Luzhniki Disaster

On the evening of 20 October 1982 Spartak were playing Dutch club Haarlem for a place in the last 16 of the Uefa Cup.

They would win the match on the way to a 5-1 aggregate victory, but it was also the night on which the greatest disaster in the history of Russian football took place. Officially, 66 fans lost their lives, crushed to death, but several subsequent investigations and eyewitnesses put the death toll closer to 350. That makes it the worst disaster in the history of world football, worse even than the 318 people who were killed in rioting at Peru's National Stadium in Lima in 1964 and the tragedies that have scarred football in England at Bradford and Hillsborough.

The Russian winter set in early in 1982, making the stone steps of the East Sector of the Lenin Stadium extremely icy. Since no more than 15,000 Spartak fans and a hundred or so hardy Dutch spectators had come to the match, the stadium authorities crammed them into a single section of the ground, leaving terraces of the remaining three-quarters of the stadium empty and pristinely snowy-white. It was to prove a fateful decision.

Near the end of the match, when the 2-0 goal was scored, it went wrong. On the slippery stairs there were crashes; everybody fell over everybody. It was like a domino-effect. You couldn't get away, the steel banisters twisted under the weight of the people. They were just crushed to death. I also got trapped, but I managed to escape by jumping over the banister. I could get to safety through a row of bodies. Most were dead but some put their hands out to me to be saved, but they were stuck under the pile of corpses. I managed to get one boy out and brought him to an ambulance. But they couldn't do anything for him, he was dead.”

— Andrei Chesnokov

With Spartak leading 1-0 and the game drifting into injury-time, several hundred fans began to make their way to the exit. Sergei Shvetsov then scored a second, a goal he continues to regret. "It would have been better if I had not scored it," he says. Fans on their way out of the ground turned back to join the celebrations, only to run into a wall of spectators still set on leaving. In the darkness, on the icy steps, as barriers buckled and police stood by, dozens were trampled or crushed to death. "I was lucky," said Prosvetov. "I was a long way from the stairs, but of course I knew something terrible had happened."

The Soviet authorities responded in the only way they knew how: with a belligerent cover-up. Leonid Brezhnev was ailing, three weeks from his death, and with Yuri Andropov not yet confirmed as his successor, the political situation was tense. By the following morning the bodies had been removed, while the newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva reported merely that there had been an "accident" at which "some spectators were injured".