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Dangerous allies: when football hooligans and politicans meet

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Football hooliganism occurs in societies all over the world - even in the Soviet Union, however much that was officially denied. In today’s Russia, however, football fanaticism has developed clear political undertones, with evidence that some groups have been colluding with the Kremlin against its opponents. Is this a ticking timebomb? wonders Mikhail Loginov

Mikhail Loginov
28 March 2012

Soviet propaganda used to make much of the fact that Western society was on the downward path. Football hooligans, usually British or Italian, were quoted as an example of this disintegration and blamed for unrest at stadiums. But a serious problem was incubating within the Soviet Union, and eventually, in the early 1980s, it was recognised as such. Authorities began to group young people and teenagers into special sectors in the terraces – the first Leningrad fan mob was called 'Sector 33'. When fighting between rival fans looked as though it was getting out of hand, the militia used rubber truncheons, even though officially these did not exist in the USSR.

Komsomol propaganda found fault with the fans for submitting to Western influence. Soviet poets were even more trenchant in their criticism. Yevgeny Yevtushenko expressed his outrage with the line 'The fans have gone and in their place we have fanatics.'

Kol the Tramp

Nikolai is 18 and lives in St Petersburg. His friends from the Kup group of fanatics call him Kol. The name of the group comes from the first 3 letters of a Petersburg district, Kupchino. Kol always wears a 'rose' – a scarf in the colours of  Zenit FC. He goes to all the home matches and to the away matches across Russia.

'Soviet propaganda used to make much of the fact that Western society was on the downward path. Football hooligans, usually British or Italian, were quoted as an example of this disintegration and blamed for unrest at stadiums.'

Zenit fans are nicknamed the 'homeless' or tramps. The club used to be poor and its fans were too, often sleeping at railway stations. Now that Gazprom has become its sponsor,  fans travel in hired buses and stay in hotels, but the nickname has stuck.

The Kup group, or in the fans' slang, ‘the firm', meets 2 hours before the beginning of a match. Temperatures are often sub-zero, so Kup members either drink vodka before the game or take it into the ground in plastic bottles strapped to their legs. They also take in flares and smoke canisters which they light when their team gets a goal, or throw on to the pitch. Sometimes they bring other objects in to the stadium. At a match with Anzhi Makhachkala FC a banana was brandished at the Brazilian Roberto Carlos, hinting at his African roots.

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Each time Zenit St. Petersburg wins a match at home, crowds will head to the city centre. Unlike Moscow the northern capital has only one club playing at the highest level, so its fans do not have local enemies to fight with (photo flickr.com, Incandenzafied's photostream)

Kol says he has no time for this kind of thing. 'The bloke who did that was an idiot and Zenit got fined 300,000 roubles. But I'm still glad there are no negroes in our club.' Kol is unable to explain why he feels like this.

If Zenit win the match, Kol and his mates will go out on the town in St Petersburg. This sometimes ends in fights with the police or with other fan mobs, but the city has only the one club, so this doesn't happen too often.

Away matches

Going to matches in other cities is much more dangerous, like a military expedition with an unpredictable outcome. Kol divides cities into 3 categories according to whether they have i) aggressive police, ii) aggressive fans or iii) both. Moscow fans, particularly Spartak FC supporters, are dangerous, but the police are reasonably polite. In Nizhnii Novgorod and Samara the main danger is the police. Cities in the Caucasus have equally dangerous police and fans.

The fights in Moscow usually take place before or after the match. Sometimes they just flare up, other times they are planned for a set time on wasteland or in a park. The code of honour accepted by fans allows only for fighting with hands and feet, though some 'firms' carry knives, steel rods and knuckledusters. The weapons are called 'arguments'. Most commonly, fights are with Spartak or CSKA fans

Fighting the police is frowned on by the most respected fans, if only because it usually ends badly — with mass beatings and arrests of supporters who were not involved at all. If a fan threatens a policeman or rips out a seat to throw it at him, then it'll be his own comrades that prevent him by grabbing holding of him.  

The most difficult away matches are in the Caucasus. Local supporters hurl stones at the away team supporters' buses long before they get to the stadium. They attack them near the hotels and have no problems with using knives or even firearms. If a fight breaks out in the stadium between local supporters and away team fans, the local police make no attempt to separate the fighters. On the contrary, they support the local lads.

Kol was in Makhachkala in 2011, when the local police and supporters beat up the visiting Zenit fans. 'I didn't think we could survive’, he recalls. ‘The police didn't even try to arrest us. They did us over good and hard right where we were'. Kol has no intention of ever going back to the Caucasus.

That swine Drew

Spartak Moscow is the main rival for Zenit fanatics. The clubs' supporters cordially loathe each other and have no mercy on players who move from Zenit to Spartak. When Vladimir Bystrov, for example, returned home from Spartak, the fans whistled at him for more than a year whenever he appeared on the pitch. They called him a swine and once they let a live piglet loose on the field; another time they left a pig's head near the Zenit ground. Spartak fans are known as Swine or Meat because when the club was founded it was sponsored by the food industry union and the Spartak kit, which is red and white, could be said to look like dressed pork.

Andrew, or Drew, belonged to Gladiators, a 'firm' considered to be particularly aggressive. He followed Spartak home and away, was involved in a dozen fights by metro stations and in parks, was badly injured several times. These days he goes to the matches, but has nothing more to do with the Gladiators. 'I don't like seeing some of the lads taking on “political” commissions from the authorities,' he says.

Andrew lives in Moscow. He is 35 and has been supporting Spartak since he was in senior school. Unlike Petersburg, Moscow has always had at least four top division clubs, so even at school Andrew often had fights with fans of other clubs. Initially he didn't like being called swine or meat, but then started using these terms with pride.

For about 10 years Andrew, or Drew, belonged to Gladiators, a 'firm' considered to be particularly aggressive. He followed Spartak home and away, was involved in a dozen fights by metro stations and in parks, was badly injured several times. These days he goes to the matches, including matches abroad, but has nothing more to do with the Gladiators. 'I don't like seeing some of the lads taking on “political” commissions from the authorities,' he says, though he didn't explain whether he had his own personal friends in mind.

The Opposition

In 2005 and 2006 members of Eduard Limonov's National Bolshevik Party were attacked several times. The attackers were detained and taken to the police. They were discovered to be the same Gladiators, who acted as guards at demonstrations organised by the pro-Kremlin Nashi group.

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CSKA-Spartak match in 2009. The matches of two greatest rivals in Russian football always  require maximum security preparation by the Moscow police (photo: flickr.com, Kate Lokteva)

In November 2010 the journalist Oleg Kashin beaten up brutally. It was not known who had actually initiated the attack, but the Gladiators were one on a list of possible suspects. On 26 February 2012, when opponents of Putin organised a flashmob on Revolution Square, they were attacked by about 50 beefy fighters. They covered their faces, but some were identifed as Spartak Gladiators.

Football fanatics are not always government supporters, however. Sometimes they can make the Kremlin really quite nervous.

The Manezh incident

In early December 2010 a Spartak fan, Yegor Sviridov, was killed in Moscow during a fight. Only one side used a gun – some lads who had come to Moscow from the Caucasus.  Under pressure from the relatives, the police let the killer go, but they soon had cause to regret this decision. The next day the union of Spartak supporters, Fratria, called its members out on to the street to protest. More than 2000 fans and activists of nationalist organisations blocked Leningrad Prospekt. They demanded that the murderer be arrested and punished. He was arrested on 8 December, but it was too late to prevent events coming to a head.

‘After the Manezh incident an unofficial pact was concluded between the fans and the Russian government: we respect and support you, you are outside politics. Characteristically, one of Putin's first election campaign meetings was held in St Petersburg with the Zenit fans’

On 11 December more than 6000 young men gathered on Manezh Square, practically at the Kremlin walls. They beat up several young Armenians and then started fighting with OMON [special purpose police unit]. The fanatics were only repulsed when heavy reinforcements came to the aid of the police. This was the first disturbance in Moscow for five years when not only demonstrators but policemen too were hurt.

The leaders of the fans' movement announced that this riot on Manezh Square had been started by 'political forces'. On 21 December Vladimir Putin had a meeting with the Spartak fans. He expressed his sympathy for them, then put flowers on Yegor Sviridov's grave.

Another conflict almost flared up in the summer of 2011 when Zenit fans were beaten up in Makhachkala. Fans of various clubs got together to discuss a joint manouevre against the Caucasus fans. However, just before the next Zenit match in Moscow a bus carrying Zenit fans was shot at from a hunting rifle. Although this happened in the Tver Oblast, i.e. outside Moscow, suspicion fell on Spartak fans and the joint action didn't happen. The people who fired at the bus were never found.

Dangerous allies

After the Manezh incident an unofficial pact was concluded between the fans and the Russian government: we respect and support you, you are outside politics. Characteristically, one of Putin's first election campaign meetings was held in St Petersburg with the Zenit fans. It was in a restaurant and Putin didn't talk about sport, but about the need for peace between the various nations within Russia.  The fans promised to vote for him in the election.

At the same time, however, there was another protest, unplanned. More than 3000 fans from various clubs converged on the small town of Maloyaroslavets, in Kaluga Oblast, SE of Moscow. They marched through the town to protest at the grievous injury inflicted on a Spartak fan in a fight by a man from the Caucasus, and the authorities' reluctance to investigate the crime. The demonstrators accused the police and the court of corruption.  Less than two weeks later the trouble-maker received a lengthy prison sentence.

Among the Russian fans there are quite a few for whom the street violence is inseparable from football culture. The desire to fight is combined with right-wing ideology and some of the street soldiers work with the Kremlin youth movement Nashi. But the next time someone from the Caucasus kills or wounds a fan and the law enforcement bodies fail to punish the murderer, the fans will come out on the street again.  Perhaps peacefully, perhaps not.

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