“Football stands have turned into mass media,” writes Yabloko youth leader Ilya Yashin in his article, “Ku-Klux Fans” in Novaya gazeta (A rather crude English translation can be found here). “It all started under a sports’ “rubric”: banners and slogans. Then it spread to politics. And now it’s radical. In the last few weeks there have been several incidents involving Nazi football fans: flags with Hitler, effigies of lynched blacks, and masquerades as the Ku-Klux-Klan.”
One recent incident Yashin cites occurred at a match between two amateur teams, Alliance and Makkabi, in the city of Vnukov. A group of Alliance fans wished the players from Makkabi, which is a team from the local Jewish community, “a happy holocaust.” On 9 August, at a match between Vologda Dynamo and Cherepovets Sheksna, a group of fans dressed in Ku-Klux-Klan outfits waved a large flag with Hitler’s picture and unfurled an enormous banner showing noosed black man kneeling before a Klansman. A wooden Klan cross towers over them. The banner’s image was reenacted by the hanging of an effigy of a black man by the fans. The Klan sheets seem to be a new fan fashion. When Russia played Poland in Moscow on 22 August, a group of about twenty Russian fans wore Klansmen hoods.
The prevelance of racist and fascist fans at football games shouldn’t surprise anyone. There is a long tradition of violence, hooliganism, and racism at football games. The spectacle of sport, with its emotionally driven crowds, united around one team, lends to the fascist aesthetic. I have always been struck by the crowds’ collective willingness to join in mass chants and salutes, not to mention the obnoxious “wave”. And its not that I’m above it either. Not participating in the collective adulation for your team and univocal condemnation of the opponent feels almost abnormal. When violence and racism are inserted into the mix, the situation becomes quite volatile.
Yashin notes that the “football fanatic movement is one of the few organized forces in the country outside of the state’s control. More and more often fans stage political actions at the stadiums. In fact, the stands have been a rostrum for sounding off the most radical political slogans for a long time now. The groups within the fanatic movement united not only around the team colors, but also around political principles. And the majority of these groups share a nationalist ideology.” True enough. But the main question is not whether they are organized. It is if they can be mobilized.
Sports have long been viewed a means to reinforce the dominant ideology as well as a safety valve for releasing public frustration. But there is no reason to think that these two processes are contradictory. The emotional fervency for a team can easily be displaced into other areas. Witness how celebrations of the home team winning the championship can quickly slip into riots that lead to attacks on the powerful and powerless alike. While the carnivalesque does act as safety valve, it also creates a moment where all hierarchies are flattened.
And it appears that tapping the nationalist fervor of at least the hardcore of Russian football fans has been considered. In the wake of Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution,” Nashi leader Vasili Yakamenko boasted that he could tap football fans as shock groups against “orange forces” in Russia. Alexandr Shprygin, the leaders of the Dynamo fan group, was quoted saying in 2005 that “Nashi’s leader, Yakemenko, has said that if force is needed, he will provide it. He was referring to the football fans. It is known that Spartak fans were responsible for the attack on the National Bolshevik headquarters.” It is also been suggested that Nashi’s security force, the DMD, is mostly comprised of football hooligans.
But if the Kremlin thinks it can use football fans as some sort of populist instrument, hubris is more pervasive that I’ve thought. Yes they can light the fuse, but once that bomb explodes, who knows where the shrapnel will fly.