How a footballer from Tsarist Russia became a spy
At the end of the 19th century, a new sport arrived in the Russian Empire: football. In a short time the game became very popular, and one of the best players of the time was Pyotr Petrovich Sokolov.
Born in Saint Petersburg in 1891, Pyotr developed an early passion for football, taking the first steps of his career under the colors of the Udelnaya football team. In 1911, Sokolov moved to Unitas. There he won the championships of St. Petersburg and Russia. In the team, Sokolov regularly executed free kicks and penalties. And before he kicked the ball he was still spitting, so his fans nicknamed him “Pete the Spit”.
Pyotr Sokolov is first from the left
Sokolov’s position was like a back winger. He has been described as a steadfast and tenacious player, able to inspire the team with his enthusiasm. Pyotr’s career progressed successfully in national tournaments, but like the entire national team of the Russian Empire, he could not boast of success in international matches.
At the end of November 1911, the team played their first friendly match, in which they were pitted against England. The Russians had no chance against the pioneers of football: the game ended 11-0 in favor of England.
The following year, the Russian Empire participated in the Olympic Games in Stockholm. The two games organized within the framework of the Games ended in defeat. But no one had expected the team – after all, football was just getting started in Russia. World War I broke out soon after, and the VI Summer Olympics were canceled altogether.
Although he graduated from the Alexander I Gymnasium, Peter wanted to devote his life to football. But the events of 1917 forced him to reconsider his plans. He was preparing to go to the front after a period of training at the warrant officers’ school in Peterhof. But Russia withdrew from the war.
Russian national football team
Then the Empire suddenly ceased to exist and the Bolsheviks came to power. As a devoted monarchist, Sokolov took it very badly. He did not stay on the sidelines and joined the white movement. But, Pyotr did not intend to fight “head-on”, but channeled his intellectual capacities in another direction – into espionage.
Ally with Great Britain
Pyotr managed to get in touch with British intelligence officials. After making a good impression, Sokolov was given his first assignment – to study the situation in Petrograd, which was in the throes of revolution, and relay information to the British command in Arkhangelsk. Sokolov fulfilled his mission.
Then the British sent Sokolov to Helsinki. There he met Ernest Boyce of the British Secret Service. After an interview, Pyotr received another assignment. There was now to be a courier between the British spy HQ in Terijoki (now Zelenogorsk, a suburb of St. Petersburg) and secret agent Paul Dukes, who was in Petrograd.
Library of Congress
Meanwhile, the flames of civil war were extinguished with the defeat of the Whites. But Sokolov had no intention of giving up or returning to Red Russia. So he stayed in Terijoki, where he bought a house and settled into family life. British intelligence had officially ended its operations on Soviet territory, but Pyotr did not call it a day. He earned his living through the illegal trafficking of various goods, as well as the recruitment of individuals. Usually, it was the athletes he knew from Imperial times who fell under his grip. Sokolov also recruited Russian emigrants who had entered Finland. To this end, the spy created the Terijoki Football Club, where more than sport was offered – it was there that he manipulated young minds.
The Soviet Union was aware of Sokolov’s subversive activities. They tried to get a hold of him, but the OGPU secret police failed to catch him. Pyotr seemed to have a sixth sense when it came to detecting the Chekists and was adept at evading them. According to one account, attempts were made to lure Sokolov into his home by playing on his emotional attachment to the parents he had left behind, but the ploy was unsuccessful. Then the USSR resorted to extreme measures. The Kremlin officially asked Finland to expel Sokolov from the Karelian Isthmus and the Finns agreed. Sokolov then moved to Helsinki. He was forced to make a living as a laborer and found a job at the Fennia tobacco factory.
But he was clearly not made for a quiet life. Sokolov began to edit the emigrant newspaper Russkoye Slovo [Russian Word] then joined the ranks of several anti-Soviet movements. But, for several years, Pyotr did not engage in any specific subversive activity, because Great Britain had, by then, given up its espionage games with the USSR.
The situation changed fundamentally in 1939 with the outbreak of the Soviet-Finnish war. Sokolov was invited, as an experienced spy that he was, to join the propaganda service. His duties involved visits to camps housing Soviet prisoners of war. He sought to persuade people to join the fight against the Bolsheviks and recruited personnel for espionage activities on Soviet territory.
One last try
But just as this particular confrontation finally ended, news broke – the Great Patriotic War. And Piotr, once again, joined forces with the enemies of the Soviet Union. He led the Severnoye Slovo [Northern Word] propaganda newspaper and got involved in radio propaganda broadcasts. At the same time, he recruited Soviet prisoners. Soon Pete the Spit also joined the Sonderkommando Leningrad (a Nazi special command unit).
Despite the efforts of the Nazis, the city of the Neva did not surrender. In addition, the course of the war changed and the Soviet Union took the initiative. Finland began to prepare to abandon its confrontation with the Soviet Union. And Sokolov found himself useless. Ending without support, Pyotr realized that the Chekists would seek revenge. It was too dangerous to stay in Finland and, abandoning his wife and three daughters, he fled clandestinely to Sweden.
Pyotr Sokolov records propaganda broadcasts on the radio
Pete the Spit settled in the town of Enköping, changed his first name, married a local woman, and adopted her last name. And so it was that soon after, a masseur by the name of Paul Sahlin started working at a sports club in the city. But the Chekists managed to identify it. The Soviet Union demanded that Sweden repatriate the traitor, but his request was rejected. Realizing that he was a hunted man, Sokolov resigned himself to his fate. He remained in Sweden for the rest of his life. Pete the Spit died in Stockholm in 1971. Many years before, he had played under the Russian Imperial colors at the Olympic Games held in that same city.
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