WHEN Krasny Yar take on Edinburgh in the European Challenge Cup at Murrayfield tonight, it won’t be the first time the Siberian powerhouse of Russian rugby has visited Scotland. The club came here on a whistle-stop tour of Edinburgh and Fife in September 1992, playing four games against Kirkcaldy, Boroughmuir, Dunfermline and Currie inside six days.
The results have been lost in the mists of time [unless any club member can provide some details] but Alex Kilgour, who was instrumental in organising the trip, recalls that the tour was a great success.
“It is amazing to think that was 25 years ago. So much has changed and I’m just delighted that Krasny Yar are not only still going but are now playing against some of the best teams in Europe. It is just fantastic, because Russia – believe it or not – is a great rugby nation,” he says.
The sport was, in fact, first introduced to Russia in the early 1880s by a Scotsman working in Moscow called Mr Hopper, but was outlawed on the grounds that it was “brutal, and liable to incite demonstrations and riots” in 1886, which means it had already been banned six full years before the first association football match was played in the country in 1892.
Records of rugby in Russia over the next thirty years are sparse, although there appears to have been occasional matches, including one in Odessa in 1908 between locals and the company of a British trading ship.
It wasn’t until after the Russian Civil War that the sport really began to take off, with the first officially registered game being played between Moscow River Yacht Club and the Society for the Physical Education of Workers in 1923. It was added to the curriculum at several secondary schools and colleges in 1926.
The first Soviet Championship took place in 1936, which was the same year as the exiled Russian prince Alexander Obolensky famously scored two tries on his debut for England in their first-ever win over the All Blacks.
Alas the catastrophic toll of World War Two on the Russian population meant that rugby in the 1940s was restricted to occasional one-off games in geographically disparate parts of the country, before the Soviet authorities announced in 1949 that it was “a game not relevant to the principles of the Soviet people” as part of the USSR’s “struggle against cosmopolitanism”.
The sport was revived after Stalin’s death with the staging of the World Youth Games in Moscow in 1957, but it didn’t go well. At a packed Luzhniki Stadium, the tournament final between Welsh side Llanelli and Romanian side Grivita Rosa was marred by violence on and off the pitch, and there was a very real danger that the sport would be sent straight back into exile.
But it survived and continued to grow across the USSR – and particularly in Siberia, where the club which eventually became known as Krasny Yar was formed in the city of Kransoyarsk in 1969.
By the early 1970s, the USSR had over 10,000 registered players, its national championship had expanded to 20 teams and top clubs had established ties abroad in traditional working-class areas such as South Wales, where Slava Moscow toured in 1973.
The USSR played its first international test match in 1974, losing 26-6 to Romania, and began playing in the European Championship of the International Amateur Rugby Federation (FIRA) in 1975. By the 1980s the USSR was regularly beating Italy and Romania and were threatening to become a powerful player on the international scene. Star player Dmitry Mironov had made a big enough impression to play several games for the Barbarians.
The USSR was invited to the inaugural Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in 1987, but the regime’s staunch opposition to apartheid and South Africa’s membership of the IRB [the game’s governing body] meant that offer was declined.
They did, however, play in the 1988 Student World Cup in France, reaching the semi-finals, and Kilgour – who had been involved in organising sponsorship for the Scotland team at that tournament – was enchanted by their sensational victory over eventual winners New Zealand in the pool stage.
A plan was hatched to bring the Soviet Students to Scotland, and before long negotiations led to Kilgour finding himself on a plane to Moscow – amongst a collection of diplomats and oil workers who looked at him as if he had two heads when he explained that he was on his way to negotiate a rugby tour.
“I arrived not having a clue who was going to meet me and if I had any accommodation arranged. My wife was in tears when I left the house thinking she wasn’t going to see me again because we really didn’t know what went on in Moscow. I got off the plane and there were these guys in furry hats holding up a piece of paper which said: Kilgour Rugby. They put me in a Lada and took me to one of only two hotels in Moscow at that time open to tourists,” he recalls.
“They didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak any Russian, but we managed to arrange to meet for dinner that night. Before that I tried to call my wife to let her know that I had arrived safely and was informed that I had to book to make a call 48 hours in advance.”
“That night, five men from the Soviet Rugby Federation took me to a ballroom in the hotel which must have held at least 1,000 people, and there was a band playing – but there was only our table and a group of Italian ladies, two or three in wheelchairs, in the whole restaurant.”
“It was pretty difficult to communicate but the more vodkas we drank the more we got smiling and laughing. Eventually, I went up to the band and asked if they could play any western music – Elvis Presley or something like that – but the only song they could play was the Birdie Song. So, I ended up with these Italian ladies on the dance floor, teaching these Russians how to dance to the Birdie Song.”
The next morning, Kilgour was taken to meet the committee of Profsport – the trade union organisation which oversaw all sporting activity in the Soviet Union – and managed to broker a deal. The Soviet Students ended up playing three games, against Scottish Students in Glasgow, the Co-Optimists at Meggetland and finally a British Students team at Murrayfield.
Afterwards, Kilgour was invited back to Moscow and given a role which effectively amounted to being the Soviet Rugby Federation’s commercial manager, charged with arranging connections between Russian and British businesses.
He visited Moscow over 20 times during the next three years, and whenever he was taken out for dinner the Birdie Song would invariably be played. “They must have thought that was the only song I wanted to hear,” he chuckles.
He had several meetings with a group of Siberians who were very keen that he help organise for a western team to come over to play Krasny Yar as a way of using sport to cut through politics.
Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a great deal of interest back home for a rugby tour to Siberia, but eventually he managed to persuade Kirkcaldy, his own club, to take the plunge in the summer of 1990.
“Eight out of the 30 players hadn’t been out of Scotland before, and now they were off to Siberia. People forget that it’s a three-and-a-half-hour flight and a three-hour time-difference from London to Moscow, but another four-and-a-half-hour flight and a four-hour time difference from Moscow to Kransoyarsk,” recalls Kilgour.
“The biggest problem was the heat. I’ve been to Siberia when it is minus 27 degrees in the winter, but also when it is 90 degrees in the summer. It was a culture shock that they couldn’t just nip to the shop and buy a can of coke, or Mars bar, or a razor-blade – there was nothing to buy in the shops. The other issue was that these magnificent banquets were being thrown the night before each match and I think a few of the players were not at their best for the games.”
The next step was the visit of a delegation from the Soviet Rugby Federation to the UK, tasked with building a relationship with rugby’s two oldest unions. They did not get much of a hearing by the Murrayfield hierarchy (who made it very clear that the unsavoury stench of professionalism was burning their nostrils) but received a warmer reception in London, leading to the USSR playing a full-strength England team at Twickenham in September 1991 as part of the home team’s preparation for that year’s World Cup.
England won the match 53-0 but the USSR emerged with great credit from the experience.
“By now the Soviet Union was beginning to fall apart. Some of the players were from Georgia and Latvia and Lithuania, so they wouldn’t be able to use the CCCP and the hammer and sickle, because they weren’t part of that anymore. So, I went to my friend, Duncan McNab of McNab Sports in Kinross, and said we need to design a strip for these guys because they are playing England in two or three weeks’ time at Twickenham,” he recalls.
“We ended up with this red and white design, and managed to get together 22 strips, so that was one problem solved for the time being. But we now had an issue because they played a London select side on the Wednesday before the England match, and because of the political situation back in Russia it was virtually impossible for sports teams to get flights out of the country. So, the Soviet Rugby Federation secretary, Victor Swiridov, and his colleagues, had to spend a week back in Moscow standing in a queue for several hours a day to get three or four tickets at a time so that they could fly the team over to London. The players were arriving in dribs and drabs and we were just crossing our fingers and hoping that they would all get over in time.”
“The sponsors started arriving on the Tuesday before the first game but we only had about a dozen players, and no coach or manager yet. We had to dress one of the sponsors up in a red tracksuit and pretend he was the coach to do a press conference at Twickenham. We just said to this guy to talk in Russian about the cups of tea and biscuits he was being served and our translator made up the rest –all the big Fleet Street papers were there wanting to know about the team, and this guy had never seen a rugby ball before, but the translator was waxing lyrical and the journalists didn’t suspect a thing.”
“After the London game, we realised that some of the Russian players had sold their strips, including the number 15. Remember, these poor guys were used to queueing for hours to get a loaf of bread, so who can blame them for trying to cash in? We ended up sewing a 15 onto one of the replacement strips – and we had the five up-side down, which we didn’t realise until after the game!”
“Against all odds, we got the team together – the coach and the manager arrived on the Friday – we got a police escort to Twickenham and they lost 53-0 but really did give a good account of themselves.”
“At the dinner after the match, I remember explaining to Will Carling that Victor had been queuing for several hours a day all week to get tickets to fly the team over, that while the players were over here their wives were queuing to get bread to feed their children, but they had made this commitment because they love the game. I know Carling was quite taken aback because when he made his speech he was very emotional and he got the England team to stand up and applaud the Russians because of what they had gone through to come over and play a game of rugby. I really thought a lot of Carling after that because he really, genuinely, meant it.”
The following summer  saw a very strong Barbarians side visit Russia, scraping a 21-32 win over Krasny Yar and then losing in the final minute to the CIS [as the association of former Soviet Union states was now known].
The Barbarians team which lost 27-23 to CIS was: JB Lafond; JM Lafond, D Charvet, R Bridgood, A Moore; A Williams, R Hill; M Linnett, N Meek, M Hayashi, N Redman, S Dear, A Robinson, D Turnbull, S Davies.
By the time Krasny-Yar made it to Scotland for that mini-tour in the autumn of 1992, it looked like the relationship between east and west was set to really blossom, with a number of schools and clubs from both sides of the divide now preparing to visit each other. But Russia wasn’t an easy place to operate.
“When it went from the Soviet Union to CIS that was manageable, but then when it went from CIS to Russia it became almost impossible. There was just so much corruption. I now had business interests over there but one night it was made clear to me that some people didn’t want me around – so I jumped on a plane and never went back. I was sensible enough to know it was over.”
Kilgour will be at Murrayfield this evening to relive some happy memories from a quarter of a century ago.
“In those days, there was no Facebook or Twitter, it was all done by Telex – so I had completely lost contact. But the club president now, Sergei Chuprov, was the vice-president then – and I spoke to him on the phone this week. He’s not coming over, unfortunately but he has asked me to meet their manager and coach after the game for a vodka or two or three – I am looking forward to that!”
Earlier in the day, Kilgour will be in Glasgow watching Bill Mann (his partner in crime in the other great sporting story of his life) receive a CBE for services to sport and culture.
That dynamic duo successfully lobbied Westminster during the late 1980s to secure rates relief for amateur Scottish sports clubs. Their efforts ultimately saved rugby, swimming, bowling and many other sorts of sports clubs up and down the country many millions of pounds in punitive charges which threatened their ongoing survival.
But that is a story for another day.
“It is funny how these two things, which were really important to me at the time, have come back around on exactly the same day after so many years. It will be nice to take a wee trip back down memory lane,” he concludes.