Scotland to Russia: the spread of Sevens

By tournament:

2005 European Sevens Grand Prix (Moscow)
2013 Moscow Sevens [28 June]

The list may be subject to change if more rugby union sevens tournaments are discovered.

Introduction to rugby union

William Hopper of Penicuik, Midlothian – and his family – is to thank for introducing the sports of both rugby union and football to Russia. Of the two sports, Rugby Union was introduced first.

Hopper was born on 22 June 1816. He emigrated from Scotland to Russia and opened a machine tool factory in Moscow in 1847.

He was part of a huge wave of Scottish industralists operating in Russia around this time, most notable were:- the McGills – cotton growers and textile producers – Robert (1805-87) and David McGill (1790-1863) from Glasgow; Andrew Muir (1817-1899) from Greenock and Archibald Merrilees from Edinburgh (1797-1877) both merchants who founded the famous TsUM [Tsentralny Universalny Magazin] department store (then as Muir & Merrilees) in Moscow; and Richard Smith (1824-1902) from Greenock, foundry owner and boilermaker.

It was said there was 30 such Scottish industralist families in Moscow alone at the time, with many others based in St. Petersburg.

Hopper founded the St. Andrews Church in Moscow around 1882. (St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland and Russia.)

He tried to encourage his Russian workers to play sport. This was not only to maintain their health but was seen as an incentive for them to keep sober!

It was either William Hopper or, more likely, one of his sons, William Hopper Jnr. (1858-1944), that had the idea of introducing rugby union to the Russians.

Hopper’s first factory had a green alongside the factory wall where his factory workers played rugby union (at first) then football. When Hopper expanded his business and planned his second plant in southeast Moscow at Orekhovo-Zuevo, he purposely built a pitch alongside the factory.

Hopper Snr. died on 23 April 1885. His wife and eldest sons then ran the business. The new plant opened in 1886 and rugby union was played on the new pitch.

Rugby was initially a great success and both Russian workers and Scottish expatriates joined in. However the growing interest in rugby by the workers was frowned on by the Czarist police. They managed to ban rugby union later that year (1886); they argued that the sport was too violent and its use might thus help spawn revolutionary ideas!

Not to be deterred in getting his workers involved in sport, Hopper Jnr. then introduced football to the Russian factory workers. It is said that all the Hopper brothers played football. Football won favour with the authorities; and so it was football rather than rugby union that spread throughout the country.

Between 1886 and 1923 any rugby matches that were played were sporadic, although at least one match took place in 1908 between locals and a British trading ship at the Odessa port.

A date of 1923 – after the Russian Revolution of 1917 – does fit with the sport’s re-introduction. The threat of revolutionary ideals from rugby union somewhat diminished as the revolution had already taken place. Rugby Union first began in Russia at least from 1886, dating from when the Hoppers introduced it.

1923 saw the first officially sanctioned match. The Moscow River Yacht Club and the Society for the Physical Education of Workers played out a rugby union match, organised by Mikhail Kozlov (who would later become the USSR’s first national football team coach).

Rugby Union suffered another Russian ban from 1946 to 1956; but in 1957 the second ban was lifted.

Sevens

It is not known if any Sevens rugby was played in Russia in 1886, but it seems likely it was not. The Moscow police may have been less likely to ban rugby union if the fast flowing Sevens alternative was played instead of the XV game.

The European Sevens Grand Prix Series was hosted by Moscow from 2005 to 2007.

The Moscow Sevens international tournament of 28 June to 30 June 2013 billed itself as taking place on the 90th anniversary year of rugby union in Russia. As we have seen, this is not the case.

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