Prison football: Inside the World Cup 2018 city whose sporting history is intrinsically linked to the Gulag

By any count, Mordovia is a strange choice to host an international football tournament. And work on the Mordovia Arena, in the region’s capital Saransk, is behind schedule. Metal on metal reverberates around the stadium, as an army of 1,500 migrant workers works away in the biting cold – with construction accelerating to meet the deadline of next June’s World Cup.

Saransk, population 330,000, is a not altogether unpleasant provincial backwater. But it hardly has a football team to speak of, and the legacy effect will be questionable. Until this year, FC Mordovia – who will inherit the stadium – played in the third tier of Russian football, with average attendances hovering just above 2,000. There were more obvious picks. Krasnodar already has its own stadium and a rich fanbase. Yaroslavl also has a new stadium and is on the touristic Golden ring of ancient Russian cities.

But that does not mean expense has been spared. The imported Canadian turf is being helped through the chill by 37km of undersoil heating and rows of overground heaters. Cranes hover above rows of acid orange seats – it’s a colour that is meant to signify sunshine, but that seems a long way away on this dark December day.

Lead engineer Marat Bikinin tells The Independent he expects an end date of April, but he admits the project has not gone quite as he hoped. “It hasn’t been without the human factor,” he says.

The venue, located 300 miles to the south-east of Moscow, is due to host four group stage fixtures in the championship, including the decidedly exotic Panama vs Tunisia game. A vast infrastructure has been planned around it  – some permanent, like a new university and theatre, most temporary. Once the tournament is over, the upper section will be dismantled and stadium capacity reduced by 14,000 to 30,000. Many of the large infrastructure projects, including a new airport terminal, will be packed away once the party departs in July.

Searching for Mordovia’s past footballing prowess is generally an exercise in futility. But one account from the 1960s, describing the wonders of competitive football in the region, gives pause.

“Whistles, cries, shrieks, I have never encountered such passion from fans as I did in Mordovia,” the memoir reads. “All week was a build-up to the next match. The best games were always when the national teams played, which they always did in their beautiful national kit.”

The writer, Yuri Grimm, was no sports journalist. A photographer by profession, he had found himself in Mordovia as an inmate of its infamous Gulag network. He was sent there in 1963 as punishment for distributing leaflets criticising the politics of then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

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According to Grimm’s memoir, the Gulag prison officers encouraged competitive sports as a way to keep their prisoners off drink and politics. Apart from football, there were basketball leagues, and athletics. The football teams had their own dedicated supporters, and were often organised on national or regional lines. “Each set of fans prayed that their star players would not be in solitary confinement once matchday came around,” Grimm notes.

For Soviet Russia’s dissident movement, Mordovia was instantly associated with the Gulag. The first camps appeared there as early as the 1930s; for a while after 1960 it the only region housing “dangerous” political enemies of the Soviet state.

“People remember the Mordovian Gulags as places where famous dissidents went and died,” says Sergei Bondarenko, a researcher at the civil rights organisation Memorial.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Mordovia’s Gulags reverted to normal prison camps, but the network has survived intact. Today, two dozen of the camps remain open; they are dotted out in the wilderness in a 40-mile line either side of a minor road. Many of their facilities have been left as they were during Soviet times, some scarcely upgraded since the 1950s.

The small town of Yavas, some 120 miles west of Saransk, remains the administrative centre of the prison network. The main drag here is still named after the infamous founder of the Soviet secret police, Felix Dzerzhinsky, and a huge statue to him remains untouched. No one finds either fact the least bit remarkable.

There is an eerie silence about the place, broken only by the sound of guard dogs barking. Metal fences line both sides of the road, joined only by metal-plated bridges that take inmates from sleeping quarters to work areas the other side. One hangar-like structure has the word “canteen” written on it. A short walk away from the camps are unattractive grey, two-storey buildings – these are the houses of prisoner guard families.

According to rights activist Sergei Mariyn, who was until recently a member of a volunteer public oversight committee inspecting the prisons, about 14,000 prisoners remain in the camps. The former President Dmitry Medvedev once promised to close Russia’s entire system prison colonies by 2020, but judging by the evidence in Yavas, that doesn’t look at all likely. One of the camps specialises in former security service officers; another in foreign prisoners. Not all the facilities are high security. Most are known for their poor conditions and brutality.

While the region no longer specialises in political prisoners, a bit further along the road is IK-14 – the one-time home of one of modern Russia’s most iconic political prisoners, Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.

In September 2013, Tolokonnikova propelled the prison colony to international attention by declaring a hunger strike in protest at its harsh conditions. Writing in a widely published letter, she claimed the prison’s staff used violence, sleep and food deprivation and torture as a way of controlling the inmates. What was more, they did everything to keep things secret, she said, intimidating the helpless prisoners. Tolokonnikova was eventually transferred to another facility, before her release.

Prison authorities dismissed Tolokonnikova’s accusations that the jail was run in violation of Russian law and human rights standards. Investigators were sent to look into the allegations and the letter sparked debate both inside and outside Russia.

According to activist Mariyn, who saw three of his sons imprisoned – he claims they were victims of paid justice – the picture Tolokonnikova painted was unexceptional, despite “some recent progress”. The methods of working with prisoners remained something “like fascist Germany”, he claims – saying he has several victories in the European Court to prove it. 

Inmates were scared of complaining for fear of punishment, he says, claiming: “There are no out-and-out sadists working among the staff, but good people are driven to doing bad things because of a lack of control.”

Mariyn says he is unconcerned by Mordovia hosting a football event, though he does wonder whether the money could be better spent. “It will be locals who pick up the maintenance bill,“ he says.

Others argue that making an international destination in the venue of one the country’s darkest chapters sends out a strange message.

“From an ethical point of view, the choice is wrong,” says Alexei Makarov, a historian at Memorial. “Mordovia should not be the venue of a tournament of joy”

In written comments to The Independent, Mordovia’s deputy head of government Alexei Merkushin rejected any suggestion that the region was unsuited to holding a major sporting event. “Mordovia has wide experience in hosting sport events and in 2016, our region was declared one of the most sporting of all Russia,” he wrote. “Saransk is a compact, well laid-out city, which will help logistics too.”

With doping allegations, hacking and Ukrainian military adventures, Russia’s World Cup has arguably become being the most politicised in history. The controversial choice of Mordovia might seem to be an unnecessary political headache. But that would be to ignore the domestic politics that underpin the selection. Mr Merkushin is himself part of an established regional political dynasty – and son of Nikolai Merkushin, long-time former head of Mordovia, and staunch supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The other candidate cities did not offer that.

A look at the results in the 2012 presidential election would appear to provide further clues.

The region was certainly not first in its appreciation of the President. That honour, as always, went to Chechnya, with 99 per cent approval. But Mordovia was not far behind — and, at 87 per cent, a full 40 percentage points more appreciative than Moscow.

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