This is part of a new series of posts, separate from the main blogs, in which More Than Arshavin will profile the teams which make up the wonderful world of Russian football. Teams from every league will eventually find themselves here, with the pieces shifting between historical narrative, present situation and future prospects whilst trying to capture the essence of each club. If you have a club you would like to see featured, either leave a comment or contact me via Twitter – I’d love to hear your ideas.
The name of Anton Chekhov is synonymous with the literary sphere, the famous Russian playwright lauded the world over for his theatrical works. To this day, his volume of work is performed across the globe, and the titles of his plays are sufficient to excite most enthusiasts – Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, The Seagull. Each is typical of Russian theatre at the time – the action takes place off stage, instead it is the reactions which are important. Reactions which, at the time at least, made cutting social commentary on the state of the Russian nation.
To count Chekhov amongst Russia’s literary canon is barely worth debating. Along with Pushkin and Gorky, he is one of the few writers celebrated with a statue in most cities, and indeed his name has been given to one of Moscow’s major satellite towns in the south of Moscow Oblast, just a 20 minute drive from the playwright’s former estate at Melikhovo. As if to reinforce the prestige attached to his name, even the sporting world took notice, with KHL side Vityaz relocating from nearby Podolsk in 2000.
However, Chekhov’s work was not restricted to the stage and works of high literature. In 1890, well known as a satirical author but long before he had risen to prominence in Moscow’s dramatic circles, he undertook one of the most arduous journeys possible by a Russian at the time. Influenced by his brother’s work in the area of prison reform, Chekhov took it upon himself to leave the luxury of Moscow and embark on a journey to the Russian Far East, a trip which would take him almost three months to reach the island of Sakhalin.
Sakhalin has been disputed by Russia and Japan for as long as anyone can remember, but in the late 19th century the island was in Russian hands. As well as providing a typical economic output of the age – forestry, farming and fishing were the main three products – Sakhalin was used as one of the harshest penal colonies anywhere in the Russian Empire. In his writings from Sakhalin, Chekhov describes what he saw as ‘the extreme limits of man’s degradation,’ an unbearable hell in which convicts were brutally beaten, crucial supplies withdrawn by staff, and women forced into prostitution. His conclusions – that the Russian government should spend more on humane treatment – went unheeded for many years, and Sakhalin maintained its reputation as an isolated, brutal and soul-destroying place to be.
Modern day Sakhalin has come a long way since Chekhov’s time, the primitively violent penal colony replaced by something in principle far more civilised, and the rest of the island has developed in a similar way to much of the Russian Far East. As a designated region now home to around half a million people – a dramatic drop from the Soviet era – its economy is still routed in the natural world, a steady supply of fish, wood being added to by the extraction of oil, coal and natural gas as Sakhalin quickly joined in Russia’s energy economy.
There is little doubt that Sakhalin remains a difficult place to live, with the tough weather conditions and imposed isolation – travel restrictions on the area are tight due to its status as a border region – making it increasingly difficult for those remaining to leave the island. However, it is an area which has come on leaps and bounds from Chekhov’s time.
One sign that life is something akin to normal in a region is its sporting infrastructure, and in Sakhalin this is no different. Once cut off from the Russian mainland in almost every way, the island now boasts two sports teams able to compete with their neighbours on the mainland. The second of these was established as recently as 2012, with the islanders gaining representation in the country’s volleyball league.
However, in the footballing world things changed much more quickly. As far back as 1969 a club formed by the name of FC Sakhalin, based in the island’s administrative capital of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, competing in the Soviet Union’s regional lower leagues. By 1975 the club was forced back into even smaller subdivisions, but professional status was restored in 1989, when the club would play in the dying days of the USSR and the opening years of the new Russian league system. In 1992 and 1993, shortly before moving to the island’s second city of Kholsmk, the first incarnation of FC Sakhalin reached the giddy heights of the Russian First League, the second step on the footballing ladder and just a promotion away from the top flight.
Nevertheless, despite a 10th place finish in the second tier in the 1993 season, financial trouble and the ubiquitous licensing issues saw the newly relocated side forced to take a demotion to the regional leagues, effectively killing the club. Two years later, despite a midtable finish in their far eastern division, they were again forced to withdraw, returning only to the amateur game in 1999, where they compete today as Portovik-Energia Kholmsk. Since then, they have claimed no fewer than five titles in their amateur division, but lack the resources and infrastructure to make the step to professionalism.
Whilst the Kholmsk club laboured in the amateur leagues, the administration of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk decided that a professional team was needed on the island. In 2004, FC Sakhalin was reborn in the island’s capital, taking part for three years in the same amateur league as Portovik-Energia. In 2007, with the backing of the local government, they were granted a professional license.
That paved the way for Sakhalin’s return to the Second Division, the first time in a decade that a club from the island had entered the professional ranks. The Far East zone is a league which they are yet to escape, and with the likes of Luch-Energia Vladivostok and FC Chita taking their place alongside them, promotion seems unlikely, however with the likes of Maxim Bondarenko in the team, with over 100 top flight appearances to his name, and former Kazakhstan national manager Sergei Timofeev controlling things from the dugout, there is hope at least that Sakhalin will not disappear in the same way their forerunners in Kholmsk once did.
For the island as a whole, going about its life despite the bleak outlook and miserable conditions, the existence of a thrid tier football team may come as little consolation. However, FC Sakhalin continue to be one of the better supported teams in the league, with the club evidently making inroads into the large supporter potential available to it. FC Sakhalin will never reach the Premier League, but they certain prove to the rest of the country that Chekhov’s hell has been fully rehabilitated.