Despite widespread unrest among the Soviet Union satellites, which were treated as feudal vassals rather than “fraternal countries,” a meaningless term common in Soviet propaganda there were few protests during the Cold War. And when people protested, the military stepped in to crush demonstrations such as happened in East Berlin, Romania, Poland and Hungary between 1953 and 1956.
With few other avenues in which to express their dissatisfaction with Soviet occupation, people in Eastern European countries often use sport as a safer surrogate to open protests.
In the spring of 1954, an international chess tournament was held in the Romanian capital of Bucharest. The favourites were the Soviet players, Viktor Korchnoi and Rashid Nezmetdinov. Other competitors came from satellite countries and a few grand masters from western countries. Wins by Soviet players was greeted with polite subdued applause, while wins against them was met with loud clapping.
At the World Summer Student Games in Budapest in August 1954, Hungarian judges deliberately reduced the scores for Soviet competitors.
Such was the ill feeling that the sports ministers for both countries, Gyula Hegyi and Nikolai Romanov, were ordered by the Central Committee of the Communist Party to sort out the problem. Hegyi was urged to improve the “moral education of athletes and spectators in the spirit of socialism.”
They did not calm tensions and a Soviet report appeared soon after that observed that “individual Hungarian judges and referees officiating at major international competitions are in cahoots with game officials from capitalist countries, the aim being disparage the success of Soviet athletes.”
Clearly, the quiet chat between Soviet and Hungarian sports officials had little impact, such that Romanov observed: “Comrade Gyula Hegyi had incompletely understood the political significance and the general importance of reinforcing the friendship between Hungarian and Soviet athletes.” Such would was the tension between the two countries that the Central Committee Presidium adopted a Decree of the Uncharitable Attitude Towards Soviet Athletes in Hungary in September 1954, after which the matter was raised with the head of a Hungarian Communist Party, Mátyás Rákosi. While he agreed with his Soviet masters, he did nothing to tame the hostility of Hungarian athletes towards their Soviet comrades. Such was the prestige and esteem elite athletes were held in Hungary that he was unwilling to take them on.
A year later, during a friendly football match, played on 25 September 1955, the USSR and Hungary drew, 1-1. At the final whistle, the Hungarians refused traditional handshake with Soviet players. Later that evening, at a postgame reception, officials were careful to keep the two sides away from one another, fearing a fistfight.
Such resentment against Soviet sportspeople was partly a desire to best them; a keen desire to win. But there was also resentment over being treated as vassals in their own country, and the hostility towards Soviet athletes also had a strong political element to it.
Hungarians were by no means alone in using sporting events to protest against Soviet hegemony. In Poland, there were protests at hockey matches, a women’s basketball championship and boxing bouts between Belorussia and Warsaw. Matters came to a head during Soccer World Cup qualifiers played between the national teams of the USSR and Poland in 1957. The first match was played in Moscow, and the second was due to be played in Warsaw on 20 October 1957. Fearing protests, Communist officials moved the game to the small Polish town of Chorzów. The match was played before a capacity crowd and was accompanied by anti-Soviet slogans, threats and insults directed at Soviet players. Spectators through bottles on the playing field, and the Polish footballers initiated rough play, which was met by cheers from the crowd. Poland won, 2-1.
There is no evidence that spectators or the Polish footballers were punished in any way for their misbehaviour towards the Soviet team. At the time the Polish government was mildly reformist, quietly putting some distance between it and Moscow and it may well have adopted an unofficial policy of using sport to signal to its Soviet overlord that it had the support of its population.
While not presaging the breakup of the Soviet Union, the continued low-level protests provide evidence of ongoing resentment among satellite countries in Eastern Europe.