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.
Across the globe, there are varying definitions of what makes a city. In the UK there is the age-old debate over population, presence of a cathedral and approval by government and/or the royal family. Elsewhere, a multitude of criteria are applied to distinguish the varying sizes of settlement, for little reason other than local pride and a sense of identity.
One of the many issues surrounding the definition is the problem of satellite communities, settlements which exist solely because of a larger neighbour but which have grown in their own right into something more substantial. In Russia, this village/town/city accounts for a large amount of the country’s population, with huge swathes of land unoccupied as people are magnetically drawn to the area around the regional hubs. A glance at Moscow on a map, for example, reveals a whole host of places dependent on the capital for success – Khimki, Ramenskoye, Podolsk and Mytishchi to name but four – and the sprawling city is by no means alone.
One ‘city’ which struggles to justify its status is the Volga settlement of Volzhsky. With a population of over 300,000 and an important economic role nationally, it possesses the size and significance to be considered. However, the status was granted to it as far back as 1954, with inhabitants still in five figures and its industrial contribution very much in its infancy. Even so, such factors are worth considering.
What sets Volzhsky apart as an unlikely city is its sheer proximity to its metropole, the proud and war-ravaged city of Volgograd, rebuilt after the decisive battle of the Second World War and now a monument to both the fallen heroes of the past and the ruthless efficiency of Stalinist architecture. Whilst in Moscow Oblast there are several miles of motorway separating the capital from its satellites, the journey from Volgograd to Volzhsky is a mere 40 minutes from centre to centre, conducted in one of the many haphazard minibus taxis or marshrutka that weave in and out of traffic with little regard for passenger safety. There is no countryside to admire on the way, no clear divide between the two cities, and no great sign that Volgograd has in fact come to an end. In essence, Volzhsky is the big suburb across the river.
What defines it as a city is the huge dam across the Volga, the hydroelectric station which spurred the foundation of the modern Volzhsky in the early 1950s, and which drew budding volunteers and convict labourers alike to the area as part of the building process. Still the largest hydroelectric station in Europe, and controlling the Volga so as to allow the mighty river to become completely navigable, it remains a source of great pride for Volzhsky locals, some of whom are looking to claim back local pride after much of its outskirts were claimed by Volgograd residents for their summer dachas.
It is little surprise then, that the local football club is named ‘Energia,’ a nod to the monstrous power output of the dam and a dynamic moniker designed to drive the team on. In their striking yellow and blue home kit, Volzhsky are supposed to be a team of youth in line with their young city, playing electric attacking football in a bid to surge up the Russian league system.
Puns aside, that was the theory at the club’s 1956 foundation, midway through work on the hydroelectric dam as a method of keeping workers’ morale high and encouraging the physical recreation which proved such a prominent feature of Soviet social policy. Entry into Class ‘B’ of the regionalised and highly convulted Soviet league system followed in 1958, and despite all their promise and potential, Energia slotted into alongside similarly provincial clubs and made a home for themselves in the regional tiers.
So comfortable did they become that they failed to break out of their malaise for the entire existence of the USSR. Whilst the league changed names, Class ‘B’ becoming the Second League, it had little effect on Volzhsky. In ’66 and ’69 they reached the heady heights of 5th in their region, but more often than not they found themselves mired in midtable and indeed left to battle relegation into footballing oblivion – a four-year run from 1976 saw the club fail to achieve anything more than 20th place, 22nd in 1979 representing the nadir of Energia’s existence.
A jump of ten league positions in the final year of Soviet rule proved enough to rescue Volzhsky from the depths of the third tier, instead landing them among several like-minded clubs in the new Russian First League and just a single step away from the nation’s elite. A surprise 4th place in their Central Zone gave the briefest of hopes that an unlikely promotion could be achieved, by the following year saw another reshuffle and subsequent relegation. 1995-7 once again saw the side compete at a national level, but since falling through the trapdoor once again they have remained in the regional tiers, a brief sojourn in the amateur ranks as a result of financial difficulties ended with promotion at the first attempt in 2006.
Today the club is a feeder side in all but name to many of the bigger clubs in the region, and also a safety net for youngster who have fallen through the systems of the likes of Krasnodar, Kuban and Rostov. Local ‘rivals’ Rotor – when the clubs met in the first round of the 2011 Russian Cup, just two Energia fans made the 40-minute trip to watch their team lose to a late penalty – have been the biggest beneficiaries of Volzhsky’s mediocrity, loaning out the likes of Pavel Veretennikov, son of legendary striker and Rotor assistant boss Oleg for match experience. Even in the 2011-12 campaign, when the two clubs found themselves in the same division, Energia were lowly enough to be used as a de facto feeder club for the Volgograd outfit.
The arrangement remains today, unpredictable playmaker Maxim Primak leaving Volgograd for Volzhsky at the end of his contract to join two other ex-Rotor men at the club – youngsters Valeri Polyakov and Maxim Romanov. The team remains a youthful one, both out of necessity as bigger clubs take more developed talents, and out of tradition as Energia seeks to stand for the vigour of youth. Attendances are reasonable – 4th highest in their region for the 2012-13 season – and performances are mediocre at best, but the very presence of Energia in Volzhsky remains one of the few things distinguished the city from its neighbour across the river. As long as Volzhsky retains a professional football team, they will find it hard to lose that particular argument.