More than ninety years of oppressive communism has left its mark. Stalin’s socialist classicism brand of architecture is still in considerable profusion and the streets of Moscow evoke a deep sense of melancholia.
Exploding out of this ruin of post communism Russia, a new brand of revolutionaries has taken to the streets – the Khuligany or the hooligans.
Even though home to several football clubs, the battle for supremacy and ascendancy of Moscow is fought between two of its biggest clubs and the country’s fiercest rivals, Spartak and CSKA Moscow.
Before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the regime ruled with an iron fist. Freedom of expression was limited on the streets and the inequitable oppression carried itself into football stadiums. Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost did somewhat expand the freedom of expression in the media and press but it was not until the fall of the USSR, did football fans find their voice and more importantly. establish themselves as one of the most spirited, loyal and dangerous footballing cults in continental Europe.
Formed as the Central Sport Club of the Army in 1911, the club was the official team of the Soviet Army during the communist era. It was funded by the army and the soldiers were integrated as players.
CSKA’s two major hooligan firms, Yaroslavka and the Gallant Steeds, are notorious for organising bare-knuckle fist fights with their Spartak counterparts and causing absolute mayhem in every stadium they venture into in an European away game.
In an away cup tie against lowly second division side FC Yelets back in 2005, CSKA fans were engaged in a fierce stand-off with the stewards and subsequently, the army. After Yelets drew first blood in the game, CSKA fans threw flares and fired rockets into the ground forcing the referee to stop the game after just 20 minutes of play. Para-military forces equipped with water cannons, tear gas, and covered in protective gear from head to toe, were deployed to try and administer the seemingly recalcitrant mob of fans.
Only when the coaches and players of CSKA called for peace did the fanatically loyalist group of supporters let the game run its course. CSKA lost the game 1-0, and the fans disheartened with the defeat, headed for their homes with broken bones, ruptured veins and swollen eyes among other bodily impairments while the taunts of Yelets fans still resonated in their ears.
The Gallant Steeds are a relatively young firm consisting of members primarily between the ages of 17 to 25. The firm recurrently meets at pubs, clubs and even schedules fighting practice sessions in gyms. These brutal sessions usually consist of two groups tearing each other up prior to the big games against Spartak or Zenit St.Petersburg.
An unfathomable facet to CSKA’s hooligans circle is its all female firm. A band of twenty odd women, practicing kick-boxing and fist fights, storming the streets of Moscow to defend their club’s colour and pride. This is quite possibly the most recherché guild of its kind in the entire world.
Despite not winning the league since 2001, Spartak Moscow, founded in 1922, are the most successful club in the Russian top division. Similar to CSKA who were formed by the army and Dinamo Moscow who were founded by the police, Spartak were patronised by the trade union public organisation and were known as the “people’s team”.
Former Russian footballer Nikolai Starostin is credited for the name ‘Spartak’ which is inspired from the ancient Thracian gladiator Spartacus who along with a group of his companions revolted against the Roman Republic in a major slave uprising.
In the late 80’s when the Soviet rule was being challenged, Russia was undergoing a paradigm shifting cultural makeover. Fans wanted entertainment and craved for distractions. And similar to the mod-revival and the skinhead movement in Britain in the 70’s, football violence assuaged the needs of many people.
One of Spartak’s leading hooligan firms is aptly named The Gladiators, who live by their extreme motto – win or die. Formed in 1996, the Gladiators are one of the oldest football firms in Russia. But despite their young age, they are feared and revered all across Europe as a violent bunch.
As recently as in 2013, Spartak fans went on rampage at a cup match against second-tier club Shinnik Yaroslavl. Flares were lit across the stadium, missiles and smoke bombs were thrown onto the pitch, and seats were vandalised and hurled at rival fans which resulted in an astonishing 78 arrests. Pictures also showed one fan carrying a Nazi banner.
Sport Express, one of Russia’s leading newspapers ran a headline that showed the true extent of how the citizens feel about the hooligan scene. “The end of football in our country,” read the headline as Russia’s rapidly deteriorating football fans were brutally exposed.
The truth is, organised bare knuckle fist fighting has been prevalent in Russia’s history. In the traditional festival called Maslenista, large group of men from different areas and of different walks of life come together to let go of the adrenaline surging in their veins by partaking in open bare knuckle fist fights. That was until Tsar Nicholas II abolished this tradition citing it as ‘harmful fun’.
But post-revolutionary Russia’s name is still being tarnished by these violent bunch of fanatics.
The Russian business oligarchy have been generously investing in the country’s football infrastructure but still, cases of racism and hooliganism are not isolated incidents. Just a few days prior to Spartak’s clash with Yaroslavl, CSKA Moscow hosted English club Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League. UEFA, European football’s premier governing body was forced to sanction fines and suspensions after CSKA fans were found guilty of racially abusing City’s Ivorian midfielder Yaya Toure.
Spotting of Nazi flags and fascist salutes are not uncommon among some of the extreme right-wing supporters.
Brazilian footballer Hulk was the first black player Zenit St. Petersburg ever signed. In February of this year when Zenit visited CSKA Moscow in a much anticipated league game, the Brazillian was a subject of several racist taunts every time he touched the ball. “There is always something like this, coming from our opponents’ fans,” said Hulk. He accredited these vile taunts to ‘lack of culture and ignorance’.
FIFA’s Anti Discrimination Task Force called on President Vladimir Putin to personally attend to this matter and send a message to the fans that such attitudes will not be tolerated as Russia looks forward to hosting the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Vyacheslav Koloskov, a member of Russia’s successful 2018 FIFA World Cup bidding team said: “Monkey chants are racist? Where is it written?,” as reported by the BBC.
The entire Russian populace and football fans alike need to gaze beyond this disconcerting ignorance. The country needs additional measures to combat racism and hooliganism which is sometimes difficult given how blurry the line is between the authorities and these right wing neo-Nazis, as exhibited by Vyacheslav Koloskov.
The streets of Moscow might not see Stalinist or Leninist revolutionary forces again, but the air of social and to some extent racial inequality still lingers.