In the run up to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, photographer Sergey Novikov is determined to portray the rarely seen provincial towns of the country, from Murmansk to Vladivostok, and get to the heart of the emotional connection that its people has to football.
This time next year, the eyes of the world will be fixed on Russia, as the federation hosts the football World Cup for the very first time. It will be an extravagant spectacle, full of corporate sanctioned smiles, absolutely no corruption whatsoever and, to the casual viewer on TV, it will seem remarkably similar to the 2014 edition in Brazil and 2010 in South Africa. The Russia beyond the Gazprom-sponsored glitz will not be televised, which is a shame, because it is a beautifully unique, complex and fascinating land. Determined to portray the rarely seen provincial towns of Russia and get to the heart of the emotional connection that its people has to football, photographer Sergey Novikov is travelling to the furthest reaches of the country, from the northern reaches of Murmansk to the Far East of Vladivostok, to capture local amateur teams at play.
Sergey was kind enough to take the time to speak to Post Pravda about his project, ‘Grassroots’:
More than being an exhibition of lower-league football stadiums in Russia, your ‘Grassroots’ project is, in my opinion, a magnificent documentation of Russian society. Russia has received a lot of bad press in recent years in the west- do you think that this project portrays the true essence of its people?
Definitely, I see this series of photographs as a documentation of the countryʼs social landscape, including a precise view of the urban infrastructure. Talking about group portraits- this is an intense look at specific local communities because people of many professions and different ages are represented in the images. For sure, I canʼt cover all political cards with a photographic project, but this is actually a direct look at the countrysideʼs everyday life in the moments when people are not keyed up by propaganda and are doing what they really want to do.
You’ve travelled throughout Russia, from Murmansk to Vladivostok, documenting the ‘grassroots’ of football in the country’s small towns. Have you found a common thread when it comes to the stadiums, teams and the fans, in spite of the vast geographical range?
Generally the situation with amateur football is the same everywhere in the country – lack of financial support from the regional authorities or businesses. Teams are surviving, but the number of regional championship participants is decreasing. Of course there are some positive changes, such as the construction of artificial grass pitches in some regions, which makes people happy for a while, but still the amateur sport stays alive just due to the energy of a bunch of enthusiasts, not the governmentʼs efforts. Teams have a history of changing names just to be under any sponsorship and the players are mostly not paid for the games. Visually, you canʼt see many differences between pitches in the West and the Far East of the country, except for the climate conditions, around the arena we see the one typical ex-Soviet town. Some cool local identity details do sometimes appear; for example, concrete walls around the pitches in the Tver region, but not too many in fact.
You mention that football stadiums have historically been “one of the most powerful political, social and cultural ‘devices’ in our urban environment”– do you feel that this is still the case in the 21st century?
A couple of years ago I was invited to the small town of Degtyarsk, close to Yekaterinburg, which will host WC 2018 games, and there was a friendly game on the local football pitch, the only one for the last few years. The ceremony was very official, I was introduced as a famous photographer, and the authorities made some promises about a new stadium for a few thousand people that will be constructed in this town. As usual, they were just words. Then I realised that it was a week before elections and this event suited very well their political needs. So yes, stadiums are still alive as venues to attract people. For many small towns and settlements the stadium is really a performance venue. In Veliky Ustyug, the game of the first round of the season couldnʼt begin because of the huge pole that people left on the pitch during Easter holiday celebrations two months prior.
Participating in organised sporting events was hugely important during the Soviet era and attendances at sporting events, football matches in particular, were generally high. In terms of identity and a sense of community, is football as important in modern day Russia?
As we can see conscious political backsliding toward Soviet times now in Russia, football (and sport in general) is our current national idea again. The aim for the WC 2018 was announced- victory. Recent failures of our teams on the international arenas do not embarrass us. Talking about my area of interest- grassroots football- people are still interested in supporting local teams, local community- for many of them football is a way of living and having an experience from life.
Rather than re-developing existing stadiums, 10 new ‘arenas’ will be built for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. With this new infrastructure, do you see this as a positive move for Russian football as a whole, looking beyond the World Cup?
For sure, the selection of the cities to host the World Cup wasnʼt clear. For example, one of the «most footballish» places in the country, Krasnodar, wonʼt see any final games. And we have for example Saransk and Sochi, with teams in the second (the lowest professional) division. Just five from eleven WC 2018 host cities will have clubs in the Premier league next year. Anyway, the new arenas and the surrounding infrastructure are very useful for the football societies of the particular cities, young players, spectators, but we just canʼt turn a blind eye to all the circumstances of their construction. Say, the stadium in Saint-Petersburg has already reached a stratospheric level with its price and still doesnʼt operate properly. Big construction is accompanied by big corruption in our case.
Following the violence in Marseille during Euro 2016, as well as the antics of Zenit and CSKA fans in the Champions League, Russian football followers carry a bad reputation in the west. Is this reputation justified or overly harsh? By comparison, how is the fan culture in the lower leagues in the country?
Of course, behaviour of the lower leagues teams fans is a small miniature of what they see at the huge stadiums and events. The fan movement in Russia is quite developed, even in the countryside, so we have a few main «firms» in every region. I havenʼt seen any violent incidents during my photographic trips, usually guest fans are diplomatic enough, although sometimes they’re pent up by local police. If we look generally at the image of a Russian fan, I need to say that for many years here we were without bloody clashes between firms around the stadiums, and guys mostly fought somewhere far away from the public eye. Probably the aggression spills over more abroad as an integral part of the image of the Russian warrior.
There is something quite beautiful about the old bowl-shaped football stadiums that were built in the mid 20th century, which you term the “first generation stadia”. However, the majority, having remained the same for over 50 years, are now crumbling and in desperate need of renovation- what are your hopes for these stadiums? Is major redevelopment work an inevitability?
The main Moscow stadiums of Luzhniki and Dinamo are now under reconstruction, but despite all these nostalgic feelings, as the most important football venues they really need to be modernized. The only question, again, is how to keep their identity, not cleaning the entire site down to rock bottom. To build a museum of the stadium and save part of the old construction is not a bad way to keep a memory, in my opinion.
Looking ahead for the ‘Grassroots’ project, what are your hopes and ambitions for it? Would you like to release something, for instance, in the lead up to the World Cup?
«Grassroots» is a project that collects unofficial records of the countryʼs football scene, and as regional championships are an important part of it, it can be interesting for a very wide audience. So I would like to show the project in at least 11 host cities during the WC 2018. The task is very difficult and ambitious due to the financial situation in the country and lack of institutions involved in the promotion of personal photography projects, but I am working over this plan. As well, and I definitely will make it, a thick photography book of the project will be published at the beginning of 2018.