To the south, the twin peaks of Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest summits, dominate the skyline. To the north, the imposing pair of Mashuk and Beshtau protect the city, the former providing a panoramic view across the North Caucasus which sweeps across vast steppe, urban sprawl and leafy forest. At the foot of Mashuk’s long mountain path, in a woodland clearing which has gradually grown into a tourist hotspot, lies a monument to the man who has come to define both a town and his generation.
Pyatigorsk is Mikhail Lermontov country, the North Caucasian spa town in which the embodiment of Russian Romanticism met his end aged just 26, at the hands of a fellow officer who did not share the poet’s sense of humour. The duel lasted a single shot, and the site of Lermontov’s death is one of Pyatigorsk’s main attractions for travellers in the Russian South, along with a series of Soviet-era sanitoriums which continue to attract visitors despite maintenance falling in recent years. The town is also host to a Lermontov museum, in which enthusiasts can not only come face-to-face with the genius’ paintings, poems and manuscripts, but also step into the room he used to dwell in, and discover artists inspired by and an inspiration to the young Muscovite.
Pyatigorsk remains a town for the romantic, a stunning natural beauty providing the backdrop to a bustling town, which combines its official role as administrative centre of Stavropol Krai with that of a picturesque postcard destination, restaurants and bustling shops surrounding leafy parkland as well as the imposing peak of Mashuk. Like the Volga town of Kostroma, Pyatigorsk is a town wrapped in metaphor – the Golden Age of Russian Romanticism hidden safely in its mountain home, not quite ready for the world beyond its frontier.
Its football team is no different. Competing in the Southern Zone of the Second Division, Mashuk-KMV Pyatigorsk possess a formidable home record, losing just three of their 13 games at Central Stadium and picking up eight wins in the process. After consecutive defeats to Alania Reserves and Dinamo Stavropol in just their second and third home games of the season, Mashuk embarked on a run of nine matches unbeaten in Pyatigorsk, conceding just five goals in the process and establishing their ground, one of the largest in the division with a capacity of 10,000, as something of a fortress.
However, away from home the statistics tell a different story. Aside from an early season victory over Astrakhan, not one of their five away wins has come at a club currently sitting in the top half of the table, with three of the bottom five on the limited list of sides Mashuk have conquered on their travels. Seven defeats and just a single draw away from Pyatigorsk has been the form which has cost them a chance at promotion back to the First Division, a league they dropped out of in 2008 in similar fashion, picking up just eight points on their travels.
To extend the metaphor, Mashuk’s poor away form can be linked to their wandering manager, Valeri Zazdravnykh. Like Lermontov’s Byronic hero Pechorin, Zazdravnykh’s career history reads like that of a man fully aware of, and willing to break free of his own limitations, but ultimately unable to overcome those restrictions and thus bound to what he knows and loves. Almost 200 appearances for Dinamo Stavropol as a player was enough to trigger Zazdravnykh’s wanderlust as a player, but the lure of his native South always stopped him moving on – other than brief and unsuccessful spells for Tajik club Pamir Dushanbe and Progress Frankfurt, the furthest he made it was Nizhnekamsk in Tatarstan before being forced back to a club nearer his homeland.
As a manager, he has endured the same fate. Of the six clubs he has coached, only an assistantship at Nosta Novotroitsk has taken Zazdravnykh further north than his home town of Novoaleksandrovsk, before he jumped at the chance to join Mashuk last year. His travels in the region have clearly given him an informed opinion of its footballers, and this shows in his transfer policy – of the 17 players brought in as part of a squad overhaul, ten are from other southern clubs. Whilst this can be attributed to the reluctance of players to move long distances for what is unlikely to be a large wage packet, it can only be expected that a manager as well travelled in one part of the country would have developed an encyclopedic knowledge of its players.
Therein lies the problem for Mashuk at the moment – like Pechorin and their home-loving manager, their desire to escape and sample the sensations of life outside of the mundane is eternally tempered, both by the security of inertia and an inability to come to terms with life outside of their comfort zone. In the spiritual home of Russian Romanticism, it is perhaps fittingly tragic that Pyatigorsk’s football team finds itself trapped in the same conundrum as one of its most famous characters. Mashuk’s fans will simply be hoping that the conclusion to their story is more satisfactory than Pechorin’s own resignation to fate.