England's tsar forward

Observations on sporting heroes

A curious thing has just happened in Ipswich – a statue to Prince Alexander Obolensky, a Russian émigré-turned-British national, has been unveiled. The honour is in recognition, somewhat belatedly, of a brilliant try scored by the 19-year-old rugby player.

“The Flying Prince”, as Obolensky was nicknamed, scored the try, acclaimed by the former Observer editor Donald Trelford as “England’s greatest ever”, in the English team’s first ever defeat of New Zealand’s All Blacks at Twickenham in 1936. Obolensky’s legend is lent added poignancy by his death just a few years later. During the Second World War he served in the RAF, and in 1940, his Hurricane crash-landed on the outskirts of Ipswich.

The memorial project was supported by Roman Abramovich among others: the Chelsea owner stumped up £5,000 towards the £50,000 cost of the statue.

The project also had “backing” from the Russian ambassador, according to Princess Alexandra Obolensky, the prince’s niece and closest living British relative. A representative of the embassy was among dignitaries who attended the unveiling of the 15-ft bronze-and-stone statue, an event that was covered by the Russian media. It is difficult to imagine any of this happening during the Soviet Union’s Communist years: Obolensky’s aristocratic family fled Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, a year after his birth.

Even with Russia’s communist past behind it, the statue is curious in a couple of respects. First, the prince was a Russian national at the time of the match – “What right do you have to play for England?” the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) reportedly asked somewhat churlishly beforehand – only taking British nationality later that year.

Second, and more importantly, it is hard to think of any other Russians who have been similarly honoured on these shores. That no doubt has a great deal to do with the strained relationship between Britain and Russia, dating back to the Crimean War of the 1850s, continuing through the long decades of the Cold War, and surviving down to the present day: witness the diplomatic war of words over the poisoning of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, a “murder” that bore the hallmarks of a Russian secret service hit.

But perhaps the unveiling of the Obolensky statue might in due course lead to a similar honouring of other high-profile Russians with British connections. Abramovich might be a future candidate, though that will no doubt depend on how successful Chelsea continue to be under his ownership.

An argument could even be made for a statue of the most famous Russian to visit Britain (Lenin attended the Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party in London in 1903) marking the historical significance of his visit if nothing else. Perhaps that would be a statue too far for the Great British public. After all, unlike the Flying Prince, Lenin never scored a try at Twickenham.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd