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The mystery of why the Soviet Union’s greatest player, Eduard Streltsov, was sent to the gulag instead of to a meeting with Pelé at the 1958 World Cup.

Illustrations by Asaf Hanuka

Illustrations by Asaf Hanuka

A warm, clear morning, July 23, 1997. An old man in a slack gray suit walks through the gates of the Moscow cemetery. This is one of the mundane duties the Torpedo club has him perform, but he does not object. He knows that clearing the flowers from the grave a day after the memorial service the club holds on the anniversary of Eduard Streltsov’s death is a task his younger colleagues would regard as an honor. Streltsov, after all, was one of the legends of Torpedo, perhaps the greatest Soviet player ever.  

The old man becomes contemplative, a touch maudlin, as he always does when reflecting on those he has known. Nearing the grave, he pulls himself together, blinking away tears. As his vision clears he sees, kneeling by the headstone, a woman in a pale summer coat. Her back is to him, but he can see she is weeping. She seems to sense his presence and abruptly stands, straightens her coat, glances over her shoulder, and walks briskly away.

The old man realizes with a start that she is not some solitary mourner, not just another former Streltsov lover (and let’s be honest, there were plenty of them), but her—Mariana Lebedeva. He makes to follow her, but she has too much of a start. As she reaches the birches that flank the cemetery gate, she is gone and with her perhaps the last chance of solving Soviet football’s greatest mystery.

Near Tarasovka on the north edge of Moscow stands a dacha once owned by Eduard Karakhanov, an army officer. On the evening of May 25, 1958, he hosted a party there. One of the guests was Eduard Streltsov, who seemed poised to become one of the great stars of the world game.

A fortnight later, on the opening day of the World Cup, the USSR drew 2-2 with England. Streltsov, though, wasn’t there. The finals would be dominated by Brazil and by the emerging talents of the 17-year-old Pelé. In Russia they believe it could have been Streltsov’s tournament, but he was in jail, awaiting trial for the rape of Mariana Lebedeva.

The 1950s had been a bleak time for  Soviet football. After the Soviets lost to Yugoslavia at the 1952 Olympic Games, Stalin disbanded CDSA, the club whose players made up the bulk of the squad, “for damaging the prestige of the Soviet state.” Three players—Konstantin Krizhevsky, Anatoly Bashashkin, and Konstantin Beskov—were suspended for life. 

Stalin’s death in March 1953 eased the pressure, CDSA were reformed as CSKA, and all three players were able to resume their careers. But football in the USSR was still a precarious business. How, after all, could Soviet players perform at major tournaments knowing the potential consequences of defeat?

It was into that world that Eduard Streltsov arrived. He was charismatic, good looking, gifted, and apparently immune to such fears. In April 1954 he was selected for the first team at Torpedo Moscow—the club based on the ZIL car plant—becoming, at the age of 16 years, 8 months, and 24 days, the youngest goal scorer in the history of the Soviet league. The following season, he finished as the league’s top scorer and earned a call-up for the USSR’s friendly against Sweden in Stockholm. He scored three times in a 6-0 win, the first player to score a hat trick in his debut for the USSR. Three years later, without him, USSR lost 2-0 to Sweden in the World Cup quarterfinal.

Streltsov’s talent became obvious during the 1956 Olympics, particularly in the semifinal against Bulgaria. The Soviets’ right back Nikolai Tishehenko broke a collarbone, had the injury set in plaster, and returned to the field, but he could do little other than trot around on the right flank trying to avoid confrontation. It was still goalless at 90 minutes, but Bulgaria took the lead through Ivan Kolev early in extra time. By then, Valentin Ivanov was also hampered by injury, leaving the USSR effectively down to nine men. With eight minutes to go, though, Streltsov equalized. Four minutes later, he laid on the winner for Boris Tatushin. 

Streltsov missed the final against Yugoslavia, though, because the USSR coach Gavriil Kachalin liked his strike pairing to play together at club level. Streltsov’s teammate at Torpedo, Ivanov, was injured, so Kachalin replaced Streltsov with Nikita Simonyan. Anatoly Ilyin scored the only goal of the game, giving the USSR their first success in international football. 

Recognizing Streltsov’s contribution, Simonyan offered him his medal. Streltsov refused. “He said to me,” Simonyan recalled, “‘Nikita, I will win many other trophies.’” Streltsov did gain some reward, as every member of the squad was awarded the Merited Master of Sport degree (ZMS), the highest honor that could be bestowed on a Soviet sportsman, which guaranteed a higher wage.

A natural target for opposition defenders, Streltsov began to collect bookings as he took his retribution. Then, on April 11, 1957, in a league game between Torpedo and Spartak Minsk, provoked by a series of bad challenges, he was sent off for the first time in his career, having lunged two-footed, studs up, at Vyacheslav Artemiev. Axel Vartanyan, the great historian of Soviet football, has studied articles in newspapers and the official referees’ reports and believes Streltsov was more sinned against than sinner. “During games he was regularly kicked,” he said. “There were dirty tricks against him and he was tackled from behind, but as a rule he would not react. Sometimes he did get wound up and he did react, but he would always do it openly—walk up to his opponent and hit them, no dirty tricks.”

Despite the occasional disciplinary problem, Streltsov remained a formidable player. He married in June 1957 and celebrated by hitting 31 goals in 22 games between July 21 and October 26. The following month, though, he and Ivanov missed a train from Moscow bound for the East German city of Leipzig, where the USSR were to play a World Cup qualifying playoff against Poland. They caught up with the squad only after the railway minister ordered that the train be stopped.

That incident might have been forgotten, particularly as Streltsov scored in a 2-0 win, but then in January he was involved in a brawl with police near the Dinamo metro station. He was convicted of “minor hooliganism” and sentenced to three days in jail. The All-Union Committee of Physical Culture (VSFK) met on February 4 and, at the request of both Torpedo and the USSR national side, stripped him of his ZMS. He was also withdrawn from the USSR squad. He took his place in an initial 40-man party for the World Cup only after making a public apology.

 Preparations for Sweden began with that training camp at Tarasovka. On the final night, Streltsov, Tatushin, and another team-mate, Mikhail Ogonkov, left the camp for the fateful party at the dacha owned by Karakhonov, who had recently returned from military service in the Far East. On the way, they were introduced to two women—the 20-year-old Marina Lebedeva and her friend Tamara Timkina.

“Streltsov never turned up at the camp next morning,” Simonyan said. “There were rumors that something had gone on, then the police came. They told us what had happened. We had been in the training camp for a long time, and that morning we were going home.”

 Lebedeva sent a brief letter to the Moscow public prosecutor: “On 25 May 1958,” it read, “in a dacha next to the school in the village of Pravda, I was raped by Streltsov Eduard. I ask that he be brought to justice.” Timkina wrote a similar letter, accusing Ogonkov. Ogonkov and Tatushin were picked up later that day. By mid-afternoon all three men were being held at the Butyrka jail in Moscow. When news of the arrest broke, 100,000 workers at the ZIL factory threatened to march in protest, but their demonstration was called off when it was revealed that Streltsov had confessed.

On May 27, the VSFK imposed on Streltsov a lifetime ban from football. The same day, Timkina withdrew her accusation, and Ogonkov and Tatushin were released the following morning. On May 30, Marina Lebedeva sent another letter to the public prosecutor. “I ask that the criminal proceedings against Streltsov Eduard Anatoliyevich be stopped, because I forgive him,” she wrote. Then she had another change of heart and withdrew the second letter. A day later, the USSR’s final 21-man World Cup squad was delivered to FIFA. Ogonkov and Tatushin were not on the list; neither was Streltsov.

Streltsov’s case was brought to court, and on July 24, three days after his 21st birthday, he was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in the gulag.

Caption for Photo: May 1958: The USSR played England in a pre–World Cup friendly match in Moscow. Left to right: Igor Netto, Lev Yashin, Eduard Streltsov, Constantin Krizhevsky, Valentin Bubukin, Mikhail Ogonkov, Yuri Voinov, Yuri Falin, Anatoly Olyin, Slava Metreveli and Boris Kuznetzov. Seven days later Streltsov was in jail.

May 1958: The USSR played England in a pre–World Cup friendly match in Moscow. Left to right: Igor Netto, Lev Yashin, Eduard Streltsov, Constantin Krizhevsky, Valentin Bubukin, Mikhail Ogonkov, Yuri Voinov, Yuri Falin, Anatoly Olyin, Slava Metreveli and Boris Kuznetzov. Seven days later Streltsov was in jail.

Ever since, there have been questions about Streltsov’s guilt. His confession is not the conclusive evidence it might seem, because it became apparent that he made his statement only after being told he could go to the World Cup if he admitted his guilt. Vartanyan, the historian, believes there had been a campaign against Streltsov for over a year before the incident at Karakhanov’s dacha.

Streltsov was certainly not a model citizen. That he drank is indisputable. Ivanov, three years his senior, seems obsessed by his former teammate’s death from throat cancer in 1990, when he was only 53. “In life he was too good and kind,” he said. “It was the fans who killed him. Everybody wanted to drink with him, and he got more and more fans. He was playing for the factory team, and they would come after work and say, ‘Let’s drink.’”

He was also a womanizer. That would probably not have been a problem if not for the daughter of the Culture Minister Yekaterina Furtseva, the only woman ever to become a member of the Politburo. Svetlana Furtseva, at 16, was apparently besotted with Streltsov. Her mother, a favorite of Khrushchev, met Streltsov early in 1957 at a reception at the Kremlin to celebrate the Olympic victory. She raised the idea of marriage to her daughter, to which he replied, “I will not marry her. I already have a fiancée.” As if that weren’t humiliating enough, he was later heard to tell a friend (depending on which account you believe) either “I would never marry that monkey,” or “I would rather be hanged than marry such a girl.” From then, if the conspiracy theorists are to be believed, his card was marked.

Certainly the reaction to his sending-off in Odessa that April appears excessive. The headline in Sovetsky Sport read: “This is not a hero.” Several letters were printed, supposedly from members of the proletariat, condemning Streltsov as an example of the evils of Western imperialism. A few days after the Odessa match, Streltsov was called before the Section of Soviet Football (SFS) and his ZMS withdrawn. On April 20, though, the decision was rescinded, and Streltsov was instead banned for three games.

The SFS never warmed to him. An internal memo even criticized the timing of his wedding. “We found out before the important friendly against Romania that he had married,” it read. “This shows how weak the educational work at Torpedo is.” Communist Party archives similarly reveal distrust. Having attracted the interest of clubs in France and Sweden following tours with Torpedo, Streltsov was marked down as a possible defector.

And then there is the matter of why Karakhanov invited the players to his dacha. While it is possible that he just liked the idea of having three footballers at his party, there are those who see something more sinister in his invitation. It is suspiciously convenient, they say, that Karakhanov had returned from serving in the Far East only days earlier.

All that is circumstantial. More concrete evidence of a plot against Streltsov comes from an interview Kachalin gave to the historian Vartanyan. “When I tried to help Streltsov,” he said, “I was told by police that Khrushchev himself had been informed about the case. I then dashed to a regional Communist Party committee headquarters and asked the first secretary to suspend the case until the end of the World Cup. I was told that nothing could be done, and they pointed meaningfully upward. I understood then that it was the end. I heard that Furtseva had it in for Streltsov, but who knows exactly what happened?”

What is certain is that something did. “They went to the dacha,” Ivanov said. “It’s a dark story. Who raped whom, it’s hard to say. I think if a girl goes to the suburbs for a night … then a guy is waiting for her as it were … and she is the same … but I don’t believe it was a setup, no. Maybe it was the host of the dacha. I don’t know who raped her, but she said it was Streltsov. It’s a dark story.”

3_streltsovMore than half a century on, none of the players to whom I spoke were prepared categorically to defend their teammate. “What happened with Streltsov you cannot explain,” Simonyan said. “It is a mysterious thing. He wrote to his mother saying he was taking the blame for someone else. It was the system that punished him. I don’t know for sure if there was a rape on the part of Streltsov, but he and the girl slept together.” He shrugged. “He was young, a bachelor, unmarried … ”

Actually, Streltsov had married less than a year earlier. Perhaps he didn’t take his vows particularly seriously; perhaps Simonyan’s memory is faulty. At the end of our interview, Simonyan reached into a drawer in his desk and took out a book. He opened it, removed a photograph, and without a word, handed it to me. The print showed four images. Two were of a dark-haired young woman—Marina Lebedeva. In one, she was lying on what seemed to be a hospital bed, apparently asleep, her eyes ringed with bruises. The other two were of Streltsov. His face, captured in profile, was streaked from nose to cheekbone with three parallel scratches.

Soon after that May 1958 night, the Soviet machine swept into action against Streltsov. In June, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported an incident that had taken place on November 8 the previous year, a fortnight before Streltsov and Ivanov had missed the train to Leipzig. “He burst into a flat that was unknown to him,” the article read. “He scared those who were sleeping in it and began furiously to smash plates and glasses.”

Streltsov’s friend Galina Chupalenkova, though, gave a rather different account. She said that somebody came up to Streltsov and smacked him in the face. Streltsov gave chase and ended up running into a basement flat. Although there was a disturbance, nothing was broken, and he reached an out-of-court compensation settlement with the occupants.

Streltsov’s history was quietly erased. An official football directory from 1959 lists the five goals he scored for Torpedo in 1958 as having been “scored by other players.” His part in the 1956 Olympic squad was completely expunged. “Streltsov,” Pravda claimed, “is less than a primitive man. His incompetence in the simplest matters provoked amusement and smiles among his friends in the team. He openly thought that the city of Sochi”—a Black Sea resort where Soviet clubs often held their preseason training—“was on the Caspian Sea. He thinks that seawater is only salty because herring swim in it.” That jibe might have been more convincing if it weren’t lifted straight from a Chekhov short story.

Streltsov’s first months in the gulag at Lesnoy were tough, and he appears to have struggled with his sudden fall from grace. An 18-year-old thug nicknamed Repeinik taunted him at every opportunity. Before long, Streltsov snapped and attacked Repeinik—who, it later emerged, was an informer. The other prisoners held a meeting in the camp boiler room and decided that Streltsov had to be killed. He was badly beaten—the prison report says with “either with an iron bar or the heel of a shoe”—but survived.

After his recovery, Streltsov was moved to another camp. Gradually life became easier. “At Torpedo we never forgot about him while he was in prison,” said his teammate Viktor Shustikov. “Our coaches sometimes visited him, and once I drove his mother to see him after he had been moved to a camp at Tula. We would always tell him about Torpedo, about the team.”

Streltsov was released in 1963 after serving five years of his 12-year sentence. Prevented from returning to top-level football by the VSFK’s ban, he began playing for ZIL’s Department of Technical Supervision (OTK) in the factory league. Not surprisingly, they won all 11 of their games that season, and Streltsov began to be sneaked into important fixtures.

A petition signed by 1,000 factory workers was sent to Leonid Brezhnev, then the Secretary of the Communist Party, asking him to rescind Streltsov’s suspension. The Ideological Section of the Party Central Committee, though, opposed the move. “In contravention of the suspension,” they wrote, “the heads of the factory sports organizations have twice—in May and June 1963—let Streltsov play for Torpedo’s reserve team… and once in a friendly match in Gorki [now Nizhniy Novgorod]. Before the match in Gorki it was deliberately announced on the public address system at the stadium that Streltsov would play. When the directors of the Central Council of the Sports Societies Union tried to stop him, the majority of spectators chanted ‘Streltsov, to the field,’ until it was decided to let him play to avoid crowd trouble. This was all done to publicize Streltsov and have him readmitted into the first team. We therefore propose that the request to lift the ban on Streltsov be rejected.” Brezhnev marked the letter “Agreed.” After ousting Khrushchev in October 1964, however, he sanctioned Streltsov’s return.

“He didn’t play for a year after being in prison,” Shustikov recalled. “He worked for the factory and played for a factory team. But sometimes we would take him to away matches. The club management was concerned that the fans would boo him for what he had done, but on the contrary, I remember something that happened when we took him to a game in Kharkiv. He sat in the stand, and the public went mad insisting we should field him. After the match, to mark the occasion, they drew a circle in chalk around the chair in which he had sat.”

Ivanov similarly remembered the warmth with which Streltsov was greeted. “After he returned to Torpedo, we traveled, and in every town we met somebody who had been in prison with him,” he said. “That was another thing that killed him. They all wanted to drink with him. That is why he retired a little earlier than the rest of us.”

That first season back was spectacular. Prison hadn’t changed Streltsov. “It only made him bolder,” said Ivanov. “He still had his health, and talent is talent. He was the best player in the USSR.” Torpedo lost only two games in that 1965 season and claimed the second league title in their history.

Streltsov returned to the national team, scoring 25 goals in 38 games, and in both 1967 and 1968 he was named Soviet Player of the Year. He added a Soviet Cup winners’ medal in 1968. It might not have been the level of success of which he had boasted to Simonyan in 1956, but after losing seven years of his career it was remarkable enough.

It isn’t difficult to see why Russian football is so drawn to a talent who withstood state oppression and emerged triumphant. Certainly that is how the historian Vartanyan views him—as a glorious martyr.

The problem, of course, is that that interpretation requires him, despite the scratches, to be innocent. And only Eduard Streltsov and Marina Lebedeva will ever know the truth of that.

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