who lost their lives carrying the spirit and hopes of the Kievan people under Nazi occupation.
This blog post was inspired by Andy Dougan’s “Dynamo – Defending The Honour Of Kiev” published by Fourth Estate. Much information about the internal workings of the USSR must by its very nature be subject to a degree of skepticism. Because of this, much legend and folklore exists around the Kiev Death Match, and many commonly recalled details are probably inaccurate. However, the extent of Dougan’s research into the topic makes his work one of the best records of the event that can be readily found on the market.