« »

Chapter 6.

Athletes

In the Soviet Union sport has been nationalised. That means to say that it does not serve the interests of individuals but of society as a whole. The interests of the individual and the interests of society are sometimes very different. The state defends the interests of society against individuals, not just in sport but in all other spheres.

Some individuals want to be strong, handsome and attractive. That is why 'body-building' is so popular in the West. It is an occupation for individuals. In the Soviet Union it scarcely exists, because such an occupation brings no benefit to the state. Why should the state spend the nation's resources so that someone can be strong and beautiful? Consequently the state does not spend a single kopek on such things, does not organise athletic competitions, does not reward the victors with prizes and does not advertise achievements in that field. There are some individuals who engage in body-building, but they have no resources and no rights to organise their own societies and associations.

The same applies to billiards, golf and some other forms of which the only purpose is relaxation and amusement. What benefits would it bring the state if it spent money on such forms of sport? For the same reason the Soviet Union has done nothing about sport for invalids. Why should it? To make the invalids happy?

But that same state devotes colossal resources to sport which does bring benefit to the state. In the Soviet Union any sport is encouraged which: demonstrates the superiority of the Soviet system over any other system; provides the ordinary people with something to take their minds off their everyday worries; helps to strengthen the state, military and police apparatus.

The Soviet Union is ready to encourage any sport in which achievement is measured in minutes, seconds, metres, kilometres, centimetres, kilograms or grams. If an athlete shows some promise that he may run a distance a tenth of a second quicker than an American or may jump half a centimetre higher than his rival across the ocean, the state will create for such an athlete whatever conditions he needs: it will build him a personal training centre, get together a personal group of trainers, doctors, managers or scientific consultants. The state is rich enough to spend money on self-advertisement. These 'amateur' sportsmen earn large sums of money, though exactly how much is a secret. The question has irritated some Soviets because it would not be a secret if the amount were small. Even the Literaturnaya Gazeta, on 6 August, 1986, raised the question with some indignation.

The Soviet Union encourages any striking spectator sport which can attract millions of people, make them drop what they are doing and admire the Soviet gymnasts, figure-skaters or acrobats. It also encourages all team games. Basketball, volleyball, water polo are all popular. The most aggressive of the team games, ice-hockey, is perhaps more of a national religion than is Communist ideology. Finally, it encourages any sport directly connected with the development of military skills: shooting, flying, gliding, parachute jumping, boxing, sambo, karate, the biathlon, the military triathlon, and so forth.

The most successful, richest and largest society in the Soviet Union concerned with sport is the Central Army Sports Club (ZSKA). Members of the club have included 850 European champions, 625 world champions and 182 Olympic champions. They have set up 341 European and 430 world records. (All figures as of 1 January, 1979.)

Such results do not indicate that the Soviet Army is the best at training top-class athletes. This was admitted even by Pravda.(2 September, 1985.) The secret of success lies in the enormous resources of the Soviet Army. Pravda describes what happens: 'It is sufficient for some even slightly promising boxer to come on the scene and he is immediately lured across to the ZSKA.' As a result, out of the twelve best boxers in the Soviet Union ten are from the Army Club, one from Dinamo (the sports organisation run by the KGB), and one from the Trud sports club. But of those ten army boxers, not one was the original product of the Army club. They had all been lured away from other clubs - the Trudoviye reservy, the Spartak or the Burevestnik. The same thing happens in ice-hockey, parachute jumping, swimming and many other sports.

How does the army club manage to attract athletes to it? Firstly be giving them military rank. Any athlete who joins the ZSKA is given the rank of sergeant, sergeant-major, warrant officer or officer, depending on what level he is at. The better his results as an athlete the higher the rank. Once he has a military rank an athlete is able to devote as much time to sport as he wishes and at the same time be regarded as an amateur, because professionally he is a soldier. Any Soviet 'amateur' athlete who performs slightly better than the average receives extra pay in various forms - 'for additional nourishment', 'for sports clothing', 'for travelling', and so forth. The 'amateur' receives for indulging in his sport much more than a doctor or a skilled engineer, so long as he achieves European standards. But the Soviet Army also pays him, and not badly, for his military rank and service.

The ZSKA is very attractive for an athlete in that, when he can no longer engage in his sport at international level, he can still retain his military rank and pay. In most other clubs he would be finished altogether. What has this policy produced? At the 14th winter Olympic Games, Soviet military athletes won seventeen gold medals. If one counts also the number of silver and bronze winners, the number of athletes with military rank is greatly increased. And if one were to draw up a similar list of military athletes at the summer Games it would take up many pages. Is there a single army in the world that comes near the Soviet Army in this achievement?

* * *

Now for another question: why is the Soviet Army so ready to hand out military ranks to athletes, to pay them a salary and provide them with the accommodation and privileges of army officers?

The answer is that the ZSKA and its numerous branches provide a base that spetsnaz uses for recruiting its best fighters. Naturally not every member of the ZSKA is a spetsnaz soldier. But the best athletes in ZSKA almost always are.

Spetsnaz is a mixture of sport, politics, espionage and armed terrorism. It is difficult to determine what takes precedence and what is subordinate to what, everything is so closely linked together.

In the first place the Soviet Union seeks international prestige in the form of gold medals at the Olympics. To achieve that it needs an organisation with the strictest discipline and rules, capable of squeezing every ounce of strength out of the athletes without ever letting them slack off.

In the second place the Soviet Army needs an enormous number of people with exceptional athletic ability at Olympic level to carry out special missions behind the enemy's lines. It is desirable that these people should be able to visit foreign countries in peace time. Sport makes that possible. As far as the athletes are concerned, they are grateful for a very rich club which can pay them well, provide them with cars and apartments, and arrange trips abroad for them. Moreover, they need the sort of club in which they can be regarded as amateurs, though they will work nowhere else but in the club.

Spetsnaz is the point where the interests of the state, the Soviet Army and military intelligence coincide with the interests of some individuals who want to devote their whole lives to sport.

* * *

After the Second World War, as a result of the experience gained, sports battalions were created by the headquarters of every military district, group of forces and fleet; at army and flotilla HQ level sports companies were formed. These huge sports formations were directly under the control of the Ministry of Defence. They provided the means of bringing together the best athletes whose job was to defend the sporting honour of the particular army, flotilla, district, group or fleet in which they served. Some of the athletes were people called up for their military service, who left the Army once they had completed their service. But the majority remained in the military sports organisation for a long time with the rank of sergeant and higher. Soviet military intelligence chose its best men from the members of the sports units.

At the end of the 1960s it was recognised that a sports company or a sports battalion was too much of a contradiction in terms. It could arouse unnecessary attention from outsiders. So the sports units were disbanded and in their place came the sports teams. The change was purely cosmetic. The sports teams of the military districts, groups, fleets and so forth exist as independent units. The soldiers, sergeants, praporshiki and officers who belong to them are not serving in army regiments, brigades or divisions. Their service is in the sports team under the control of the district's headquarters. The majority of these sportsmen are carefully screened and recruited for spetsnaz training to carry out the most risky missions behind the enemy's lines. Usually they are all obliged to take part in parachute jumping, sambo, rifle-shooting, running and swimming, apart from their own basic sport.

A person looking at the teams of the military districts, groups and so forth with an untrained eye will notice nothing unusual. It is as though spetsnaz is a completely separate entity. Every athlete and every small group have their own individual tasks and get on with them: running, swimming, jumping and shooting. But later, in the evenings, in closed, well-guarded premises, they study topography, radio communications, engineering and other special subjects. They are regularly taken off secretly in ones and twos or groups, or even regiments to remote parts where they take part in exercises. Companies and regiments of professional athletes in spetsnaz exist only temporarily during the exercises and alerts, and they then quietly disperse, becoming again innocent sections and teams able at the right moment to turn into formidable fighting units.

According to Colonel-General Shatilov, the athlete is more energetic and braver in battle, has more confidence in his strength, is difficult to catch unawares, reacts quickly to changes of circumstance and is less liable to tire. There is no disputing this. A first-class athlete is primarily a person who possesses great strength of will, who has defeated his own laziness and cowardice, who has forced himself to run every day till he drops and has trained his muscles to a state of complete exhaustion. An athlete is a man infected by the spirit of competition and who desires victory in a competition or battle more than the average man.

* * *

In the sports sections and teams of the military districts, groups, armies, fleets, flotillas there is a very high percentage of women also engaged in sport and who defend the honour of their district, group and so forth. Like the men, the women are given military rank and, like the men, are recruited into spetsnaz.

There are no women in the usual spetsnaz units. But in the professional sports units of spetsnaz women constitute about half the numbers. They engage in various kinds of sport: parachute jumping, gliding, flying, shooting, running, swimming, motocross, and so on. Every woman who joins spetsnaz has to engage in some associated forms of sport apart from her own basic sport, and among these are some that are obligatory, such as sambo, shooting and a few others. The woman have to take part in exercises along with the men and have to study the full syllabus of subjects necessary for operating behind the enemy's lines.

That there should be such a high percentage of women in the professional sports formations of spetsnaz is a matter of psychology and strategy: if in the course of a war a group of tall, broadshouldered young men were to appear behind the lines this might give rise to bewilderment, since all the men are supposed to be at the front. But if in the same situation people were to see a group of athletic-looking girls there would be little likelihood of any alarm or surprise.

* * *

To be successful in war you have to have a very good knowledge of the natural conditions in the area in which you are to be operating: the terrain and the climate. You must have a good idea of the habits of the local population, the language and the possibilities of concealment; the forests, undergrowth, mountains, caves, and the obstacles to be overcome; the rivers, ravines and gullies. You must know the whereabouts of the enemy's military units and police, the tactics they employ and so forth.

A private in the average spetsnaz unit cannot, of course, visit the places where he is likely to have to fight in the event of war. But a top-class professional athlete does have the opportunity. The Soviet Army takes advantage of such opportunities.

For example, in 1984 the 12th world parachuting championship took place in France. There were altogether twenty-six gold medals to be competed for, and the Soviet team won twenty-two of them. The 'Soviet team' was in fact a team belonging to the armed forces of the USSR. It consisted of five men and five women: a captain, a senior praporshik, three praporshiki, a senior sergeant and four sergeants. The team's trainer, its doctor and the whole of the technical personnel were Soviet officers. The Soviet reporter accompanying the team was a colonel. This group of 'sportsmen' spent time in Paris and in the south of France. A very interesting and very useful trip, and there were other Soviet officers besides -for example a colonel who was the trainer of the Cuban team.

Now let us suppose a war has broken out. The Soviet Army must neutralise the French nuclear capability. France is the only country in Europe, apart from the Soviet Union itself, that stores strategic nuclear missiles in underground silos. The silos are an extremely important target, possibly the most important in Europe. The force that will put them out of action will be a spetsnaz force. And who will the Soviet high command send to carry out the mission? The answer is that, after the world parachuting championship, they have a tailor-made team.

It is often claimed that sport improves relations between countries. This is a strange argument. If it is the case, why did it not occur to anyone before the Second World War to invite German SS parachutists to their country to improve relations with the Nazis?

At the present time every country has good grounds for not receiving any Soviet military athletes on its own territory. The USSR should not be judged on its record. To take three cases: the Soviet Government sent troops into Czechoslovakia temporarily. We of course trust the statements made by the Soviet Government and know that after a certain time the Soviet troops will be withdrawn from Czechoslovakia. But until that happens there are sufficient grounds for 'temporarily' not allowing the Soviet Army into any free country.

Secondly, the Soviet Union introduced a 'limited' contingent of its troops into Afghanistan. The Soviet leaders' idea was that the word 'limited' would serve to reassure everyone - there would be grounds for concern if there were an 'unlimited' contingent of Soviet troops in Afghanistan. But so long as the 'limited' contingent of Soviet troops is still in Afghanistan it would not be a bad idea to limit the number of Soviet colonels, majors, captains and sergeants in the countries of the West, especially those wearing blue berets and little gilt parachute badges on their lapels. It is those people in the blue berets who are killing children, women and old men in Afghanistan in the most brutal and ruthless way.

Thirdly, a Soviet pilot shot down a passenger plane with hundreds of people in it. After that, is there any sense in meeting Soviet airmen at international competitions and finding out who is better and who is worse? Surely the answer is clear, without any competition.

Sport is politics, and big-time sport is big-time politics. At the end of the last war the Soviet Union seized the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the West has never recognised the Soviet Union's right to those territories. All right, said the Soviet leaders, if you won't recognise it de jure, recognise it de facto. A great deal has been done, some of it with the help of sport. During the Moscow Olympic Games some of the competitions took place in Moscow and some of them in the occupied territories of the Baltic states. At that time I talked to a number of Western politicians and sportsmen. I asked them: if the Soviet Union had occupied Sweden, would they have gone to the Olympic Games in Moscow? With one indignant voice they replied, 'No!' But if parts of the Games had taken place in Moscow and part in Stockholm would they have gone to occupied Stockholm? Here there was no limit to their indignation. They considered themselves people of character and they would never have gone to occupied countries. Then why, I asked, did they go to an Olympic Games, part of which took place in the occupied territory of the Baltic states? To that question I received no answer.

* * *

The units made up of professional athletes in spetsnaz are an elite within an elite. They are made up of far better human material (some of Olympic standard), enjoy incomparably better living conditions and many more privileges than other spetsnaz units.

In carrying out their missions the professional athletes have the right to make contact with spetsnaz agents on enemy territory and obtain help from them. They are in effect the advance guard for all the other spetsnaz formations. They are the first to be issued with latest weapons and equipment and the first to try out the newly devised and most risky kinds of operation. It is only after experiments have been carried out by the units of athletes that new weapons, equipment and ways of operating are adopted by regular spetsnaz units. Here is an example:

In my book Aquarium, first published in July 1985, I described the period of my life when I served as an officer of the Intelligence directorate of a military district and often had to act as the personal representative of the district's chief of intelligence with the spetsnaz groups. The period I described was identified: it was after my return from 'liberated' Czechoslovakia and before I entered the Military-Diplomatic Academy in the summer of 1970.

I described the ordinary spetsnaz units that I had to deal with. One group carried out a parachute jump from 100 metres. Each man had just one parachute: in that situation a spare one was pointless. The jump took place over snow. Throughout the book I refer only to one type of parachute: the D-l-8. Four months later, in the magazine Sovetsky Voin for November 1985, a Lieutenant-General Lisov published what might be called the pre-history of group parachute jumps by spetsnaz units from critically low levels. The General describes a group jump from a height of 100 metres in which each man had only one parachute, and he explains that a spare one is not needed. The jump takes place over snow. The article refers to only one type of parachute -the D-l-8.

General Lisov was describing trials which were carried out from October 1967 to March 1968. The General did not, of course, say why the trials were carried out and the word spetsnaz was not, of course, used. But he underlined the fact that the trial was not conducted because it had any connection with sport. On the contrary, according to the rules laid down by the international sports bodies at that time, anyone who during a contest opened his parachute less than 400 metres from the ground was disqualified.

General Lisov conducted the trial contrary to all rules of the sport and not to demonstrate sporting prowess. The military athletes left the aircraft at a height of 100 metres, so their parachutes must have opened even lower down. The group jump took place simultaneously from several aircraft, with the parachutists leaving their plane at about one-second intervals. Each of them was in the air for between 9.5 and 13 seconds. General Lisov summed it up like this: 100 metres, 50 men, 23 seconds. An amazing result by any standards.

The fifty men symbolised the fifty years of the Soviet Army. It was planned to carry out the jump of 23 February, 1968, on the Army's anniversary, but because of the weather it was postponed till 1 March.

I could not have known at that time about General Lisov's trials. But it is now clear to me that the tactic that was being developed in the spetsnaz fighting units in 1969-70 had been initiated by professional military athletes a year before.

This dangerous stunt was carried out in my ordinary spetsnaz unit in rather simpler conditions: we jumped in a group of thirteen men from the wide rear door of an Antonov-12 aircraft. The professionals described by General Lisov jumped from the narrow side doors of an Antonov-2, which is more awkward and dangerous. The professionals made the jump in a much bigger group, more closely together and with greater accuracy.

In spite of the fact that the ordinary spetsnaz units did not succeed and will never succeed in achieving results comparable with those of the professional athletes, nevertheless the idea of the group jump from a height of a hundred metres provided the fighting units with an exceptionally valuable technique. The special troops are on the ground before the planes have vanished over the horizon, and they are ready for action before the enemy has had time to grasp what is happening. They need this technique to be able to attack the enemy without any warning at all. That is the reason for taking such a risk.

During a war the fighting units of spetsnaz will be carrying out missions behind the enemy's lines. Surely the units of professional athletes, which are capable of carrying out extremely dangerous work with even greater precision and speed than the ordinary spetsnaz units, should not be left unemployed in wartime?

* * *

Before leaving the subject entirely, I would like to add a few words about another use of Soviet athletes for terrorist operations. Not only the Soviet Army but also the Soviet state's punitive apparatus (known at various times as the NKVD, the MGB, the MVD and the KGB) has its own sports organisation, Dinamo. Here are some illustrations of its practical application.

'When the war broke out the "pure" parachutists disappeared. Anna Shishmareva joined the OMSBON.' (Sovetsky Voin, No. 20, 1985) Anna Shishmareva is a famous Soviet woman athlete of the pre-war period, while OMSBON was a brigade of the NKVD's osnaz which I have already referred to. Another example: 'Among the people in our osoby, as our unit was called, were many athletes, record holders and Soviet champions famous before the war.' (Krasnaya Zvezda, 22 May, 1985.) Finally: Boris Galushkin, the outstanding Soviet boxer of the pre-war period, was a lieutenant and worked as an interrogator in the NKVD. During the war he went behind the enemy lines in one of the osnaz units.

I have quite a few examples in my collection. But the KGB and the Dinamo sports club are not my field of interest. I hope that one of the former officers of the KGB who has fled to the West will write in greater detail about the use of athletes in the Soviet secret police.

However, I must also make mention of the very mysterious Soviet sporting society known as Zenit. Officially it belongs to the ministry for the aircraft industry. But there are some quite weighty reasons for believing that there is somebody else behind the club. The Zenit cannot be compared with the ZSKA or Dinamo in its sporting results or its popularity. But it occasionally displays a quite unusual aggressiveness in its efforts to acquire the best athletes. The style and the general direction of the training in the Zenit are very militarised and very similar to what goes on in the ZSKA and Dinamo. Zenit deserves greater attention than it has been shown. It is just possible that the researcher who studied Zenit and its connections seriously will make some surprising discoveries.