Russian hooligans rattle soccer world: What's behind their aggression?

Russia's national team is on probation after a few hundred of its supporters attacked English fans in Marseille, raising concerns about Russia's hosting of the 2018 World Cup. Some fan groups have connections to ultra-nationalist political forces.

Thanassis Stavrakis/AP/File
Russian supporters attack an England fan at the end of the Euro 2016 Group B soccer match between England and Russia, at the Velodrome stadium in Marseille, France, on Saturday.

For the remainder of the 2016 UEFA European Championship, whenever Russia's national squad plays, the team's destiny will be controlled as much by what happens off the field as what happens on it.

That's thanks to the actions of a few hundred Russian hooligans, who clashed with English soccer fans during the England-Russia match in Marseille this past weekend. The violence, which left several people injured, led UEFA, the competition's governing body, to place Russia under "suspended disqualification," meaning any new attacks carried out by Russian fans inside a stadium will result in Russia's ejection from the competition. Russia was also fined 150,000 euros.

The arrival of tough, regimented, and violence-prone squads of Russian soccer fans in Europe probably shouldn't have come as any surprise. What the Russians call "football hooliganism" has very deep roots, and has been a growing problem, punctuated by explosions of mass violence on their home turf, for over a decade since Russian professional soccer began reviving amid the Putin-era prosperity.

But with Russia set to host the next World Cup in 2018, the appearance of the Russian hooligans on the scene has added a new wrinkle to Russia's tensions with the West – and highlights a part of Russian society that the Kremlin may have difficulty reining in.

"Russian fans are very well organized, they have their sites, their distinct groups and leaders," says Oleg Shamonayev, an editor with the Moscow daily Sport Express. "There are a lot of young people in this country. Some of them can be radicals, fascists, anti-fascists, punks or people belonging to other organizations no one has ever heard of. And they all go to soccer games."

Out of control?

Some experts fear that the sheer numbers and street fighting capabilities of the Russian hooligans, who are sometimes connected with ultra-nationalist political forces, could pose a serious challenge to safely hosting the World Cup. Other experts dismiss the threat, and argue that the current panic in Europe is part of the more general "the Russians are coming!" atmosphere generated by rising East-West geopolitical tensions.

Many say that the Russian network of soccer fan clubs has long since been infiltrated by Russian security services and that, plus patriotic considerations, will likely work to keep fans from embarrassing their country during an event the Kremlin has staked so much of its prestige on.

"Most Russian soccer fans are disciplined by their leaders, who often have their own relationships with the authorities," says Alexander Verkhovsky, head of the Moscow-based Sova Center, which tracks extremist movements. "That doesn't mean they're totally under control, but this is the way everything works in Russia. They aren't nearly as independent as they pretend to be."

Some analysts even speculate that last weekend's violence in Marseilles may have happened at the behest of Russian authorities, aiming to project Moscow's more assertive foreign policy goals – to cow Europeans – by sending in a surrogate army of scary soccer fans.

"These are not fans in the normal sense of the word," says Eduard Sorokin, an independent sports journalist. "The ideology that unites them now is the state trend, that Russia is a besieged fortress, we are surrounded by enemies, we have to unite around our national leader to resist and rebuff our foes. It's possible that this goes deeper than what we see on the surface."

That view was given credence by Russian parliamentarian and executive member of the Russian Football Union Igor Lebedev, who praised the Russian-initiated brawl at Marseille's stadium Saturday, and tweeted "Keep it up guys!" But Mr. Lebedev is a member of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic party, not of the pro-Kremlin mainstream, and even he walked back his remarks a couple days later, urging Russian fans in Europe to "avoid provocations and keep the peace."

The Kremlin itself labeled the violence initiated by Russian fans as "absolutely unacceptable." Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who is at the center of a much larger storm over charges of systematic doping which could result in an Olympic ban, urged Russian fans to obey French authorities.

'Right under the Kremlin wall'

News of soccer riots was firmly suppressed in Soviet times, but a few reports indicating the scale of disturbances appeared in the foreign media. The network of fan clubs developed in the 1970s, around major Soviet teams like Moscow's CSKA and Spartak, Leningrad [St. Petersburg] Zenit, and a few other big city teams. In the 1990s, amid social and economic collapse and war against Chechen separatism, some acquired a racist tinge and violence against players and teams from Russia's southern Caucasus regions became commonplace.

In a fascinating 2013 interview, veteran Soviet soccer "hooligan" Amir Khuslyutdinov described the evolution of Russian fan clubs and explained their strict rules for battle with fans of opposing teams – seeing those brawls almost as a parallel sporting event. He also suggested that hooliganism has always been a covert form of political dissent for young Soviet and Russian men.

"Hooligans are people that can stand up for themselves. We’re people that can build something because we think for ourselves," he said.

"Even alcohol and drugs can’t give you the type of rush you get from fighting together. When you’re lined up with your friends, shoulder to shoulder, you forget everything and just go. We’re honest people. We accept everyone – fascists, pacifists … We don’t try to educate people and we don’t try to justify who we are. We have people from every part of society, too, it’s just that we’re more alive."

Russian soccer fans triggered a major political scare in 2010, when thousands of Slavic fans – allegedly egged on by ultra-nationalist groups – rallied outside the Kremlin to protest the death of one of their members at the hands of Caucasian rivals. They clashed violently with riot police, then dispersed around Moscow's center, attacking people of ethnic minorities for several hours. That rampage clearly rattled the Kremlin, which rushed to make conciliatory statements to the fans and pledged to solve the murder.

"That episode definitely showed that authorities are frightened of this force," says Mr. Verkhovsky. "Ultra-rightists were able to mobilize a huge number of people, right under the Kremlin wall, and police proved utterly incapable of dealing with them. There's a lesson in that."

But most experts believe the stops will be pulled out to ensure there is no trouble at the 2018 World Cup.

"Not all fans are hooligans, and it's not so hard to trace the troublemakers," says Mr. Shamonayev of the Sport Express. "I'm sure all possible efforts are being made already to do that."

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