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Hooligans into the arena?

Neil King
March 9, 2017

Russian lawmaker Igor Lebedev has proposed to make soccer hooliganism a sport ahead of next year's World Cup in Russia. DW talks to hooliganism expert Svetlana Stephenson about violence, honor and the "Russian style."

Russland randalierende Fans bei Schinnik Jaroslawl - Spartak Moskauk
Image: picture alliance/dpa/RIA Nowosti

DW: What do you make of Igor Lebedev's proposal? Is he serious about this?

Svetlana Stephenson: I think he must be half-serious, I think there is a sort of bravado there saying that there's nothing wrong with our lads, they are great, they like violence, but this is absolutely fine. We can control them. And I don't think anybody took this as a serious proposal.

But on the other hand maybe it's not so off the wall after all. We already have ultimate cage fights, so a group of 40 men fighting it out in an arena, as Lebedev suggested, would just take this a step further, wouldn't it?

On the one hand, yes, there are already organized fights, fist fights between members of different football firms in Russia, but I don't think people really want their violence to be controlled by the state. I think this will take a lot out of it for them.

So one of the main factors why it's attractive to them is the fact that this hooliganism is illegal and not organized by anybody?

Yeah, absolutely. They are very good at organizing it themselves and I think this is one of the features of Russian football hooliganism, because they have developed what is known as the "Russian style" where people meet in certain places, have particular agreed numbers and they beat each other up. But for them the joy of violence, if I can say [that], is that it's totally illicit. So I don't think this will work.

Lebedev argues that organized clashes could turn fans' aggression in a peaceful direction. Do you agree?

Well, violence cannot be peaceful. But it can be contained. And this Russian style that I mentioned it helps to contain violence to a certain extent. Because this ritualized violence is directed against the so-called enemies, fans from enemy clubs. And I think to an extent this limits violence against the bystanders, against so-called civilians who are not seen as the enemies. So in this sense it is possible to regulate violence, but this is done by the hooligans themselves, not by the state.

Frankreich Fußball EM Euro 2016 russische Hooligans in Marseille
Hooligans clashed after the EURO 2016 match between England and Russia in MarseilleImage: Getty Images/L. Baron

In that case then what happened in France last year when Russian hooligans attacked English fans inside the stadium? The way I saw it or understood it, those were Russian hooligans attacking regular English fans. So that wasn't really Russian style then, was it?

No, this was not Russian style, because of course they behave differently abroad. Because when they go abroad, then different firms which can be enemies in Russia unite to beat up foreign fans. But the influence of the Russian style I see in the very good training and them being fit for battle - something which English fans may lack.

And if we talk about the dynamics of hooliganism, is the hooligan phenomenon just a case of young and bored men without any perspective in life letting of steam or is there more to it in your experience?

I think it's not limited to young men. It's a past time of often mature men in their 30s and 40s, men who grew up as hooligans and who take this as a kind of expression of their masculinity. So they can be actually quite well-off middle class men. But it's not unique to Russia actually; it's common in other countries as well.

What about the hooligan code of honor - is this a myth?

Against hooliganism at Euro 2016

There is a kind of subculture which has unwritten rules, and these rules by and large do not encourage violence against young kids or women or older men who are not hooligans themselves.

Now of course as with any unwritten rules they can be violated especially if alcohol is involved. But there is a certain tendency to limit violence against these civilians, yes I would say so.

So in terms of potential for violent incidents at games and around games, I think people who are not easily identifiable as football fans from other teams, they are of course less at risk than people who wear symbols and clothes linked to other firms.

But hypothetically speaking now, if we just consider Lebedev's proposal seriously just for a minute. If we have 20 men on each side, meeting in an arena, fighting it out, without weapons but still very violent - what are the rules of engagement? How could you avoid that somebody is actually killed in this?

I think it's impossible to avoid it, [but] they do not aim to kill. And the point is it's a kind of honest combat. Now of course violence - the nature of it is unpredictable. It can lead to murder.

But I must say that this initiative is not so unique. And as crazy as it seems, I know that in some Russian cities the local authorities do organize ritual fights, because they see such fights among men as sort of part of the ancient Russian traditions of combat. There used to be fights between different villages or different streets in villages. And the fist fights are now organized as a kind of celebration of Russian traditional male fights.

Do Russians then have a different approach towards violence compared to Western men for instance?

I think Russia is a country with very late urbanization and the village traditions of so-called festive fights. They have been alive in Russia for a long time, much longer than in other European countries where such fights also were a major fact of village life in the 19th century/the beginning of the 20th century.

Now in Russia they lasted well into the 20th century. And even now my research in Moscow showed that such fights also take place on the outskirts of Moscow when members of different street gangs meet each other to settle scores in an organized way. This is quite unique to Russia, I think.

Svetlana Stephenson Porträt (DW/N.King)
Stephenson did extensive research on hooliganism; her latest book "Gangs of Russia: From the Streets to the Corridors of Power" was published in 2015Image: privat

How does the typical Russian hooligan differ from, let's say, the English hooligans?

People who are members of hooligan firms, who have accepted this Russian style, perhaps are different, although not everybody has accepted it. Lots of people are unhappy about this trend to have organized fights and love much more spontaneous violence.

So some people still behave like a typical Western hooligan and go to seek anybody they can beat up typically before the matches in a completely disorganized way. But some people are involved in these ritualized fights.

Russian hooligans certainly showed a very ugly side during the European Cup last year. Are you expecting worse clashes at the World Cup in Russia next year, because it's on their home turf?

I think that violence is unfortunately inevitable. But I also think that the Russian police have a lot of control and they are preparing and they are getting in touch with these firms. And I think hooligans generally everywhere are extremely opportunistic. They don't want to end up in prison, they don't want to be banned from traveling, so I think the police can do a lot to stop violence.

And the Russian hooligans respect the Russian police more? 

They do not necessary respect [them] more, but they don't want trouble with the police. And in my understanding what happened in Marseille was that the police there were not particularly effective in stopping violence. And my hope is the Russian police will be well prepared.

Svetlana Stephenson teaches Social Sciences at London Metropolitan University. She's also the author of the book Gangs of Russia, a definitive work on the Russian underworld and hooligan scene.

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