At the beginning of the 20th century, football in Russia developed very dynamically. The championship of St. Petersburg, the capital of the empire, was created in 1901. The Russian Football Union was founded 11 years later, and played its first official match that very year, at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. Starting in that team traveling to Sweden for its debut: a certain defender called Petr Sokolov.
The humiliating defeat
Sokolov was a graduate of the Faculty of Law of St. Petersburg University. He was interested in sports and especially in football during his studies. Petr started his footballing career at a club called Unitas in 1909, and was chosen together with four teammates to play for the national team.
Here is how the St. Petersburg newspapers wrote about Sokolov: «A high-class player. Runs great when pushing away opponents’ attacks. He skillfully takes the ball on his head, does not get lost even in the most dangerous moments».
The defender took part in two matches at the Olympics. The tournament consisted only of the playoffs, and Finland became the rival of the Russian team in the first round. This country was formally part of the empire at the beginning of the 20th century, but it had autonomy and was allowed to create its own national team. The Finns won 2:1, the only goal for the Russians was scored by Vasily Butusov, Unitas teammate of Petr Sokolov.
Although the Russian team was no longer in contention for victory in the main tournament, it did participate in the consolation event of the Olympics. This time the team played against Germany and suffered a humiliating defeat: 0-16. This was the end for the Russian participation and for Petr personally at the games in Stockholm.
After the revolution
While Petr’s career was taking off, difficult times were brewing at home. Two revolutions took place in Russia in February and October 1917. People were tired of the endless First World War and wanted political changes. The February Revolution deposed the tsar and brought a provisional government to power. After the October coup, the radical left party of the Bolsheviks became the leader of the country. This event became the prologue of the Civil War, which stretched until 1922.
Sokolov was from a noble family and called himself a monarchist. He did not accept the revolution. He did away with football and focused on fighting the Bolsheviks. In 1918, he joined an underground organization, and his first assignment was to deliver a report to Arkhangelsk, a city in northern Russia where British troops were then stationed. The United Kingdom supported the White movement – opponents of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War. Then he was transferred to Finland, that became an independent state after the revolution. In Helsinki, he met Captain Ernest Boyce, a resident of British intelligence. The Englishman appointed Sokolov as a liaison officer with the agent Paul Dukes in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was called since 1914). Sokolov lived in a border town a few kilometers from the former capital of the Russian Empire. Petr helped opponents of the regime to escape, supported the participants of the anti-bolsheviks uprising in Kronstadt in 1922, and identified Soviet intelligence officers. And after Paul Dukes was in danger, Sokolov helped the agent leave Russia.
The spy becomes a collaborator
In the 1920s, Sokolov still lived in Finland, where he bought a house. He even created an amateur football team for which immigrants from Russia played. But he still focused most of his energy on fighting Bolshevism. The former football player joined the Russian All-Military Union, an organization of emigrants who left the country after the defeat in the Civil War. Peter was still engaged in espionage and made daring operations in Leningrad (the city’s new name was changed in 1924). One of these operations almost ended in his arrest. In the autumn of 1939, when World War II had already begun in Europe, and the USSR was preparing to invade Finland, Sokolov was on a mission in Leningrad. On the street he was met by Mikhail Butusov, the younger brother of Petr Butusov, who scored a goal at the 1912 Olympics. Mikhail was also a footballer and played with Sokolov in Unitas before the Revolution. Of course, he knew that Sokolov had long gone abroad, so he could not just return. Butusov did not hand over his former partner in the football club to the police.
After the beginning of the Soviet-Finnish war, Sokolov had even more work. He published a newspaper in Russian for prisoners of war and spoke on the radio. And after Hitler attacked the USSR, Peter began to cooperate with the Nazis. He met with the infamous Andrei Vlasov, a former general of the Red Army, who went over to Hitler’s side after surrendering. Nowadays, in Russia, the name Vlasov became a synonym for the word traitor. Sokolov helped the Germans create espionage schools in occupied Estonia. Petr also looked for potential collaborators among the Soviet POVs and participated in the operations of the special command unit.
In 1944, Finland withdrew from the war, and the future defeat of Germany became obvious. Peter Sokolov understood that he had to run. So he ended up in Sweden, where he changed his name and married a local girl. He no longer engaged in espionage and got a job as a massage therapist in a sports club. The Soviet intelligence knew where Sokolov was, but the Swedish government refused to extradite the former agent. Petr was never caught. The former footballer of the Russian Empire national team died in 1971 at the age of 80.
This story may prompt discussion of the moral choice of a person who has decided to devote himself to the fight against the political regime. Who was Peter Sokolov: a freedom fighter or a henchman of Hitler? Where is the line between a spy and a collaborator? What methods of struggle can be considered justified, and which are not? Can the end justify any means?
Find out more
You can find more information about Sokolov on the Russia beyond website. History.com has a timeline of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War and Britanicapublished a bio of Andrey Vlasov.
The Russian footballer who worked for the British intelligence and Hitler