People vs the army in Spartak-CSKA Moscow derby

Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
CSKA Moscow's Alan Dzagoev (R) celebrates with teammate Zoran Tosic after scoring a goal during an UEFA Champions League match, in December 2016

One club represented the mighty Soviet Red Army, the other was named after an ancient gladiator-slave -- now Moscow's CSKA and Spartak fight out one of the fiercest rivalries in Russian football.

The two teams face off Sunday in a furious city derby that comes with added spice this year: Spartak are top of the Russian Premier League and chasing their first title in 16 years, while CSKA are the reigning champions and are second.

In the stands the chants and flares of the rival fans will be the latest chapter in a profound enmity that dates back to the Soviet era when the teams stood for different segments of society: the ordinary people and the army.

Founded in 1922 by Nikolai Starostin, the eldest of four football-loving brothers, Spartak are Russia's most successful and popular team with 34 league and cup titles.

Named after Spartacus, the gladiator who led a slave uprising against Rome, the club got backing from factory workers and prided itself on its independence from the authorities.

Meanwhile CSKA traditionally had the formidable muscle of the armed forces behind it and became a showcase for the sporting power of the Soviet Union.

"It came to be that Spartak was the people's team," defender Vagiz Khidiyatullin, who played for both sides in the 1970s and 80s, told AFP.

But at CSKA "when a military officer would come in, all of us players had to stand to attention".

- Purges and poaching -

For Spartak -- nicknamed "meat" because of ties to a packing union -- not having the backing of one of the USSR's powerful security bodies was often a major problem.

In the 1940s the Starostin brothers were arrested and sent to labour camps in Siberia on the orders of secret police boss Lavrenty Beria, whose feared organisation stood behind Dinamo Moscow.

In contrast, CSKA had a useful advantage over their rivals: they could poach players by making them do compulsory service in the army.

"In terms of squad selection, CSKA was one of the best," Khidiyatullin, who played for CSKA from 1981 to 1983 after four seasons with Spartak, told AFP.

"They had the possibility of recruiting players by taking them into the army."

Robert Edelman, an expert on Soviet football at the University of California at San Diego, said that for many in the Soviet era, supporting Spartak was seen as a subtle form of standing up to the system, even if they did not actively oppose it.

"I think the fans who are 40 and over probably still partake of the Spartak Kool-aid or the ideology that it was a civilian team, it was a more humane way of being Soviet," he said.

"I don't think they were dissidents in any way, shape or form."

And the state's influence could still certainly be felt at Spartak, with the all-powerful security agencies keeping a close eye on players to stop them defecting when they played matches abroad.

"We always travelled with chekists," Khidiyatullin said, using a Soviet-era term for members of the KGB security service.

"They weren't noticeable but they were always close by."

- Winds of change -

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991 Russian football underwent the same seismic shifts as society and the old ties weakened.

The Spartak-CSKA rivalry remained strong but it no longer revolved around the power struggles in Soviet society.

Spartak dominated the Russian league in the 1990s, winning all but one league title between 1992 and 2001, but have not finished first since then.

Meanwhile, as their cross-town rivals dropped off, CSKA went on to stamp their own authority, scooping six league titles.

Radical changes in the Russian game also saw problems such as racism and hooliganism, which had been kept under wraps during the Soviet period, come into the rivalry.

"Both teams now have fairly strong levels of racism among their following, which you would not have seen exhibited, at least overtly, in any way during the Soviet period," Edelman said.

"Both teams have hooligan elements, probably Spartak more so."

During their last match the referee was forced to stop play after flares tossed in the stands filled Spartak's Otkrytie Arena, which will be a World Cup venue in 2018, with smoke.