Cambridge University Basketball tours through the USSR
(text provided by Tony Reid, added by Michael Hofstetter in January 2022)
We received the following note by alum Tony Reid, who was in Cambridge in 1961-65, and played for the club during this time. He also provided an article in which he describes a basketball tour to the USSR, where the club played against Russian “university” teams. Tony, thank you for the effort writing up this great story.
I was amazed to be found by your circular about the centenary of the Cambridge University Basketball Club. How did you do that?
Since I am old enough to be into the memoir-writing stage, I recently revisited my years with the Club (1961-2 mostly, while “in residence” at Kings) . I will attach some words I wrote about our tour of the USSR, playing 4 games in Moscow & Leningrad, and losing most. The games were often billed as “XYZ University versus England”, though the authorities must have noticed that only two of our team had British passports. Our captain was a US graduate student (whose name has escaped me) with a luxuriant beard, and whenever he had the ball the small crowd would shout “Fidel, Fidel”.
I wonder if this features anywhere in the records of the Club. If somebody else wrote up the story for the club I would love to see it.
Best wishes for the centenary,
Cambridge Basketball tour of USSR, January 1962
Having played some basketball as an undergrad in Wellington, NZ, I turned out for my College (Kings) soon after arriving for my PhD in the autumn of 1961. I remember only two Kings team-mates, one of whom a Mill Hill priest interested in mission work in Borneo, and the other Brian Pollit, son of veteran British communist leader Harry Pollit, and himself the leader of Cambridge communism and a later President of the Cambridge Union. His posh Eton and Cambridge accent seemed astonishing in my ignorance of the British class system.
I played a few times for the Cambridge team, including the Varsity match in that 1961-2 year. But late in that first Michaelmas Term a more exciting opportunity arose when the university’s club invited applications to join a tour it had arranged of the Soviet Union. I was quick to sign up, having done a graduate course in Soviet history. Even after Hungary 1956 the question whether Socialism worked was something my generation was still wrestling with.
Pollitt didn’t come, but later I wondered if his connections were the reason we were treated so well in the USSR, with hotels, meals and most local expenses borne by our hosts. Selection was not difficult among the small number of mostly American players of the day. The team that left London by endless train journey on 2 January 1962 comprised 7 Americans, two Englishmen (one was ‘Stan’ from Sunderland) and one Kiwi. We spent two weeks on the whole trip, but with stops in Berlin on the way in and Warsaw on the way out, Moscow and Leningrad together occupied only 5-16 January. We played two games in each city, losing the first three by 1 point, 65 points (ugh!) and 27 points respectively, and narrowly winning the last. Instead of real student teams, “our opponents were chosen, presumably as those who could beat us soundly but not absurdly, from among the best teams in the Moscow and Leningrad ‘B’ leagues (ie excepting the top 4 or 5 teams). In general their teams were tremendously fit and energetic, but surprisingly poor at intelligent team play.”
We learned more than anticipated about the Soviet medical system. Almost everybody except me suffered from ‘flu at some point, which we attributed to the English winter rather than the very dry Soviet one. Our worst afflicted player was running a high temperature on the train by the time we entered the USSR. The Russians seemed concerned that a foreigner might die on them, and organised to have a doctor waiting at each train station to check and give injections. On arrival at Moscow they bundled him straight off to hospital despite his protestations. Some of the early days were taken up with visiting him in hospital, battling language and bureaucracy problems on the way. “He only emerged from hospital after five days. He judged that the food was OK but the nursing attention terrible — he sweated for five days without a bathe or a change of sheets.”
That left plenty of time to see the sights, though disappointingly little meaningful contact with real students. Our guide and minder was Rita, “a very simple, homespun, maternal and extremely honest honours student of American literature getting some experience and a very little money in her holidays”. She accompanied us from arrival to departure, although having to defer in Leningrad (11-14 January) for local knowledge to an additional guide, Lucy. Like all who knew English Rita was desperate to travel, and resented that Lucy had enjoyed the privilege of a two-week student exchange in England, though she was “not brilliant”, just seen as more dutiful a communist. Of course some of the people we spoke to, notably the English-speaking Baptist pastor, were sensibly cautious if Rita was present knowing she would have to report on us, she appeared more politically naïve than party-line. We soon adopted her as a vital part of the group, taking our side against inscrutable bureaucracy at every turn.
Although De-Stalinization had been quietly proceeding since Stalin’s death in 1953 and Kruschev’s ‘secret speech’ denouncing him to the Politburo in 1956, we arrived at a particularly critical time. Late October 1961 had seen the 22nd Congress of the CPSU, making public the reaction against Stalin and in consequence the rupture with China. Only six weeks before our arrival in Berlin and then Moscow in January, Stalin’s statue was removed from Berlin’s monumental Stalin-Allee, promptly renamed Karl-Marx-Allee, during the crisis that prompted the permanent division of the city through erection of the Berlin Wall. Our West Berlin hosts had wanted to leave us in no doubt what an atrocity that was, and how Berlin should forever be united. In Moscow visiting Lenin and Stalin’s tomb in Red Square was still de rigueur for visitors to Moscow, whether foreign visitors like us or provincial Russians who formed a queue at least a half-mile long snaking around Red Square. We of course had privileged access, and waited only 15 minutes. But Stalin was no longer there. He had been quietly moved two months earlier to the Kremlin Wall necropolis, and his spot alongside Lenin was all too obviously empty. A canvas with the single word ‘Lenin’ temporarily covered the marble engraving of the two names.
In other respects liberalization had come more gradually since 1953, and we were its beneficiaries. (The ‘Kruschev thaw’ would be reversed a few years later by Brezhnev.) Rita would come with us on outings when we needed her, but we freely went off alone or in groups where we wished. “I never had the feeling that we were being carefully chaperoned towards the things tourists were supposed to see. Officialdom in Russia is certainly often a millstone…but there is now virtually no restriction on what you may see.” All the statues of Stalin had gone, but those of Lenin were so ubiquitous that it seemed they must have multiplied to fill the empty spaces. I noted that “the theatre seemed to be one safe refuge away from the ubiquitous statues of Lenin. They have Beethoven, Liszt and Mozart instead”. In fact the Bolshoi, where we saw ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ appeared wholly unchanged from Tsarist days except for a tiny hammer and sickle above the royal box. In Leningrad we also saw Grieg’s ballet, ‘Peer Gynt’, and heard Igor Oistrakh (son of David) in a magnificent violin concert – all with no trace of socialist realism or Russian nationalism.
Despite a few very hospitable English-speaking Russians met by chance at an alcoholic Komsomol (Communist Youth League) party at the hotel, we were having trouble meeting students except on the basketball court. When we pressed for such an opportunity, we were invited to a (pre-arranged?) party on 9 January organised by the Moscow Architectural Institute, the major school for architects in Moscow. We became the guests of honour, with the Rector’s speech translated for us, and a banquet of rare goodies like oranges and chocolate on a table decorated with USSR, USA, UK and New Zealand flags. Apart from two glamorous, well-dressed and flirtatious girls who may well have been doing their bit for the KGB or the Party, those present seemed genuine students critical of their own culture and greatly interested in the world out there.
The lively architecture student I paired off with (drawing on my brother’s architecture lectures over the kitchen sink) enthused about the changes since Stalin’s death. Unlike the rival, more classical and theoretical school in Leningrad, her Moscow school had reacted strongly against the dreadful Stalinist period 1937-53 that had enforced ‘socialist realist’ horrors like Moscow University. The students were keen to learn from the West now that they could, but a little confused where to turn. Most thought Corbusier the best model, though she preferred Frank Lloyd Wright. Her school’s proudest contribution to the new trends was the starkly modernist building of the 22nd Congress. The night went on with a lot of dancing, both ballroom and a folk-dance in a ring, and singing of national songs. In the confusion what items the Cambridge team had to offer, I felt obliged by the atmosphere and the vodka to offer my school haka – the only time in my life.