Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Little Moscow In a Welsh Valley

MAERDY, Wales -- While Russia urged its team on to a place in the European Championships on Wednesday night, residents of Moscow shouted and cheered on for Wales.

This is not surprising, as Moscow, or Little Moscow to be precise, is located a mere 40 kilometers from the stadium where Russia beat Wales 1-0.

Maerdy, a small village in the Rhondda Valley with a population of less than 2,000, is an unlikely place for a second Moscow. But it did not get its nickname from the Russian capital but from decades of ties with the Soviet creed.

Or as Alun Jones, 64, a lifelong communist and one of the village's best-known sons, bluntly explains: "It's called Little Moscow because it's full of communists and it's fucking cold in winter."

Jones, a sharp-minded, barrel-chested man with craggy looks that tell of his 36 years as a miner, is one of the last of a group of villagers who helped turn Maerdy into Little Moscow.

The village's communist ideals, which made it the first town in Britain with a communist mayor, stem from it once being part of the South Wales coal industry, which provided one-third of the world's coal consumption in its heyday.

Mines were first built in the Rhondda Valley in the 1860s and the area quickly became the heartland of socialist politics in Wales. By the beginning of the 20th century, local miners, trapped in horrific conditions, began to form unions and fight for improvements at work and in their living conditions.

From this moment, the communist movement found a welcoming home in the tightknit village. Jones dates the movement's stronghold as beginning from the General Strike in 1926, although the nickname of Little Moscow, pejorative at the time but accepted with pride by locals, was only given in the 1930s by national newspapers.

According to villagers, the Nazis, after a disastrous bombing run on South Wales that saw them lose a number of planes and fail to hit Maerdy, warned on the radio: "We have not forgotten you, Little Moscow."

A different message came from singer and actor Paul Robeson. He thanked Welsh miners for their support after he was blacklisted in the United States amid allegations of communist ties.

Villagers had a great affection for the people of the Soviet Union, especially those who fought in World War II.

"They supported the Soviet Union," Jones said. "The world can thank Russia for the destruction of the Nazis, losing 20 million against the bastards."

It still must be said that their support was not strong enough to get them to root for the Soviet side when it played against Wales in 1965, 1981 or the game Wednesday.

In Maerdy's bleakest moment, it was the Soviet Union that helped out. Jones remembers with fondness the visit of a Soviet delegation of former miners during a 1984-85 strike. The strike, over threats to close down mines, caused great hardship in Maerdy, where 70 percent of the male workforce worked in the pits. The delegation brought money and food parcels from Soviet miners.

During the strike, Jones, union leader in the local pit, was arrested for organizing a gathering of more than three people, a crime introduced during the strike by the Conservative government, and fined ?120 -- a large amount at the time. Jones also was bound over to keep the peace for two years, meaning he could not picket under the threat of being sent to jail for two years.

"We had no say in our lives. It was always the capitalist who ruled," said Jones, who still remains a believer in the ideals of communism.

Instead of picketing during the strike, Jones raised money for miners by giving talks in the West Midlands and traveling to another stronghold of communism, Bologna, Italy. "I saw communism work in Bologna," he said. "The sick, the old were all looked after. It was wonderful."

These days, however, few in the village share his enthusiasm.

Four days before Christmas 1990, the last pit was closed down in Maerdy, sending the village into a steep economic decline. Unemployment is around 25 percent in the valley, and alcohol and drugs are a big problem.

"It's ebbing," said one villager, of any remaining socialist fervor. "You've still got Alun, but most of the youngsters don't give a sod. All they see is depression and unemployment. They're more interested in fascism than socialism and that's partly to do with football."

Some soccer fans from Cardiff City have a reputation for troublemaking.

Still, mining communities are by necessity close-knit, and Maerdy, although poor, is a friendly place with a noticeable community spirit. The villagers campaigned to save their grand 19th-century working man's club from being pulled down. A woman comes by once a week, collecting donations that have helped send a local child with arthritis to the United States for treatment.

"There is a camaraderie here that you don't find elsewhere," said Gareth Mortimer, a musician who has toured with Tina Turner.

When a reporter turned up from Russia on Wednesday, half of the local pub took it as an omen and put money on a horse called Moscow Fields. It came fourth.

The nickname Little Moscow is now not much more than a memory of a village's struggle to survive and improve things for itself. Jones remembers the Soviet delegation's visit with delight, but communism is no more in Little Moscow, Wales, than Moscow, Russia.

"If it had worked, it was a wonderful idea. But it didn't," he said.