In this blog’s series looking at the history of the Soviet Hockey Championship, we just last week discussed the 1952-53 campaign. That was the final season for VVS MVO Moscow, the powerful Soviet Air Force team managed by Josef Stalin’s son Vasily. And this weekend came the sad news that one of the last living links to VVS MVO had passed away: Dr. Oleg Belakovsky, the club’s chief physician and later a legendary figure at CSKA Moscow and with the Soviet national team, died on Sunday in Moscow at the age of 93. Read on, and we’ll talk more about Dr. Belakovsky’s rather astounding story.
Dr. Oleg Markovich Belakovsky was born as Samuel Belakovsky in 1921 in Yelisavetgrad (now Kirovograd, Ukraine), the son of a country doctor. In the late 1930s, the family moved to Sestroretsk, on the Gulf of Finland near Leningrad, where young Oleg played soccer and Russian hockey (i.e. “bandy”). Among his team-mates at the time was a young man who would become his life-long friend, the future superstar Vsevolod Bobrov. In 1939, Belakovsky entered the S.M. Kirov Military Medical Academy, just as the Great Patriotic War was about to break out.
When Germany attacked the USSR in June of 1941, Belakovsky finished his studies, and was appointed to work in a military department involved in the study of infectious diseases. However, out of a desire to avenge his mother, who had been killed in the Siege of Leningrad, he requested a posting to the front, and was sent to be senior physician to a paratroop regiment. There, he was involved in fierce fighting as the Red Army pushed the Germans back out of the Soviet Union, and took part in 153 parachute jumps. In the summer of 1944, Belakovsky was wounded by a landmine — he would later recall taking a stiff drink to fortify himself, cutting his boots off, and pulling the shrapnel out himself. That same year, he was posted to the Byelorussian city of Mogilev. There, the doctor became acquainted with a young woman named Nina Solovyova, who had been an underground resistance fighter when the city was occupied by the Germans. The two would reconnect after the war, and embark on a 50-year marriage that produced a son and a daughter.
When the war ended, Belakovsky stayed in the field of Military Medicine, working specifically on medical issues related to parachuting. However, his move to Sports Medicine was not far away, and it came about through his old friendship with Vsevolod Bobrov. When Bobrov transfered to Vasily Stalin’s Air Force club, VVS MVO Moscow, in the late 1940s, he recommended that Belakovsky be hired as well, and it was swiftly done. Then, after the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, the VVS MVO club was disbanded, and Belakovsky joined most of the players and staff, including Bobrov, in moving to the Red Army team. Later, a debate broke out over what the Red Army club’s official name should be, and Belakovsky would later state that it was he who first suggested “Central Sports Club of the Army” — the now-familiar “CSKA.” In any case, he would be a part of CSKA for the rest of his career, and remain a devoted fan even after retirement.
In the early years with CSKA, Belakovsky was mostly involved with the soccer side of things, as opposed to hockey. He accompanied the Soviet national team to the 1956 Summer Olympics, where they won the gold medal. In 1970, however, he was appointed to be chief physician to the USSR’s hockey squad at the World Championship in Stockholm (his predecessor had been sent home for, of all things, being overheard to say that Finnish yogurt was superior to the Soviet variety). There, the new team doctor was almost immediately confronted with a serious head injury suffered by goalie Viktor Konovalenko in a game against Sweden. Belakovsky and his staff were able to get Konovalenko back in net in time to help the Soviet team take gold. While we must acknowledge that nowadays a different approach would likely be taken with a player who had suffered a knee to the head, Belakovsky was no play-at-all-costs tyrant. In fact, he had several serious rows with Anatoly Tarasov when he felt that the USSR’s Head Coach was driving injured players too hard.
Belakovsky was in charge of the medical care of the Soviet hockey teams at both Summit Series, in 1972 and 1974, at the Olympics of 1972 and 1976, and through numerous World Championships and other international tournaments. He formally retired in 1987, with the rank of Colonel in the Medical Service, but continued to serve as a physician’s assistant until finally stepping away just a few years ago at the age of 90.
Dr. Oleg Belakovsky is remembered in medical field for innovative work in the areas of athlete assessment and injury rehabilitation. In the latter category, perhaps the most famous example of his work involved the great Valery Kharlamov, who was seriously injured in a 1976 car accident. There were fears at the time that Kharlamov might never walk again, let alone play hockey, but Belakovsky set out to get him back on the ice and duly accomplished it. Kharlamov began his rehabilitation by skating with the team of eight-year-olds at the Red Army’s academy, and, only a few months after the accident, returned to Soviet Championship action with CSKA. Belakovsky may have had a misgiving or two; he would later tell of paying a visit to dressing room of Krylya Sovetov Moscow, CSKA’s opposition on the night Kharlamov returned, to ask them to take it a bit easy on his patient!
Dr. Belakovsky’s honours and awards are legion, including the Order of the Red Star (twice), the Medal for the Defense of Leningrad, the Medal for Service in Battle, the Zhukov Medal, the Medal for Labour Valour, and many others (the full list can be seen here). He is also an Honoured Physician of the Russian Federation, and his bust, alongside those of many of his former patients, resides on the CSKA Moscow Walk of Fame. Belakovsky’s son Mark is a medical doctor himself, while his daughter Vera coaches fencing. He was predeceased by his wife Nina in 2001. Dr. Oleg Belakovsky’s funeral, following a public memorial at the CSKA Sports Palace, will take place on Wednesday, July 22nd.
A Note on Sources and Further Reading: I must say that this post has barely scratched the surface of Dr. Oleg Belakovsky’s life story. Much of the information comes from his page at the Russian Wikipedia, and from his biography at this website containing info on Soviet soldiers in WWII. I also picked up some anecdotes from this wonderful interview that Belakovsky gave just a couple of years ago to Sports.ru. Finally, there is a website dedicated to Belakovsky himself, the source of most of the pictures used in this post. I urge you to check out any and all of those sites, if you are interested in further information about this fascinating individual!