Tourists to Russia’s famous Golden Ring region may recognise the name of Kostroma, but to the vast majority of foreigners it is a place without association, just another provincial town among the thousands which litter the map of the Russian Federation. Closer inspection shows that it is the head of its own oblast or region, but given that it shares this definition which such well-known towns as Chelyabinsk, Kemerovo and Penza, this is hardly the city’s crowning glory.
Instead, Kostroma contents itself with life on the Golden Ring trail, a town with roughly the same population as Coventry sat on the banks of Volga, caressed by the summer rays or lost beneath the winter snow, with very little in between. Tourists flocks to the town to sample what remains of the classic Russian architectural style, epitomised by the Ipatievsky Monastery which dates back to the 16th century, and to take in the history of the place – Mikhail Romanov was living in the monastery when he was given the title of tsar, and throughout his family’s 300-year dynasty it became a place of refuge, especially in times of siege or occupation in Moscow.
However, many of the churches which dominated the skyline were destroyed in the Soviet era as part of the anti-religious campaigns, and for many Kostroma is but a stop between the larger city of Yaroslavl and the former textile capital of Ivanovo, places which apparently have more to offer the casual day-tripper than this riverside assortment of monasteries and neoclassical architecture.
That isn’t to say that Kostroma is without its charms. Legend has it that Catherine the Great ordered her architects to design the town based on the shape of her fan as she tossed it casually onto the map, and the Kostroma borne out of that nonchalance is some way removed from its more visited neighbours. The central square is adorned with greenery, the market remains vibrant and alive, and a stroll along the Volga embankment is still a charming way to spend a summer’s afternoon. Nevertheless, there is still a sense that Kostroma is a town waiting for something to come along, pick it up and carry it into the 21st century.
Whilst cynics may say the same is true of much of Russia, in Kostroma there is a real sense that the town is still dwelling its in bygone glories, actively choosing to remain a relic both of tsarist strength and Soviet decay. There are few things which sum up this aspect of the town better than its footballing situation.
In 1926 Dinamo Kostroma were formed, just one branch of thousands of secret police clubs established across the fledgling USSR to encourage their members into sport and community service. As is to expected of a provincial club, Dinamo never made it into the heady heights of the Soviet Top League, only joined the all-Union amateur leagues in the early 50s after becoming champions of their own oblast. Their crowning glory in recent memory is the Golden Ring Cup victory in 2008, and after last year’s 15th place finish, Dinamo continue to make up the numbers in the Second Division West, sitting 14th between the footballing powers of Karelia Petrovadodsk and Znamya Truda Orekhovo-Zuyeva.
Yet despite Dinamo categorically failing to capture the town’s imagination (drawing in an average crowd of just 250 in the present campaign), in 1959 a second team sprung up – Spartak Kostroma. Using the Soviet society system as a political tool, the workers’ club soon stood opposed to the police side, and immediately entered the national championships.
Their results are far more impressive. Just six years after forming, Spartak found themselves in the last 16 of the Soviet Cup, and reached the second tier of Soviet football on a handful of occasions, their best result a 12th place finish in 1981, the season before a relegation campaign which included a 3-0 win over Spartak Ordzhonikidze – the side which would go on to become the title-winning Alania Vladikavkaz of 1995. These days, Spartak too find themselves in the third tier of the Russian game, and finished just two places above their local rivals in 2010.
However, whilst Dinamo continue to struggle at the foot of the table, Spartak are enjoying a fine season. With three quarters of the league completed, they sit three points clear of Petrotrest at the top with a game in hand, and promotion to the First Division is a prospect growing more real by the day. Their average attendance has reached four figures, and a defence which has leaked just 23 goals in 35 matches looks increasingly like the basis for further success.
Whilst the thought of Coventry City attracting just 1,100 fans is unthinkable for fans of the English game, the ingrained society system and general lack of interest in the lower league game makes Spartak’s position an enviable one for many third-tier clubs, and a promotion to the second level would not necessarily be a step too far for Kostroma’s more successful side. They are a club on the up, and appear determined to drag the town with them.
Conversely, Dinamo are a team firmly entrenched in the old style, happy just to take part and saved annually from relegation by the sheer lack of quality in the teams below them. In a strange sort of way, Dinamo and Spartak represent not only the two faces of Kostroma and the Golden Ring, but also of Russia as a whole – the Janus country, looking to a bright, exciting future whilst equally determined to bask in past glories without adding to them. It is a conundrum which needs solving not only in Kostroma and in footballing terms, but for the entire Russian people.