Russia’s response to football hooliganism

ZOiS Spotlight 15/2017 by Julia Glathe (21.6.2017)

Chairs broken by soccer hooligans in the stadium of Bryansk in Russia. Photo: Zac Allan

On 17 June, the FIFA Confederations Cup started in Russia. The tournament is essentially the dress rehearsal for the men’s FIFA World Cup which will be hosted by Russia next year. Against the background of massive crowd troubles during the European Championship in France in 2016, the question arises of whether Russian hooligans will turn the mega-event on home soil into a ‘festival of violence’. Last year, about 300 well-trained hooligans from Russia sent the host city Marseille into a state of emergency. Hundreds of injured, two very seriously, and a trail of devastation in the city centre were the shocking results.

The radical nature, sheer brutality, and apparently well-organised structures of Russian hooligan groups during the championship in France surprised the international public. However, a violent hooligan subculture in Russia is not a new phenomenon. As early as the 1990s, structures of violence developed in the Russian fan culture. Today, this manifests itself in several forms of violence: beyond crowd troubles around venues, rival hooligan groups regularly gather at remote areas, for example in the woods, and fight. The hooligans prepare for these informal competitions in gyms and fight clubs, as impressively illustrated by the BBC documentary Russia’s Hooligan Army.

Of particular concern is the link between parts of the aggressive fan scene and the far right and related attempts at mobilisation. Although unique in terms of scale, an example is the Manezhnaya Square riot in Moscow on 11 December 2010, when several thousand football fans, together with neo-Nazi groups, attacked migrants and police. In September 2013, right-wing football hooligans returned to the streets, this time in Biryulyovo, a suburb on the outskirts of Moscow, and rioted side by side with local residents at an alarming gathering against what they saw as ‘illegal migration’.

So far, incidents of this scale have fortunately not been repeated. However, racist incidents inside and outside stadia still occur regularly, as illustrated by monitoring reports of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis and FARE network.

The Russian authorities are aware of the threat that racist and violent fan groups could disturb the Confederations Cup. But the tweets by Igor Lebedev, a leading member of the Russian Football Union, seemingly encouraging the Russian hooligans in France in 2016 should not mislead us into thinking that hooliganism is supported by the Russian state. In fact, for years there has been increasing regulation of the fan scene in Russia, a development which is perceived and criticised as repression by many fans.

 As for the 2018 World Cup, ‘rules of conduct for spectators and for ensuring their safety’ were adopted in 2011. A far-reaching change was then brought about with the so-called fan law in 2014. This law restricts insults of other fans by placards or chants, drunkenness, and activities of a political and extremist nature and prohibits the use of pyrotechnic equipment. Fans accused of repeated infringements may be fined 15,000 roubles or jailed for fifteen days and could be banned from attending sporting events for up to seven years. Moreover, in March 2015 the Russian Football Union created a new position of anti-racism inspector in reaction to a report that revealed the extent of racism in the Russian fan culture. Furthermore, the Russian parliament adopted a law according to that from January 2017 on, entrance to sport events is only permitted with personalized tickets that are verified by passports. Associated with this is the legal instrument of so called Black Lists containing 191 violent fans who are not allowed to visit sports competitions. (status: June 2017).

 After the disturbances in France, Russia and a number of other states signed a Council of Europe convention on safety and security at football matches. The convention aims to improve dialogue between the police, local authorities, football clubs, and supporters. An example was set after the scandal in France when the Russian fan group leader Aleksander Shprygin was publicly detained by Russian special police during a Russian Football Union conference, the fan association was excluded from the football union, and Shprygin’s home and office were searched.

 Finally, in April this year, legislation regarding fan violence was tightened again. Fines for violating previous admission bans were doubled to 50,000 roubles. Severe violations of behaviour during football matches can now lead to fines of 10,000–20,000 roubles, with a subsequent ban on visiting sports events for up to seven years. In addition, the law is designed to tackle suspected hooligans from abroad. It bans the entry into Russia of foreign sports fans who were previously brought up on charges of public order violations during a public event inside or outside Russia or if there was a proof of the fan’s intention to do so in future.

 Besides tougher legislation, security organs are supposed to maintain order. A number of fans told the New York Times about repeated attempts to intimidate them and that their communication was under surveillance. Moreover, for months regional security forces have organised training courses to prepare for hooligan activities. During the 2018 World Cup, a massive police presence can be expected.

 It remains to be seen to what extent these measures will have a long-term effect. The recent monitoring report by the FARE network and the Sova Center (see the figure above) indicates that Russia has made some progress fighting racism in football: the number of racist and far-right incidents at Russian games in the 2016-17 season fell from 101 to 89 in comparison to the previous season. But it must be feared that repression alone without any accompanying social interventions into fan groups will push violent groups underground rather than develop a tolerant fan culture. Recent years have seen some cooperative attempts, for instance round tables on football violence together with football officials and fan representatives. Yet the main cause for hope stems from civil-society initiatives such as the fan group CSKA Fans Against Racism which stand up for an alternative anti-racist and anti-homophobic fan model.


Julia Glathe is a researcher at the Institute for East European Studies at Freie Universität Berlin.