Russia’s ultras are a return to nationalist posturing in football – and the media

Two tribes. Shutterstock

Violent clashes between rival fans in France and Russia’s subsequent suspended disqualification from Euro 2016 has once again raised the spectre of ultra-nationalism in football. It threatens to further deepen fears and anxieties in an unstable geopolitical climate, one in which the world order seems increasingly uncertain.

Russia’s “ultras”, ardent fans linked with much of the recent violence, have now become synonymous in the imagination of some with a resurgent, aggressive Russia.

So who are the ultras, who it is claimed are different from previous (and, crucially, non-Russian) football hooligans? Young, organised and largely abstemious, they are, according to Marseilles prosecutor Brice Robin “extreme” and “trained to fight”. However, firm details on the organisation of the ultras are, as yet, proving elusive.

Footage filmed by Russian fans on a GoPro camera showing people claiming to be Russian ultras involved in violent clashes with England fans went viral.

Reports from Marseilles describe how Russian fans disguised themselves in England shirts so they could gain close proximity from which to cause maximum damage. Other English newspapers have shown groups of Russian fans apparently holding bloodstained England flags: grisly trophies that have even found their way onto internet auction sites.

A new ‘firm’ in town

The Russian ultra is a reality as well as a media creation – one in which “hooligans”, “ultras” and “fans” are too often conflated.

Interviews with ultras reveal a number of sources of tension. Crucially, though such ultras represent an ardent nationalism, their sources of inspiration do not come only from within Russia. Some ultras claim one source of influence is the English football “firms” from the 1970s and 80s, groups of violent hooligans who indulged in match day violence. This might prompt English football fans to think a little reflectively before somehow passing off this violence as uniquely Russian. Indeed, many English hooligans have been given banning orders and forced to surrender passports to prevent violence.

Even so, a message about Russian national pride repeatedly emerges from the macho world of the Russian ultra: observed (non-Russian) practices adopted from English football hooliganism have been built upon and perfected by the Russians in the present day. Others, talking of their willing involvement in street violence, make frequent reference to their being outnumbered by English fans in Marseilles – a victory won against odds.

Football has, once again, become a vehicle for political forces. Politically, the Russian ultras have been linked to nationalist groups on the far right. Other alarming details have also emerged, including the presence of Alexander Shprygin – a far-right activist seeking a Slavic-only national team – who accompanied the official delegation to Euro 2016. Shprygin, along with 42 other fans, was held and then deported from France. Other politicians and administrators have expressed support.

We know the ultras represent an at times violent fan subculture, but more investigation is needed on where their members come from. What is clear is that they have proved useful for compatriots who wish to present an idea of a Russia besieged by enemies. Vladimir Putin publicly condemned the clashes but asserted Russian strength by questioning how vastly outnumbered Russia fans were able to send thousands of England supporters fleeing. Other politicians have emphasised a certain machismo on the part of the fans involved, even as they denounced the violence.

There is a mood in Russia that foreign press coverage has been unfair and subject to anti-Russian bias, an idea that plays well to parts of the general public there. Some have argued that the vicious acts of these radical fans have been exaggerated or distorted by Western media. Images of aggressive English fans have accompanied Russian reports that stress how blame for violence can be seen on both sides.

Those in Russia who concede the reality of the violence have sought external sources of blame, including the French police for not being tough enough, the implication being that the Russian authorities managed to control domestic football violence years ago.

In every case what has emerged is a defensive stance in response to accusations of Russian aggression. This emphasises an image of a Russia with its back against the wall but, once again, victorious in battle – clearly, one not without historical connotations. Reporting of football violence in Russia reflects tension between Russia and the West, particularly the idea that defensive or legitimate actions are being unfairly depicted as Russian aggression, and English fans have not taken their fair share of the blame. Many Russians believe that the official response to the events shows anti-Russian sentiment.

It is clear that Russian fan violence has, in some quarters, become a vehicle for nationalist aggression. Yet, there needs to be a considered response. Russian football clearly has major problems, but fan violence is still an occasional part of English football culture, as recent events in the domestic game have demonstrated.

The idea of Russia as an unstable place, underscored by lurid images of a violent fan subculture reflect tensions about Russian aggression emerging from elsewhere, in politics and military strategy. But the broader issues pervading the social contexts of both sport and politics cannot be meaningfully disentangled. Without due care, culturalist assumptions can lead to a startling lack of reflectiveness. Whether in sport or elsewhere, greater criticism and assessment is needed – in Russia and England – if the challenges that a resurgent nationalism presents are to be met and then defeated.

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