One of the coldest games of rugby ever recorded took place in Russia at a temperature lower than -40. The players wore balaclavas, gloves and parkers as they took on the unforgiving Russian winter.
To no surprise, rugby has become a summer game in Russia. It begins in mid spring and ends just before the first snow falls. This, among several other factors, affects the popularity of the game in the world’s biggest country.
Since its inception in 1928, the Russian Rugby Federation has come and gone over the years. It was even shut down in the 1930s by Joseph Stalin for being ‘too capitalist’. For the reader who finds this strange:
1 – You have a lot to learn about authoritarian communism.
2 – Unlike other genuinely strange laws, this one was not that hard to justify as ideologically incorrect; a sport invented in the capitalist West by a rebel at an English boys’ public school predominantly played by the British middle classes practically writes itself as something unworthy of the proletariat or something a Stakhanovits would aspire to play.
In the USSR, there were three main ‘rugby centres’, where the game enjoyed huge popularity. First was in the capital of the Moldovan SSR, Chisinau (or Kishinev in Russian). Much of this was down to the Romanian influence, where the game also proved to be popular under communism. The second was in Tbilisi, the capital of the Georgian SSR. It is now the most popular sport in Georgia, who are Russia’s biggest rival following the 2008 war. The third was in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, who still hosts one of Russia’s top teams.
Moldova and Georgia are now independent states, but notice the other difference. Following its independence from the USSR, the game was fortunate enough to be popular in the new Georgian capital. It was harder to ignore. Siberia is a long way and several time zones from Moscow. Only 20% of Russia’s current population lives east of the Ural Mountains. Rugby just never stuck out as a priority sport following the Soviet collapse. And, like a lot of things across Russia in the 1990s, the national side struggled to form and be maintained in any decent state.
Despite the many political challenges disrupting rugby’s progression, the game has still struggled to catch on. It is not something that most Russians even know exists until their school English lessons.
In the twenty-first century, things are looking a lot better on paper. Russia has now participated in two world cups. They regularly participate in the Rugby Sevens, which also returned to the Olympic Games. The world cup is being televised in Russia this year. It all should have translated into some sort of progress and rugby capital, but it has not – at least not yet.
So what are the problems?
First, rugby has to compete with the national sports of football and ice hockey. Both enjoy huge global popularity, make up a large part of the national pride and, more importantly, are Olympic sports. Russia takes The Olympic Games very seriously. Interest picked up after sevens, but to no real effect.
As I eluded to earlier, rugby lacks any sort of establishment. As such, rugby is still less popular than winter sports, volleyball and basketball. My former teammates back in Thurrock may find this hard to comprehend, but most Russians would simply rather watch figure skating or go to the ballet.
Next, we should consider the reputation. Most Russians have a limited patience when it comes to rugby. The rules are complex, make no sense to them and it lacks the intensity of ice hockey. What starts with intrigue often falls into disinterest and indifference.
Alongside this is the exposure. The level of government funding remains very low. Rugby is seldom on Russian television, either. The only times I have seen it on television at a Moscow pub’ the audience was mostly expats. On VKontake, Russia’s equivalent of Facebook, the Russian Rugby Federation has just 24,000 followers – a drop in the bucket compared to its other sports.
The game is not widely played acrossRussia. As well as Krasnoyarsk, it is mostly played in a few big cities of European Russia. Youth rugby is practically non-existent, too. Most Russians begin playing as adults – some like Russia’s captain, Vasiliy Artemyev, started playing whilst studying abroad in Europe.
In the domestic premier league, (Professional’naya regbiynaya liga or Профессиональная регбийная лига) the gap between the standard of different teams is also huge. Realistically, Russia’s head coach, Lyn Jones, only has about three teams in a league of eight to select players from. As can be seen in the two world cups that Russia participated, just a few of the national team plays professionally overseas. Unlike Japan, who beat Russia 30 – 10 in the 2019 opening game, no foreign-born players are being absorbed into the national team.
So what would it take for rugby to blow up in Russia? Speaking realistically, it is a question of funding and publicity for the game, even if only for Russia to become competitive at the Olympics. If it becomes a sport where Russia can compete at Olympic level, heads will start turning. Should the Russian side somehow outperform expectations in 2019, this could be another catalyst. That remains to be seen, however.
There are some positive signs. Russia is currently ranked above Canada who is also taking part in the 2019 world cup and has a much richer rugby history. Against Japan, Russia looked competitive. Their kicking game caused the Japanese real trouble, and the side fought until the end. It was their fitness and lack of exposure of the game at that level which worked against them.
As a Russian historian by trade, I can also tell the reader that change occurs slowly in Russia, only for it to erupt suddenly. We need only wait for the moment when it does.