Football fans in Russia: a portrait of a society

Football hooliganism

About football supporters and football hooliganism: Julia Amatuni, an anthropologist from the European University at St. Petersburg, is one of the few Russian scientists doing research on the culture of football fandom.

Origins, Russian fans, and the ideology of violence

Modern football fan culture is transnational; it is spread over all continents, and groups of supporters stay in touch with each other, keeping track of what’s going on abroad. But despite a common informational space, football culture is nationally and locally specific.

With some reservations, one could say that the centre of football fan culture has moved from Western Europe to Eastern Europe. For instance, some of my informants from Great Britain and Russia interpreted the disorder that occurred in the days of the match between England and Russia national teams at the 2016 UEFA European Championship as a battle of new and old styles of hooliganisms, between ‘the fathers’ of hooliganism (the English) and one of the strongest modern hooligans (the Russians).

Generally, it is common to Russian football supporters to constantly reflect on their ideology and history: there are various perspectives in the Russian movement as to how it should look like and how it should develop. Influenced by Italian and English traditions, new groups of football supporters emerged in Russia, calling themselves ultras and hooligans, respectively. The difference between these two groups in Russian context fans define as follows: “Well, players defend the team’s colours on the field, ultras fight for them on the stands, while we, (the hooligans – J.A.), fight for the colours in a forest. With our fists.”

This does not mean that ultras do not participate in physical confrontations or that hooligans do not go to the stands and take no part in performances, but this kind of division, which is meant to emphasise a ‘specialisation’ of certain fan groups on an ideological level, is an important feature of Russian football fan culture.

«Белградское дерби» между ФК «Црвена Звезда» и ФК «Партизан», Сербия, апрель 2015

About chants and curb stones in St. Petersburg

The activities of ultras comparing to hooligans can be more noticeable, even for those who do not regularly attend the games. Centralised support of the team on the terraces behind the gates (especially during home games) often implies organising a large-scale performance.

The performance includes several components: a visual one (banners, flags, scarfs), an auditory one (songs, chants, musical instruments and other sound effects) and choreographic ones (jumps and rhythmic gestures). The content of the performances is often, but not always, devoted to the confrontation with a current rival. To update this confrontation, fans use various cultural texts. A common technique is to use local stereotypes.

For example, fans of PFC CSKA Moscow held up a banner that said: “Russian language lessons for forest wildings. Bulka (Loaf) Bread Porebrik (Curbstone) Curbside Paradnaya (Lobby) Entrance Hall” at one of the matches against FC Zenit St. Petersburg. They were referring to the differences in dialect between residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Performances can also be dedicated to cult figures and memorable dates in football, as well as national or local history. As an example, I would mention two performances organised by the fans of FC Zenit St. Petersburg over the past two years. The first was dedicated to the anniversary of the Kursk submarine disaster, with a banner showing a note made by captain Kolesnikov, while the second was created in honour of the 110th anniversary of famous composer and football supporter Dmitry Shostakovich.

In this cases, performance could be considered not only as a form of ritual confrontation with a rival, but also as a method of improving reputation and a way of communication with peer groups.

About away games and pilgrims

An important part of fan culture is going on away games. The fan’s mobility marks them as loyal and is directly linked to their status in the community. As many of my informants admit, one cannot be a “true” supporter if one does not follow the team. Within the community they keep track of all visited away games in a football season, which are granted different symbolic weight based on the distance travelled and the complexity of the game. In some cases, having “registered” visited games can be an obligatory condition to be able to participate in certain types of activities within the community. For example, in order to take part in a football championship of Zenit fans, the applicant must have visited three away games, and at least one of them must have taken place outside of Moscow and the Moscow region. The prestige associated with mobility and its special meaning allows comparing the fans with modern tourists and pilgrims.

"Русско-сербское братство", граффити на стадионе "Црвены Звезды", Белград, 2015

Where and how hooligans fight

Practices of football hooliganism have changed considerably over the last 20 years — not only in terms of form, but also in function. Confrontations between different groups of hooligans take place farther and farther away from stadiums and city streets, and are often organised on the outskirts of the cities or in deserted areas. The number of participants from each side is usually stipulated in advance. According to the ideology of Russian hooligans, using additional weapons during battles is not welcomed — a pure fist fight is encouraged instead. To be more efficient in these fights, many hooligans learn martial arts individually and train in groups at a gym.

These organised fights with predetermined conditions and places may have different functions in the community. Apart from being a mean of resolving conflicts, they can also be used to test those willing to join the “firm” (the group of hooligans) and as a way to check the skills of its younger members. But it is important to point out that this “formalisation” of football hooliganism — where organisation dominates over spontaneity, and professionalism over wilful amateurism — is not always accepted by everyone in the community.

Is it possible to avoid violence?

Even though violence continues to be part of football fan culture, a lot of activities of ultra and hooligan groups have little to do with violence.

For example, literary and publishing activities were especially popular in the mid-1990s until the end of the 2000s. Football fans have established their own journalistic tradition, just as many other communities do. The archive collection of the European University currently includes more than 2,800 amateur small-circulation editions (fanzins), and 150 of them stem from the regions and CIS countries. The diversity of social backgrounds of today’s Russian fans takes the community’s inner reflections to a new level: fans make documentaries about themselves and write not only journalistic but sometimes academic texts.

Между Казанью и Петербургом, май 2015.

How football hooliganism is changing

In the beginning of the 1970s, Jan Taylor, one of the first researchers of football hooliganism in Great Britain, formulated four changes in football that were leading to the radicalisation of football fans: “bourgeoisification,” professionalisation, commercialisation, and attracting international football players. These processes transformed local clubs and their traditions, as well as the usual relations between the club, the players and the fans. Under these circumstances, football hooliganism, according to Taylor, became a “democratic response” of the changing post-war working class to the alienation of the football tradition they were used to. The class nature of Taylor’s theory is hardly relevant for modern — and even less so for post-Soviet — fan culture. However, his notion of the changes in football becomes of particular importance in understanding of the slogan “Against Modern Football”, shared by many football supporters. In football fans’ ideological discourse, modern football is often contrasted with ‘traditional’ football: the former is perceived as a global business project that is ripped from its local community and does not represent it; the latter, by contrast, is defined as “true,” and is associated with local traditions and people, serving purposes higher than those of business or entertainment.

A particular example of such an ideological narrative in Russian football fan culture is Zenit fans’ manifesto “Selection 12,” whose main theses are supposed to be known by everyone in the fan terraces.

The local identity of a football fan

The football fan traditionalist paradigm involves a sophisticated pool of identities: club, local, national and gender identities that are constantly being updated via the aforementioned practices, cultural texts and symbols.

The “football” identity of the fans (meaning that it is closely connected to sport) is not limited to loyalty to a specific team and its constantly changing players. It is just the opposite. For a fan, being closely connected to a club and its history, symbols and traditions, as well as to the city which is represented by this club, tends to be much more significant.

Violence, racism and nationalism are common labels used in public discourse with regard to football hooligans. And that is also for a reason: there are a lot of examples in the fans’ rhetoric. Taking advantage of the fact that there are plenty of works devoted to these issues in academic literature, I will confine myself to just a few comments.

In order to examine how racism is embedded in football culture, one needs to look at a variety of contexts where these arguments emerge. For instance, research findings show that starting from the 1970s, two subcultures — football hooligans and skinheads — were interrelated in the UK, as they were both inspired by ultra-right ideologies. However, modern materials, particularly from my field work among Birmingham City fans in Birmingham, demonstrate that constructing “the other” now takes place according to local or club — rather than racial — characteristics.

In the case of Russian fans, it is more relevant to talk about a traditionalist paradigm where various discriminatory mechanisms do or do not happen to become important.

It could be argued that in the current geopolitical context, the racial dimension is less relevant for the construction of “the other,” giving way to other semiotically significant characteristics such as religion or ethnicity. In the context of the Russian championship, nationalist rhetoric (which is inscribed into the traditionalist ideology) determines, for example, the conflict between the fans of the so-called “Russian” clubs and teams like Akhmat (from Grozny, Chechnya) or Anzhi (from Makhachkala, Dagestan). On the territory of the former Yugoslavia, a fierce confrontation exists between the fans of Serbian, Croatian and Albanian clubs. The same rhetoric is used to build up a sense of solidarity within certain groups on the international level. A good example is an imaginary brotherhood that has been constructed between Serbian and Russian fans, basing on an idea of common ethnic and religious background and shared history.

Между Москвой и Ярославлем, сентябрь 2014.

Male and female fans

For traditionalist ideology, the notions of “true” masculinity and femininity are gaining in importance. Football and football fandom are declared to be an exclusively male territory, which is particularly expressed by the phrase “Football without women.” Women have traditionally prescribed social roles associated with family and household rather than with the public space. At the same time, the materials gathered during participant observation and interviews show that the spectrum of social roles of those female football fans who are included in the community is considerably broader. There are examples of female ultra and hooligan groups: they can be associated with certain male fan groups or remain independent. Individual strategies of legitimate inclusion in the male fan group can also sometimes be successful.

Apart from compulsory personal interest in football and competence in sports (which a female supporter often has to prove first), such strategies may imply maintaining a “masculine interface” of the football fan culture. According to the words of one of my female informants, she visits away games with a group of male fans. Before the trip they discuss how difficult the match is going to be and whether “the boys want to go mad.” Then, depending on the collective decision, she and her female friend travel together with the others or separately from them, meeting only at the stadium. She consciously does not challenge the norms of masculinity declared by the community, which enables her to be respected and have more authority in the group.

Is there really academic literature on fan culture too?

Football culture has been of interest to social scientists from 1960-s. Works about fans are issued regularly, especially in English; however, many of the researches are focused primarily on the problem of hooliganism.

The choice of a publication would depend on what exactly you are interested in, but to familiarise yourself with the topic, I would suggest the following:

• Steve Frosdick and Peter Marsh. Football Hooliganism. – Willan, 2005.

The book is regularly republished and can be used as an introduction to the theme. The authors provide a brief overview of relevant researches, discuss the main problems of the field and draw attention to the modern trends in studies on football fandom.

• Gary Armstrong. Football Hooligans: Knowing the Score. – Berg Publishers, 1998.

This is the first anthropological study of football hooliganism carried out by Gary Armstrong on Sheffield United fans. Basing on the materials gathered during participant observation and in interviews, the author analyses the hooligan group’s inner structure, their practices and slang, against the backdrop of a broader sociocultural context in Sheffield.

• Geoffrey Michael Pearson. An Ethnography of English Football Fans: Cans, Cops and Carnivals. – Manchester University Press, 2012.

A relatively recent ethnography of the football environment that gives an idea of its diversity.

• Ramon Spaaij. Understanding Football Hooliganism: A Comparison of Six Western European Football Clubs. – Amsterdam University Press, 2006.

The author adopts a comparative method in analysis of football hooliganism focusing on six football clubs from three large cities in Western Europe: London (West Ham United and Fulham), Rotterdam (Feyenoord and Sparta) and Barcelona (Espanyol and Barcelona FC). The book serves as a good illustration of the diversity and local specificity of the football fans’ culture, which has been discussed at the beginning.