The Circassian Problem

“Bzegwr jatem nex’re nex’ zhansch” (“The tongue is sharper than the sword”)

Circassian proverb

“Putin ushered the journalists out of the room, loosened his tie and said, ‘Now we can talk like men.’” Murat Mizov, unofficial fan representative of Spartak Nalchik, recalls the meeting on 25 January 2011 with a knowing smile and points to a photograph of himself with the president afterwards, Putin staring down the camera with coercive charm.

In 2018, Mizov runs a “fan shop” behind Spartak’s stadium, a small overheated den filled with shirts and memorabilia. Photos and newspaper cuttings tell the tale of Nalchik’s glory days since foundation in 1935: the title-winning side of 1965, the Soviet First Division stalwarts of the 80s, promotion to the Premier League in 2005 and the unforgettable months in 2010 when Spartak somehow led the table and could assert that they – a provincial team from the north Caucasus – were the best side in all of Russia. About the present era, near bankruptcy in 2014 and the fall into Russia’s third-tier, the walls are more reticent.

Outside, down a slope, the stadium stands empty, 12,000 blue and red seats, no cover, a renovated Soviet-era tribune and a large electronic scoreboard. To the north, when the cloud dissipates, the sharp edges of snow-covered mountain tops break into view. On a pine-tree hillside, which children would climb to watch sold-out games, a giant sculpture of Sosruko, hero of Circassian mythology, stares out towards the vast chain of the Caucasus range. Somewhere beyond is Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe.

Mizov had been summoned north to Moscow along with dozens of others from around the country by the Minister for Sport, Vitaly Mutko. But this was not just the usual gathering to show the government’s backing for the Supporters’ Union. Russia had been awarded the World Cup only one week before and nationalist riots in Moscow, sparked by the murder of a Spartak Moscow fan, supposedly by a Circassian migrant worker on 6 December 2010, were painting an inconvenient image – of hooliganism and ethnic division – at just the wrong time. Unrest spread to St Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don and Samara, all proposed World Cup venues. “The fan meeting was meant to be in April 2011,” Mizov said. “But they brought it forward to January and flew us to Moscow. We all knew why.”

No one was expecting Putin; but after Mutko’s pleasantries, attendees noticed their mobile phones jamming, a whisper went round and suddenly the President himself emerged. “He said he wanted to calm the tensions [between fans]. I remember thinking how calculated it was. He’s a master of psychology. He said [Circassians] who came to Moscow were often young and hot-headed. They had to leave behind their ‘local’ customs [of honour and revenge].”

The man accused of the murder was Aslan Cherkesov, from Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, at the foothills of the Caucasus in Russia’s southern reaches. It is home to a majority population of ethnic Kabardians, one of a dozen Circassian groups who once lived in areas beyond Russian control that stretched all the way down to Sochi and the Black Sea.

After a long resistance in the mountains, the brutal final defeat to the Tsar in 1864 was a catastrophe for the Circassians. The war and its immediate aftermath led to one million being expelled from their homeland. Between 300,000 and 400,000 died.

Cherkesov was not a football fan and no one recalls him attending Spartak Nalchik games when he lived back home. But, having headed to the capital for work, like so many other Circassians, he became a symbol of the Caucasus “problem”. The brawl with Spartak Moscow fans created a convenient vehicle for right-wing groups agitating against “non-Slavs” and Muslims. For two years, Spartak Moscow, CSKA and Lokomotiv fan groups boycotted games in the Caucasus and there were calls for expulsion from the league altogether.

The Circassians remain potent in many a Russian imagination on the right, the noble horse-mounted warriors of 19th century lore, straight-backed in tunic and papakha (hat), now wrapped up with the (non-Circassian but geographically proximate) Chechen war, the whole region often portrayed again as a wild frontier, separatists and nationalists advancing in the chaos of the 1990s.

Mizov and his friends list the insults Circassians face when they play away from home. “Khaches” [a derogatory term for Muslims], “black bums”, “ponaekhali” [“arrivals from outside”]. But the lines are not so easy to draw in multi-ethnic Russia. Few mentioned at the time that Cherkesov was half-Balkar on his father’s side while his wife, who doggedly campaigned against his eventual 20-year prison sentence, was Russian.

The Team

“Xwzchghe mater ghek’wediy, xwzchghe gwen zi’erighehe” (“Sometimes the best gain is to lose”)

Circassian proverb

Some have called it “the graveyard”. The second-tier of the professional game, the National Football League (“FNL”), is the place where Premier League dropouts often descend into bankruptcy battles, while ambitious clubs from the third-tier Professional Football League (“PFL”) ascend from the regional to the national game only to find maladministration and spiralling costs. An FNL season will involve, for instance, at least one away trip to Vladivostok. If the FNL is a graveyard, what does that make the PFL?

Alim Karkayev, Spartak Nalchik’s 33-year-old captain, is a veteran of the Russian professional leagues, a journeyman midfielder with a stylish left foot, shuffling stride and dry sense of humour. He is one of two Balkars in the team, a Turkic people from the Caucasus that Stalin deported en masse in 1944, accusing them of collaboration with the Germans during World War II. Spartak fans – Circassian and Balkar – marked the 50-year anniversary of the expulsions, performing dua (Muslim prayer) before a game, hands in supplication.

Karkayev has played all across the country. “Even Siberia…” He laughs off the graveyard talk and says you have to look beyond the crumbling Soviet-era stadia, derisory crowds and questionable refereeing. “There are problems, of course.” I ask for an example. “The team bus, for a start. Half the seats are broken! Try that for a 10-hour trip.”

It is 16 March 2018, late on a Friday. Before away games, the players stay overnight at Spartak’s training base, a two-storey building set on a slope above the stadium. We are in the kitchen after dinner, Spartak mugs and plates strewn around the sink, a pot of tea on the table and a box of sweets.

“I’d say 70% of the clubs at our level have financial problems,” Karkayev continues. “Players being paid late or not at all. But the PFL is a start for young players and you can move up. There’s no doubt about that.”

He cites Islam Zhilov, a 20-year-old defender who, after just nine appearances for Spartak, secured a move to Premier League Anzhi Makhachkala over the winter break, a 350km journey south-east to Dagestan. “It’s a club secret!” Karkayev said when I ask about the fee, although someone later tells me it was £50,000.

“You can earn millions at the top,” Karkayev explains as the younger players look on. He played for Russia’s Under-17s with Diniyar Bilyaletdinov who earned a move to Everton in 2009. The stepping stones are clear: first, make it into the FNL or Premier League, then west to the rest of Europe.

Astemir Abazov and Kantemir Batsev join the conversation. Batsev is 23 and yet to make his debut. His father is a renowned Circassian dancer, an expert in quick steps and ritual kicks. He beams with pride that he is now with his hometown team. Abazov is a 21-year-old left-back, also Circassian and Nalchik-born, tipped to make the grade after a season on loan in neighbouring Ingushetia. He forms the core of a young, local, majority-Circassian team who, after four years in free fall, mired amid bankruptcy threat and relegation, appear to be putting the club back on the map. Their conversation mixes Russian with Kabardian, a dizzying stream of unfamiliar consonant sounds, many of which do not exist for the English tongue.

On individual wages of around £600 a month, Nalchik sit a creditable sixth in the league. Progress and exposure has come in the national knockout competition. In September 2017, Spartak beat Premier League Dinamo Moscow at home in the Russian Cup. A goalless draw was followed by penalties, the decisive kick clawed out by the hometown keeper Boris Shogenov to chants of “molodtsi!” (“Well done/Fine fellows!”) in Russian as the mobbed players left the field. The crowd of 5000 was ten times the current depressed league gates, Spartak’s dormant support attracted back by the possibility of an upset.

That earned Nalchik a tie at Spartak Moscow the following month, the club’s biggest game since the Premier League era and only the second time they’d reached the last 16. Abazov proudly shows me photos from the game at the 42,000-capacity Otkritie Arena, him marshalling Luiz Adriano by the touchline, Nalchik taking the lead with a header, thousands of Circassians (joined in solidarity by Chechens and Dagestanis in the capital) cheering the underdogs on. It ended in a 5-2 defeat to their old rivals and the game was marred by Islamophobic chanting from the Moscow ultras behind one goal. (The Russian FA later fine the club £2,000.)

A shiny, modern stadium in the moneyed Russian capital feels a long way from Nalchik on a rainy night in March – tomorrow’s two-hour trip to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia may be a Caucasus derby but the crowd is unlikely to exceed 500. This is the contradiction of the Russian third-tier – so close to life-changing opportunity above but perilously close to the Amateur Football League below.

The winter break from November has brought new challenges too. The regional government of Kabardino-Balkaria, which owns the club, cut the team’s budget to balance its own books at the end of the year, leading to the release of 10 players. The experienced striker Magomed Guguyev, who scored in Moscow, left.

The manager Sergei Trubitsin is wandering the corridors keeping an avuncular eye open. Across the hall a ping pong tournament is gathering pace in the tactics room, leather office chairs set up facing a board, flanked by a notice with José Mourinho quotes in Russian (“No player is more important than the team”).

Trubitsin refuses to get downbeat about the departures and money worries. He’s experienced most things at Nalchik since his debut as a player in 1978: Soviet First League matches in front of 20,000 capacity crowds, violent games in the snow in the Urals, a friendly match against Circassians in Jordan in 1988 (“diaspora Circassians are more disciplined!”), then returning as a coach at the club for 16 years until 2010 – and assistant to Yuri Krasnozhan when Spartak made it to the Premier League for the first time.

He jokes that he’s an “honorary Circassian”. He was born in Nalchik after his father was deported from Krasnodar at the end of the Second World War. “It wasn’t a good idea to have money back then and my father argued back. The family were told to come here. When we played Volga Tver in 1990, their players were mocking me saying ‘You’re Russian, why are you playing with these Circassians? How can you live there in the mountains?’ I said, ‘Better to live with a Circassian than a bad Russian!’ You can imagine the reaction!”

The end of the Soviet Union, for football at least, is a source of regret. “The old system was very organised, children were supported and coached well. But from 1994 to 1998 there was just nothing, no system, no coaching, it all stopped. We lost a generation of players. And the breadth of teams too, across the Soviet Union, so many good teams and players.”

The glamour and money may be things of the past but a production line of players from local schools is beginning. “When I came back to be manager [in 2017], I was told ‘there won’t be money’, so we’re developing a system for younger players. Until we find a private sponsor, that’s the only way.”

Upstairs, other players – three or four beds to a room – are watching The Voice on Russian TV. Shogenov, the veteran in the team, carefully places his 6ft 4in frame on a small bed. I ask him about the thousands of diaspora Circassians who support Spartak from afar, from Turkey, Jordan, Syria, the United States, descendants of the genocide. “Even on days when the stadium is empty, we know people are following us. We don’t forget”.

“When new players come, if they’re from outside, we show them who we are,” the self-styled ‘Kabardin Buffon’ added.

Every season, the day before the first game, the players gather on the pitch and slaughter a sheep, each man taking the knife in turn before the final one applies the cut. A hole is dug by one goal and the blood poured in before the players attend a banquet. The ritual fuses two strands of modern Circassian identity: the region’s pre-Islamic polytheism, gods and goddesses of nature to whom sacrifices were made, Theshxwe, Amisch, Mezgwasche and the rest, the names that are still heard in Kabardin toasts and invocations; and, at the same time, the Islamic tradition of animal sacrifice, the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to give his son in obedience to God's command.

Shogenov draws his long right arm across the room. “This was all built by the success of that period [2006-2012]. This room. This bed. All of it comes from what Krasnozhan achieved in the 2000s. He was our Alex Ferguson. It wasn’t just money from Kanokov…”

The Money

“Ghemaxwem qiumilezcha sch’imaxwem bghwetizhirqim” (“What you have not earned in summer, you will not find in winter”)

Circassian proverb

Arsen Kanokov, governor of Kabardino-Balkaria from 2005 until his mysterious resignation in 2013, casts a long shadow at Spartak. Charismatic businessman, construction magnate – and football fan. It is no coincidence that Spartak’s rise came when he took power and the tumble followed soon after his departure.

His Sindika group has reported assets of £1billion. Behind the unprecedented fairy-tale Premier League years were private funds – Albert Dyshekov, a journalist at Kabardino-Balkaria Pravda who has followed the team for decades says that, at its peak after 2006, upwards of £10m a year was being invested in the team and infrastructure through Kanokov’s sponsorship, attracting players from across Russia, Georgia and beyond: among them David Siradze, Leandro, Gogita Gogua, Miodrag Dzhudovich, Aleksandre Amisulashvili and Kazbek Geteriev. (To the mystifying regret of fans at the time, Kevin Kyle turned down a lucrative move from Kilmarnock in 2010…). By comparison, Trubitsin’s entire playing budget for the 2017-2018 season is a paltry £50,000.

What lay behind Kanokov’s generosity was a combination of canny politics and Circassian nationalism. The new state President embarked on an ambitious programme of social funding, including sport. Spartak’s shirts were emblazoned with the Sindika name – with the 12 stars and three arrows of the Circassian flag.

“For the first time in over a decade people were waving the Circassian flag, shouting slogans in Kabardian,” an activist called Ruslan told me. “I was never much of a football fan but 15,000 people at the stadium, being with other Circassians, that’s why we went to watch after 2006.”

A secular nationalist movement in Nalchik had briefly blossomed in response to the retreat of Moscow power back in 1991 but local leaders ultimately stepped back from confrontation with the fractured post-Soviet government.

The space for political change then narrowed dramatically after October 2005 when Islamist militants launched an attempt to take over the city, a doomed enterprise which ended in over 100 deaths and an extended security crackdown. (Kuban Krasnodar refused to travel down to face Nalchik two days later, forfeiting the league points). All politics, Islamist or otherwise, became a risk. Elsewhere, Russia was ruthlessly ending the Chechen war while Georgia battled separatists in Abkhazia. “People lay dormant for a decade after the 90s,” he said.

But Putin’s re-assertion of the Russian state’s authority by the 2000s did not prove incompatible with a return to nationalist expression through football. Aslan Beshto, a veteran activist, sees Spartak’s rise through a different lens. “It suited Moscow for teams in the Caucasus to be doing well. It showed things were back to normal, that people were happy with how things are.”

Beshto is sitting in Londongrad, a themed restaurant just off Nalchik’s main square. Behind a Union Jack armchair there is a photograph of kilted Scotland fans in central London. “Those people understand a national movement!” Beshto says. Indeed, it was a renegade Scottish diplomat, David Urquhart, who designed the green and gold of the Circassian flag in 1830 as part of his failed plan to unite the tribes against Russian influence, to the benefit of the British Empire.

Spartak Nalchik were not the only Caucasus team to scale the heights in the late 2000s. Vladikavkaz returned to the top division, Terek Grozny won the Russian Cup in controversial fashion while later Anzhi Makhachkala, backed by the billionaire Suleyman Kerimov, brought Guus Hiddink, Willian, Roberto Carlos and Samuel Eto’o to Dagestan – for brief periods, at least. Anzhi even recruited Nalchik’s legendary manager Krasnozhan to manage the stars in 2011.

All of it added up, by design or otherwise, to a public relations offensive which Putin was content to applaud, Russia’s southern frontier integrated and successful. On the horizon stood the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi (estimated bill: £30 billion), a historical site of Circassian massacre and displacement. Few expected local protest.

Caucasus Derby

“Ghwegw blaghe ghwegw zhizche nex’re, ghwegw zhizche ghwegw blaghe” ("Better a long short way than a short long way”)

Circassian proverb

It is the morning of 17 March 2018. Amid dark, misty drizzle, the Spartak hardcore arrive in ones and twos in their red and white shirts. By 11am, 40 or so men and boys are gathered in the city’s main square, beneath the statue of Maria, the Kabardin princess who married Ivan the Terrible in 1561, Russia’s earliest attempt to lay claim to the princely state of ‘Kabarda’.

There’s Alim, in aviator glasses, drinking his first beer of the day; Albert, a chef who used to serve in the Russian navy; Ramil, half-Azerbaijani; Andre the postman; ‘Grandfather Hassan’, rotund elder statesman; and two 17-year-old friends, Rasheed and Azamet, standing off from the main group, sharing stickers: Spongebob Squarepants and ACAB – “All Cops Are Bastards”. Someone is zestlessly handing out flyers for Pavel Grudinin, Communist party candidate in the presidential vote the following day.

It’s a two-hour drive to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia but no one is stinting on supplies: vast quantities of vodka, Elbrus beer, white Circassian cheese and cold meats are piled into the two minibuses, with a table unfolded in the centre for mobile dining. As the convoy wends its way out of the city, the Circassian toasts begin, each shot introduced by a lengthy tribute, to the fans, to the Caucasus, to Spartak, to Tha (God), to Kanokov.

We are soon on the highway heading south-east, still on the north side of the Caucasus range which looms to our right. Over the passes, Georgia. Winter ice has just thawed, leaving fields of dark black soil ready for spring. The border with North Ossetia feels like entry to a new country. Everyone dismounts for document checks. Russian police peer into the minibus as their dogs sniff the food.

Just north of Vladikavkaz we pass through Beslan, the small town where, in 2004, militants from Chechnya occupied School No 1. When Russian paramilitaries stormed the complex, the siege ended with 334 deaths, including 186 children.

The city of Vladikavkaz (Ruler of the Caucasus) is itself a legacy of imperial control, founded as a fortress during the Russian expansion of the 18th century and now an industrial centre of strategic significance. Its football team, Spartak Vladikavkaz, has had better days. They shocked the country by winning the Russian Premier League in 1995, followed by fervent 30,000 strong crowds, fielding a team of Georgians and local Ossetians. It renamed itself Alania Vladikavkaz, echoing the medieval kingdom of Alania.

Subsequent troubles led to expulsion from the top division in 2005. Reformed as Spartak, they now languish at the bottom end of the PFL, although rumours abound that they plan to “spend big” next season to return to the FNL.

Police lead the 50 Nalchik fans behind one goal. The last of the winter snow is piled below the scoreboard. Perhaps 500 home fans are clustered into the main stand, sitting on sheets of newspaper, bags of seeds and nuts in hand. Space is not an issue. Thousands of white, yellow and grey seats are empty.

A call and response begins: Nalchik supporters shout a Russian greeting to their Christian neighbours and North Ossetians reply “salaam aleikum!” This is a friendly rivalry – with only gentle mockery of the Ossetian character as “boasters” and “talkers”, non-Circassians who call the Caucasus their home. “Never ask an Ossetian how his family is,” one man warns. “You’ll get a long speech about their successes!” There is an historical resonance too: Ossetians are said to have benefitted more from the creeping Russian control of the north Caucasus, elevating their status relative to the traditionally more powerful Kabardians. Both sets of fans join in chants of “Kavkaz!” [Caucasus!] before the Nalchik ultras bellow in Kabardin “Adigha wey wey” (“Come on Circassians!”) and “Yewo yewo Spartak!” (“Forward/faster, Spartak!”).

Weak sunshine greets the players at kick-off. Nalchik start well, if cautiously, both sides playing the channels to avoid a congested midfield. Abazov and Karkayev are linking well down the left, easily the most technically accomplished players on the pitch. Eighteen-year-old forward Murad Ashuyev flits inside the lines with intent. Batsev, meanwhile, looks on from the bench, eager to make his first appearance.

After the break, Vladikavkaz sit back and invite more pressure. Batsev comes on to add some muscle upfront. With 10 minutes remaining, Abazov launches a curling free-kick to the far-post, Azamet Gazayev tries to send the ball back across the face but a fortuitous contact somehow powers it diagonally towards the corner of goal, high over the keeper’s head into the net. Peering 100 yards to the far end, through a fence and past an athletics track, the Nalchik fans wait for the players to celebrate before being sure to begin their own. Trubitsin runs down the touchline in his red tracksuit.

Outside the stadium, Vladikavkaz fans bring us perogi (Osettian closed pizzas) and dark ale for the journey home; Circassian accordion music (pshine) blasts from cars and there is a warm farewell. As dusk approaches, the toasts begin again.

The Politicians

“Jedum yi shirir yishxizhin x’wme, ‘dzighwem yeschhsch’ zhei’e” (“When a cat wants to eat her kitten, she says ‘It looks like a mouse’”)

Circassian proverb

The next day, Nalchik is bathed in warm sunshine. Families head to the spacious park, strolling past the Tree of Life memorial where, every 21 May, thousands gather to mark Genocide Memorial Day. Men swim in the river and women head for the lakes, dressed in the local uniform of black jeans and black leather jackets. There is little evidence, however, that this is also polling day in the Russian presidential election. No one I ask has voted. Talk of politics is met with wry smiles.

By the evening, the results are in: Putin has been re-elected – in all of Russia, his vote (93%) and turnout (92%) are announced as being highest in Kabardino-Balkaria. An enormous poster of Putin is immediately strung up in the square, covering the whole façade of the national theatre. It reads: “Above everyone in Europe”. If the election itself was invisible, its result certainly is not.

The Caucasus is regularly chosen to have the most “impressive” results, says Valery Khatazhukov, a Circassian human rights lawyer in Nalchik. His own survey estimates a turnout nearer to 25%. “Of course Putin got the most votes out of those few who voted, particularly government employees, but that’s not the point. There are no choices.”

This is reinforced by the relationship between Moscow and the Republic’s local governor. Kanokov’s successor in the White House, a vast government building on Lenin Avenue, is Yuri Kokov, who previously served as Putin’s national head of counter-terrorism. He is a securocrat who does not feign an interest in the events at the Spartak Stadium. “He’s killed us,” says one fan. “He says now is not the time for football.”

After Kanokov’s departure, the local authorities vigorously pursued the man Kanokov had long put in charge of running Spartak, Alim Belimgotov, accusing the chairman of using the club to extract state funds. Belimgotov was finally acquitted in 2017 but the cases drained public confidence. Other Kanokov family members were accused of corruption and removed from administration positions.

Offers by Kanokov, who was never personally accused of wrongdoing, to continue sponsoring Spartak from afar were reportedly rebuffed. The Sindika logo and name were no longer welcome. Spartak had lost their Premier League status in 2012 and had no benefactor. By 2014, the Republic’s government was proposing bankruptcy and liquidation. Fans petitioned to save the club and Kokov relented. But Spartak had to take voluntary relegation to the third-tier for 2014-15 and crowds began to drop below 1000, youngsters drifting off to watch Mixed Martial Arts and boxing.

Meanwhile, in early 2014, a number of Circassian activists were summoned to the Federal Security Service (FSB) building. It is a curiously brash construction just yards from the football stadium, a silver-tiled tower bolted onto a white office building. Officials informed activists that there should be no actions against the Winter Olympics. “They said, ‘If something happens, Kokov will know it was one of you,’” according to one activist who was present. “These FSB guys were part of Section-E, E for ‘ekstremizm’. Islamists, nationalists, environmentalists, anyone they don’t like, that’s ‘extremism’.”

On 7 February 2014, the first day of the Olympics, a protest nevertheless began in Nalchik’s main square. But the man who organised it, Anzor Akhokhov, wasn’t on the FSB’s radar and used social media to issue the call-out. People held up banners in English saying, “No to Sochi”, “Land of genocide” and “the Graveyard of the Circassians”. When police moved in to beat and arrest the protestors, passers-by joined in to defend them. Dozens were detained and Ahokhov faced prosecution. He publicly accused the police of torturing him, including the use of electrocution. The only Olympics protest in Russia was over within hours.

The £700m Fisht Olympic Stadium has since been renovated to be ready for football but, with FC Sochi having folded in 2017, there is currently no professional team in the city. When I ask Ruslan whether there will be protests against the World Cup this summer, he is clear. “No. We want to do more. But there’s no space for protest now. We saw what happened last time. Maybe it will change [after Putin]. But not now.”

As for the any vision of a “new, old” homeland, as one man puts it, uniting Circassians scattered in different Russian republics and repatriation of the diaspora? “Unsayable”, says another activist.

Nalchik at Home

“Phuzphefamacham zpa ipa mashau phuzafachar sha” (“If you can’t do what you want, do what you can”)

Circassian proverb

It is Saturday 24 March 2018, my final day with the team and Spartak are at home. We’re back in the central square in driving rain. Damp chants of “Red-White Djigits [Circassian Horsemen]!” go up as 50 fans march for 15 minutes down the wide, tree-lined central avenue towards the stadium. Someone bangs a traditional pkhats'ach, a wooden block-drum. As we pass the White House, people dare a few renditions of “Kanokov!”

“People don’t come out in the rain,” I’m warned. And the stadium design doesn’t help. Almost all of it is without shelter except for the VIP tribune, press box and an alcove behind the goal with around 100 seats. Still, a few hundred people are gathering to pay their 100 roubles (£1.30) entry and the hardy groups without an umbrella are improvising plastic-bag hats. Outside in the car park, through the neatly framed concrete entrance, a food market is packed with stalls selling Circassian cheeses, honey and seeds.

The visitors are Angusht Nazran from Ingushetia, a periodically unstable republic sandwiched between North Ossetia and Chechnya. No away fans appear to have made the trip and the team, mainly Ingush locals, start sluggishly as the rain gets heavier.

Batsev has got his first start upfront alongside Ratmir Mashezov, a Circassian who tried his luck last season playing in Dubai. But the standout talent is Khachim Mashukov, a left-footed 22-year-old winger cutting in off the right with impudent skill. With Abazov and Karkayev in tandem on the other side, the only surprise is it’s still goalless at half-time.

Anzor Egojev has been the stadium announcer at Nalchik for 27 years, introducing the players to dwindling crowds, playing half-time songs and completing puzzle books in the press box when games fail to ignite. A principal at School No 31, he talks enthusiastically about the current majority-Circassian team, “our local boys”, even if it is playing at a lower level. Not that he doesn’t miss the heights – “winning in St Petersburg in 2008, I’ll never forget it!” – and watching Roberto Carlos arrive with Anzhi in 2011.

He has other memories too of events at this stadium. “In 1978, Deep Purple played two nights. People got so drunk the first night, they slept over and stayed all the next day to watch the second show!”

Mizov and the Nalchik ultras get the drum out for the second period and two Circassian flags go up. Almost immediately Mashukov dances into the box and is brought down. Karkayev strokes the penalty home with the keeper having gone the wrong way.

Then the goal of the game on the hour – Mashukov whips in a cross and Batsev powers a diving header, racing over onto the athletics track to celebrate his first Spartak goal, two thumbs up to the crowd. The older men in the alcove climb to their feet to acknowledge him.

Mashezov makes it 3-0 before Abazov has time to miss a penalty. Nazran grab a late consolation but Nalchik are comfortable winners and rise to 4th in the PFL South table. The one promotion spot is already sewn up by big-spending Afips but Trubitsin hopes a strong finish will persuade Kokov and co to increase the budget next year.

The clouds clear a little at full-time and from the top of the now empty main stand, I can just see the Sosruko monument, the hero of the “Nart” folklore stories Circassians passed down through oral tradition, the man born from a stone, so powerful was the lust of a shepherd for the Goddess Satanay. Prefiguring the Prometheus myth, Sosruko is said to have stolen fire for man and so became a symbol of battle and glory.

There is a black and white photo of Nalchik winning the Soviet championship on 20 November 1965, a 3-1 home win over Rubin Kazan sealing the “Class B” title. In front of the classical white-columned tribune, thousands of fans stand with arms outstretched against the evening sky, their faces in shadow. They have rolled up their newspapers, set them alight and are pointing the flaming torches towards Sosruko in proud salute. These supposedly quiescent, assimilated Soviet citizens, at a moment of triumph, reached for their Circassian identity and joyfully expressed it.