A full account of the events surrounding England’s match with Russia may never be forthcoming. Eyewitness accounts, though numerous, can only tell a fragmented part of the story, but the television footage of Russia supporters charging at England fans, and statements by French prosecutor Brice Robin, seem to make clear that the intention to provoke conflict came from a section of the Russian crowd. In his statements, Robin spoke of 150 ‘well-trained’ Russian men instigating the violence. “These people were well prepared for ultra-rapid, ultra-violent action. These are extremely well trained people,” he said.
But Russian spectacles look upon the events through slightly different tinted lenses. In a poll published in Russian newspaper Sovetskiy Sport, just 18% pointed the finger of blame towards Russia fans, with 36% blaming England fans and 33% accusing the French police. Few seek to deny what happened, but as Vesti’s reporting illustrates, events have been interpreted as a gallant band of Russian men successfully beating off their more numerous English attackers.
The fighting, chair-throwing and general chest-beating in Marseille, regardless of interpretation, was captured on smart phones and cameras over the weekend. Many in Europe, and throughout the world, have now started to look nervously towards the 2018 World Cup, set to be held in Russia. The numbers involved in the conflicts are relatively small - demonstrated by prosecutor Robin’s estimate of 150 men - but the phenomenon of Russian hooliganism points to wider processes in Russian politics and society.
The socio-political trends driving the events in Marseille can be distilled into three strands: the Russian conception of English football fandom; the intimate links between Russian football hooliganism, far-right politics and the Kremlin; and the recasting of masculinity in Russian society.
Russian football fans’ conception of the English is the most easy of the three to unpack. Fans in Russia hold onto an idealised version of English fan culture, believing that most matches in the Premier League resemble those of the 1980s, with firms regularly causing havoc before games. This perception meant that as soon as the draw for Euro 2016 was made, England was the game of interest for Russian hooligans. Speaking to AFP, a man who gave his name as Vladimir said “the English always say they are the main football hooligans. We are going to fight the English”. This idea, that travelling England supporters identify themselves with the firms of the 1980s, rests on an enduring myth around English football. Football in England may have changed, but the perceptions of it in Russia have not, so much so that Igor Lebedev, deputy chairman of the Russian state Duma, crystallised such feelings in a series of tweets. “Nine times out of 10, football supporters come to a game to fight, and that’s normal,” he tweeted.
Lebedev’s tweets, in which he said “well done” to those fighting and told them to “keep it up” are emblematic of the widespread links between Russian football hooligans, right-wing politics and those in power. An enduring feature of Vladimir Putin’s time in office has been the Kremlin’s attempts to co-opt nationalist groups, setting the boundaries for what is and what is not the acceptable face of Russian ultranationalism. 2005 saw the creation of Nashi, a state-funded nationalist youth group that received recruits from CSKA Moscow ultras group that Gallant Steeds, as well as Spartak Moscow group the Gladiators. But the level of ‘managed nationalism’ coming from political authority was increased in 2010, as 6,000 protestors converged on Manezh Square in Moscow. The protestors, organised by groups such as the Movement Against Illegal Migration and Slavic Force unleashed a wave of anger at economic stagnation, official corruption and an influx of migrants, sparked off by the murder of Egor Sviridov who was, alongside other Spartak Moscow fans, involved in a fight with an ethnic Caucasian gang. Putin would later appear at Sviridov’s grave to pay his respects.
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The 2010 protests prompted the Kremlin to forge closer bonds with ultra-led nationalist groups, solidifying the link between nationalism, football supporters and the political authorities. One man who has benefitted from these close ties is Alexander Shprygin, the head of the Russian Union of Fans and an official delegate of the Russian Football Union at Euro 2016. Shprygin has been identified by FARE, the Uefa body set up to monitor racism in football, as a leading influence in the proliferation of hard-right views throughout Russian football culture. A former Dinamo Moscow ultra leader who has been photographed performing a Nazi salute, Shprygin is on record as wishing to see only “Slavic faces” in the Russian national team, also praising Zenit ultra group Landskrona for their 2012 publication calling for the club to avoid signing black or gay players. Perhaps more than any other individual, Shprygin personifies the links between the Russian political authorities and right-wing hooligan groups.
Both Shprygin and Lebedev share a trait that is found among those Russian fans who provoked confrontation in Marseille: the desire to be seen as a Muzhik, a ‘real guy’. A Muzhik, according to academics Oleg Riabov & Tatiana Riabova, is “sturdy, tough and strong”, emphasised by Putin’s public image of a bare-chested horse rider and judo champion, contrasting with the “effeminate and homosexual West”. The attacks on England fans were in part provoked by the idealised view of the English 1980s, but also by the desire to demonstrate that Russian men are tougher and stronger than men in the West. Vladimir, the AFP interviewee, illustrated how these two concepts became entangled. “We went to show that the English are girls,” he said.
Russia, then, does have a very real hooliganism problem, but it is not necessarily viewed as such by the political authorities in Russia. The processes that resulted in the violence in Marseille are much bigger than just a number of drunk football fans looking for a fight, and as such will be much harder to tackle. Russia managed to organise the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi without much incident occurring at the actual games, but football is more intimately linked to Russia’s ultranationalist groups and a tournament of the scale and length of the World Cup may be more difficult to police. But, unlike the authorities in France, the Russian authorities will be prepared; they have deep knowledge of the groups involved.