The Palace of Sport

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The opening in 1956 of Moscow’s Luzhniki Sports Complex, located at the southern bend of the Moscow river, was the symbolic culmination of the massive transformations undergone by the entire country. By the mid-1950s, Soviet society was nearly half urban and almost universally literate. The expansion of higher education and technical training had created a more complex and articulated society, as new groups of technical specialists, middle-level bureaucrats and intellectuals emerged. Through improvements in transportation and communication, even those in rural areas were drawn into the vortex of an urban-based culture. Moreover, the reduction of the work-day from eight to seven hours and (for some) the work week from six to five days meant more leisure time. All these changes, then, created possibilities for the growth of spectator sports, which, in the Soviet Union, meant first and foremost soccer, and secondly, hockey.

The Luzhniki Complex contained soccer fields, running tracks, a swimming stadium, and basketball, volleyball, tennis courts. Its crowning glory was Lenin Stadium, which, with a capacity of 103,000, was one of the largest stadiums in the world. While Dinamo, the favorite soccer team of Moscow workers, continued to play its home games at its own stadium, Dinamo’s rival, Spartak, moved to Luzhniki. In the fall of 1956, the Palace of Sport opened just west of Lenin Stadium. This was a large 14,000-seat indoor arena, comparable to most North American facilities in size and amenities. Containing only the second artificial rink in the Soviet Union, it served as the venue for the most important games of Moscow’s several first-division hockey teams.

Over the next decade a wave of construction of stadiums and palaces of sport swept the Soviet Union. If in 1952, the USSR had 1,020 stadiums seating more than 1,500 spectators, then by 1960, the number had grown to 2,407 and by 1968 to 3,065 such structures. Spectatorship correspondingly expanded, though not necessarily to the financial advantage of teams, which remained dependent on relatively modest state budgetary allocations rather than ticket sales, television revenues, or apparel sales.

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