Soccer and the Hermeneutics of Play in Oleša’s Zavist′

David B. Polet, University of Wisconsin, Madison

The soccer match in Jurij Oleša’s Zavist′ has long served as a symbolic representation of the conflict between Soviet society and Western individualism. However, the soccer match also acts as an allegory of the concept of play as a fundamental ontological, metaphysical category, which creates structure and order and reflects the nature of ritual and artistic creativity. In this presentation, I propose that Oleša’s artistic representations are directly related to “play” as an ontological category. These concepts are written into the soccer match scene and are expanded throughout the novel, especially as related to the game which surrounds the “conquest” of Valja.

These principles of play are founded upon Gadamer’s Truth and Method and Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. To support this hypothesis, I will briefly explicate the nature of play as understood by Huizinga and Gadamer. Play is more than a game; it is a phenomenological concept. Gadamer asserts that play creates its own structure in which players and even spectators participate. “The presentation of a god in a religious rite, the presentation of a myth in a play, are play not only in the sense that the participating players are wholly absorbed in the presentational play and find in it their heightened self-representation, but also in that the players represent a meaningful whole for an audience. [The] openness toward the spectator is part of the closedness of the play”(109). Through the full interaction of players and spectators, the nature of play can assume artistic and cosmic proportions.

Applying this hermeneutical approach to Zavist′, the most important scene to focus on is the one which is most transparent in reference to the idea of “play,” namely the soccer match. Here, I will focus on the essential structure of the game and how the players fulfill that structure. Then I will focus on Kavalerov’s “participation” regarding the soccer game and the “conquest” of Valja. Through spectating, Kavalerov participates not only in the game itself, but also determines the meaning of the game through the process of play. His participation highlights all aspects of play—the structure of play (including rules and boundaries), the flow of play, participation and spectating. The game surrounding Valja is one in which the methods of conquest become representations of contrasting artistic visions, visions which are embedded in the nature of play. The conquest of Valja not only represents the defeat of Kavalerov, but also the ineffectiveness of his artistic vision within the structure of that game.


Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. Second edition. Trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Crossroad, 1992.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1950.

Oleša, Jurij. Izbrannoe. Moscow: Xudožestvennaja literatura, 1974.