Nikolai Starostin: The Cost of Defying Beria

Jun 5, 2020

Life Stories

Nikolai Starostin


Nikolai Petrovich Starostin was born near Moscow in 1902. He was from a middle-class background, but times were hard after his father died. Nikolai used his talents in football and ice-hockey to support his family. From 1921 he was an organiser of the Moscow Sports Circle. In 1934, Starostin was backed by Komsomol (Communist Youth). The MSC was now Spartak Moscow, a rival to CSKA Moscow (the army team) and Dynamo Moscow (run by Lavrentiy Beria, head of the secret police).

Dangerous Conflict with Beria

In the late 1930s, the rivalry between Spartak and Dynamo was bitter. Part of this was personal; Beria had played against Starostin and hated him for being a far better player. Spartak won the league and cup double in 1938 and 1939; this put Starostin in danger from Stalin’s purges, which were orchestrated by Beria. In 1942, Starostin and his brothers were arrested, charged with plotting to kill Stalin. Nikolai was sentenced to ten years in a labour camp. This may have saved his life; being a prisoner in the Gulag meant he could not be a soldier at the front.

Soviet Hero Again

In 1948, Starostin was freed on the orders of Vasily Stalin. Beria dared not openly clash with Stalin’s son but continued to threaten Starostin, who chose to accept exile in faraway Kazakhstan. He was finally safe in 1953 when Stalin died and Beria was executed. Nikolai was rehabilitated, as coach of the national team. In 1989 his memoirs, Football Through the Years, told his story. He was awarded the Order of Lenin. Nikolai Starostin died in 1996, 43 years after Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria.

Thinking points

Nikolai Starostin lived through the entire history of the Soviet Union; he was born in Imperial Russia and died a citizen of the Russian Federation. His sporting career made him a new hero of Soviet Football, but also an enemy of Stalin’s feared secret police chief, LP Beria. Starostin spent years in labour camps and exile; he might well have been one of the millions who disappeared forever in Stalin’s purges.

Educators could look at the life story of Nikolai Starostin and work with young people to consider these questions:

  1. What does Starostin’s life tell us about football, propaganda, and repression in a dictatorship?

Find out more

The story illustrated above is told in more details at this BBC report and on the popular football website These Football Times.


Statue of Nikolai Starostin in the Otkrytie Arena (Photo: Дмитрий Садовников, Wikimedia Commons)

Statue of Nikolai Starostin in the Otkrytie Arena (Photo: Дмитрий Садовников, Wikimedia Commons).

Life Story

Jean-Marc Bosman was an obscure player for Liege, wanting a transfer to Dunkerque. His club refused, but the European Court of Justice ruled that trade was restrained in this way. Now players could negotiate free transfers as they chose. His story is one of legal change, commercialisation and globalisation.


Article Tags:   Lives


Justin Fashanu: Casualty of prejudice?

Justin Fashanu: Casualty of prejudice?

Justin Fashanu was the first black footballer to be transferred for £1 million and was the first high-level footballer to “come out” as a gay man....

Do you wanna know more?



Browse our collection of stories about football history and inclusion. With the history of football being made up of millions of stories, of individuals and communities, of movements and processes, we offer stories that can inspire our cultural conversations today.


Get to know untold stories where individuals are making history with football. When faced with insurmountable challenges, individuals past and present can use football as a cultural force to foster positive change in society. We honour these individuals and tell their ‘untold’ stories in short videos.

Educational Resources

Explore our innovative educational resources that use football’s history, heritage and legacy to engage young people. The resources include ready-made lesson plans and historical source collections for school history education as well as toolkit with activities for non-formal settings.

LATEST POST  You may also be interested in

Saga of a small nation in a bigger Europe

Saga of a small nation in a bigger Europe

On this day in 2016, Iceland’s football men lost to France at the European Championship. It ended an amazing run for the team which had not yet reached such heights. This is a story of a small nation in a bigger Europe.

Football without frontiers for a Europe without borders

Football without frontiers for a Europe without borders

On this day in the year 2000, the final of the first European Championship co-hosted by two countries was played. The idea to host such an event together is an example of the 1990s momentum in European cooperation. Euro2020, now postponed till 2021, is co-hosted by 12 European cities. This is the story of crossing borders.

Local football history closest to school teaching

Local football history closest to school teaching

A conversation with Football Makes History developer Geir Ove Halvorsen, a teacher at a secondary school in Norway, about his experience using football history, connecting local and global perspectives in his lessons.

When fans sing together for joy

When fans sing together for joy

On this day in 2016, Northern Irish and Irish fans received a medal for exemplar behaviour. An important moment for the countries, as well as in the history of the European Nations Cup. This is the story of the remarkable fans of Northern Ireland and Ireland. It is a story about football innovation and bridging countries.

July in football history

July in football history

As the UEFA 2020 European Championships got pushed ahead one year, the team of Football Makes History will provide you with a 365-day #onthisday series of posts to help all fans out there to go back in time, think, and reflect.

The Climb to Equality

The Climb to Equality

Football Makes History spoke with Laura Youngson, co-founder of Equal Playing Field and co-owner of the world record for highest altitude official football match ever played. This is the story of why we wanted to retell this story, and how we did it.

Share This