For anyone looking in from the outside, the Euro 2016 clashes between English and Russian football fans showed the Russian hooligan to be at the height of his influence.
With dozens hospitalised and one man paralysed, the world looked on in horror. But Russia sent out a defiant message that the men were heroes.
Influential Duma deputy Igor Lebedev tweeted, “Well done lads.” The deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko described the violence as a “set up”. President Putin wondered “how 200 Russian fans” had managed to beat up 1,000 of their opposite number. And upon returning to Moscow, deported fans were greeted by a full regalia of state TV crews.
“You’d think the host nation of a World Cup would have met us with handcuffs, or worse, but Mr Putin was wise,” says Alexander Shprygin, the head of the official Russian supporters group, one of 20 sent home by French authorities.
But for those in law enforcement responsible for Russian football ultras, the French spectacle proved the last straw. From the shadows, they began a clampdown – intent on avoiding any kind of organised violence in the World Cup.
Law enforcement had been worried about Russian hooligans for some time. They had seen how leading “firms” had caused race riots in 2010, over the murder of a Spartak Moscow fan called Yegor Sviridov. Then, Moscow’s chief of police was forced to hold negotiations with men in masks, and President Putin intervened personally. The president made an unusual show of support with the fans by laying flowers at Mr Sviridov’s grave. He was accompanied by Mr Shrprygin, a man once photographed in a "White Power" t-shirt and giving a Hitler salute (he told The Independent both were taken out of context.)
Yet the same month, a new anti-extremist centre began operating from the Interior Ministry. Few recognised it at the time, but Centre “E” would become the bane of many ultras’ lives. In the months that followed, several hundred arrests were made, and the agent base expanded. They sent a message that fighting by and between football ultras would no longer be tolerated near the major cities. As a result, the firms moved their regular training bouts – usually organised 15 on 15, 20 on 20, or 50 on 50 – deep into Russia’s forests.
After Marseilles, and with the World Cup less than two years away, even this became too much to handle. The forest fighting moved from social media to become a top-secret affair. After flirting with nationalist fan leaders like Mr Shprygin – Vladimir Putin even referred to him using his diminutive name, Sasha – the Kremlin kicked his organisation out of the Russian Football Union. And authorities opened criminal cases against leading ultras, including an unprecedented action against Lokomotiv Moscow fans for offensive chants.
Once upon a time, the ultras loved to brag. Now, under pressure from law enforcement, they talk with great reluctance. The three who spoke to The Independent did so on the condition of strict anonymity. All said they had been put under pressure by the security services, including phone calls and direct threats. One, a prominent Zenit St Petersburg representative, said he knew of “hundreds of supporters” who had been jailed in the build-up to the World Cup.
Security agents had visited his home to warn him against causing trouble, he said: “It’s like it was with you guys and what Thatcher did, if you remember, that’s what we are facing.”
The mention of Thatcher is not accidental, with Eighties Britain a key reference point for Russian ultras. While the British firms succumbed to the government’s anti-hooligan policies, and ultras turned away from knuckle dusters to prawn crackers, the Russians clung to this original footballing tradition. In the very early days, when local teams had no scarves of their own, Russian fans even imported British scarves to wear on the tribunes. So the Spartak fans chose Arsenal, Manchester or Liverpool; Dinamo fans chose Millwall, Chelsea or Everton; CSKA fans chose Aston Villa. Home-produced scarves of local teams only appeared at the end of 1993.
“Russia apes the England of 1985 in many ways,” says Sergei Smirnov, editor-in-chief of MediaZona, a media platform set up by PussyRiot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. “Whether you are talking about gay rights or the Russian hooligan culture, there are striking parallels. And the police response to both groups has been the same.”
The respect that Russian ultras held for British hooligan culture was the major contributing factor to Marseilles, says Smirnov. It was not so much politics that drove the clashes, as reported in the English press. The Russian hooligan is not, he says, an overtly political animal. Perhaps a majority of ultras position themselves against the Kremlin, and there is a clear split in the movement on the issue of the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine. (Many firms keep close links with Ukrainian counterparts.)
Marseilles was, instead, a matter of Russian ultras proving themselves against what they saw as the fathers of the hooligan movement.
“It was a generational thing. Looking at the faces of the English victims, you could imagine them as the hooligans of the 1980s, men fond of a drink or two,” says Smirnov. The Russian fans had moved on from that: “Teetotal, gym-going, organised, and with a long history of forest fighting, they were hardly fair opponents.”
But as much as Russian firms yearn for another try, and as much as British hooligans would like revenge, police are unlikely to give either a chance this summer.
British troublemakers in particular have been promised a return to 1980s-style policing. Vladimir Markin, the head of the security committee of the Russian Football Union, has said misbehaving fans will be offered the chance to spend a night in Russian prison. “They are less comfortable than the ones they might be used to,” he said.
The ultras that The Independent spoke to said they did not expect any activity from the big firms. If there was any risk it came from the smaller clubs under the radar, in Russia’s provinces, they said. But given that provincial groups like the Oryol butchers were largely responsible for the Marseilles violence, one could assume that the hundreds of agents now devoted to monitoring ultras have that covered too.
“No one is getting ready to beat up foreigners,” says Shrprigin. “They understand that if they do that they are guaranteed to be sent to jail.”
But while Russia’s city centres are likely to be overwhelmed by a sea of blue uniforms, random, sporadic clashes are not impossible – especially in the impoverished suburbs, where neo-nazi elements are occasionally still an issue.
“The risks of major violence are overblown,” says Smirnov. “But I’d be far happier being an England fan than an Asian one. Our far-right is less interested in attacking white faces, whatever T-shirt they are wearing.”
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