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.
In the Soviet Union, secrecy was an important facet of day-to-day life. Under Stalin, the infamous purges meant that denunciations and disappearances were a semi-regular occurrence, and yet those outside the USSR had little idea of what was going on within its vast borders. Only a combination of handpicked foreign correspondents and internal propagandists – Maxim Gorky the most famous – would really discover what went on beyond official statements and programmes from the Communist Party, and even now there is a public perception of Russia as something of an insular state.
The closing of entire cities to foreigners did not help in this regard, with hundreds of thousands of Soviet and Russian citizens simply cut off from the world beyond their borders due to the strategically important nature of the work conducted within their walls. Such was the extent of the lockdown that for a number of years even Vladivostok – the end of the fabled Trans-Siberian Railway, and the port that opens up the East to Russia – was shrouded in mystery, heavily restricted, and replaced as the end of the landmark rail route by little-known Nakhodka.
Dzerzhinsk was another city to be kept firmly under wraps, hidden away from prying Western eyes due to its strategic importance. Whereas Vladivostok’s port was the reason for its closure, and the likes of Samara put under lock and key for the important military facilities hosted there, Dzerzhinsk was instead restricted due to its chemical industry, an industry which has left its mark on a city still and remains a key player in the region.
Today, there are still some 1,000 chemical products being produced in the city, which lies in the Nizhny Novgorod region and no doubt pumps many of its waste products straight into Oka River. The result is not just physical – the city is one of the most polluted in the world, and certainly within Russia – but also demographic, with the average male living to just 42 years and the typical woman 47, combining Russia’s already low life expectancy statistics with alarming amounts of toxic substances taken in by its inhabitants on a daily basis – its water contains millions of times the recommended ‘safe’ level of some toxins.
In such an environment, it is a minor miracle that anyone would want to move into the city, let alone attempt to play an outdoor team sport. Yet, in 1946, with conscripts flooding back after the war, the city’s industrial giants clubbed together to form a team, competing at a regional level in the basement leagues of the Soviet Union’s mammoth league system.
However, for reason which will never be fully known, the club – at that stage performing without a moniker under the banner of their city – was withdrawn from official competitions and was reduced to once again taking part in local competition. Bizarrely enough, the same would hand a decade down the line. Now operating as Zorya Dzerzhinsk, the team would enter the 1960 Soviet championship, finish a respectable and unremarkable 12th, and then be removed from the league due to an alleged lack of sporting achievement.
The banishment did little to deter the fledgling club, and by 1962 Dzerzhinsk was back into the Soviet Second League, competing as Volna alongside a whole host of similarly provincial clubs with dreams of one day managing to claw their way up to all-Union level. The following year, the Khimik name – reflecting the huge chemical and chemical weapons industry which was behind the city’s population growth and subsequent pollution problems – was adopted, and bar a brief period in 2001-02 when sponsor Sibur was prefixed, has remained unchanged in the decades since.
However, Khimik’s league status has not. Life in the Soviet Second League was uneventful for the club, occasional restructuring and reformation aside, with little hope of negotiating a difficult promotion system and a sufficient number of weaker sides in the region to keep them safe from relegation. Even when the Soviet system disappeared with its nation to be replaced by the new Russian leagues, the side from Dzerzhinsk continued to plod along in the Second League, restricted to their own locality but with a heightened chance of snatching a glimpse of glory in a more streamlined league.
It was not to be. Despite Sibur apparently investing sufficiently to justify a name change, at the end of the 2002 season, Khimik’s books failed to balance. With the refusal of their professional licence a formality, the club was forced to take drastic action, dropping out of the pro game and taking their place in the amateur ranks – a procedure followed by what seems to be an increasing number of teams on an annual basis.
Whilst most fallen sides manage to pick themselves up in a year or two, Khimik’s progress back to the relative heights of the Second Division took half a decade, finally claiming both their regional title and the national amateur tournament in 2007 and earning promotion back to whence they came. With financial doom this time avoided, Khimik set about becoming a fixture in the third tier. Placed in the Ural/Volga zone, they acquitted themselves well in the first few seasons.
Then came a quirk of the Second Division which saw Khimik grab their chance with both hands. Despite being located on a river which meets the Volga, numbers in the third tier changed sufficiently for them to be pulled out of the Ural/Volga league and dropped in the Western division. A comparatively weaker league with no standout side, Khimik took the title by three points, finishing ahead of a chasing pack consisting of three teams separated by just four points, the top nine split by just nine. For the first time, the First Division and national competition beckoned.
The fight for survival starts now, with Khimik almost certain to be one of the sides in and around the relegation fight in their debut second tier season. With a squad void of star names and a location which understandably struggles to turn heads, Khimik must rely on the tried and tested method of feeding on the scraps of others and forging them into a competitive unit. Should they go down, the rest of Russia will barely notice their absence, and indeed few beyond the 2,500 or so who brave the toxic air to watch their side on regular basis will notice any change even within the city. Khimik’s story lies not in the team but its city which, with little else in its favour, could do with the distraction of a successful team.