Zenit St Petersburg represent the city that has often defined relations between Finland and Russia, and therefore the security and prosperity of the Finnish people. The area around St Petersburg was at one time inhabited by people speaking Finnic languages, and on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland there still exists small pockets of Ingrians.
Since Peter the Great drained the swamps around his new capital city, the relationship between Russia and those to its west has been a defining feature of Russian policy. For those who lived to Russia’s west this was an uncomfortable situation, as first the Tsars and then the Soviets felt the need to protect their western territory. As Finland was first annexed and then declared independent, the implications became clearer to those in charge of both Finland and Russia, and the importance of St Petersburg (or Leningrad as it was then known) declined. The capital reverted to Moscow, and the Soviets concentrated on building ‘socialism in one country’.
Then came the Second World War. A horrifically bloody affair in this part of the world, it involved huge invasions and re-invasions, and a massive miscalculation on the part of the Finnish command when deciding the relative importance of areas of forest in Northern Karelia and the security of the second city of the Soviet Union. Despite the snafus, Finland defended most of its territory, but it was clear from the subsequent negotiations that the Soviet Union was not prepared to countenance even the impression of a threat to Leningrad, as it was then known.
Zenit won their first honours during the war, the Wartime Soviet Cup of 1944. At this time Finland was engaged in heavy fighting with the Soviet Union just to the north of Leningrad, and those Zenit players who were not conscripted to go to the front were working in the metal works that was at that time the owner of Zenit. After the war they were taken over by the makers of LOMO cameras.
During the Cold War, Finns had more person-to-person contacts with Russians than many other nationalities. Trade, which was mandatory under the terms of Finland’s Friendship and Co-operation Agreement with the Soviet Union, ensured that decision makers in both countries had an interest in not questioning the values of the other side too closely.
Zenit’s fortunes were up and down after 1945, as it was always difficult for teams outside of Moscow and Kiev to make an impact in the Soviet league. They did escape relegation in 1967 when they finished in the relegation places though, as it was felt that Leningrad needed a top flight team in the year in which the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution was celebrated. In the 80s things picked up, and they won a league title in 1984.
Since then, the pendulum of political and economic power in Russia has swung back towards St Petersburg. Both the current and previous Presidents (I’ll pretend it matters that there’s a new one) are from St Petersburg and Medvedev at least is an avid Zenit fan. They are now owned by Gazprom, which is expected to become the biggest company in the world in the next few years, and has its headquarters in the city. As Gazprom searches for legitimacy in Europe, financing pipelines here and ice hockey tournaments there, Zenit are expected to become a power in the world game by virtue of sheer financial clout.
They are supported by Russia’s president, by the most important Russian company, and by a small section of ultra nationalist and racist fans. This combination of monopoly capitalism, massive wealth and populist xenophobia is a microcosm of much of Russian politics and society, which is crucially important to Finland and for locating Finland in the context of Europe. Is Zenit’s success a sign of Russia’s westernising impulse? Is the bigotry in the stands an indication of the popularity of a virulent nationalism that Finland should take note of? Is Gazprom’s rise a benign case of a company searching for recognition through sponsorship of sport, or is it a more sinister indication of control in Russia passing from private to semi-state hands?
None of those questions will be answered or even discussed on Finnish free-to-air television tonight, because as someone so appropriately put it, ‘it’s HOCKEY TIME!’ right now. YLE don’t have the rights to the Zenit v Rangers UEFA Cup final, so they’re not showing the game. Anywhere. At all.
With each passing day I feel less and less like paying these people for the privilege of owning a television set, and this may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.