‘Not just a drop in the sea’ Ten years ago, riots broke out in Moscow. The media blamed soccer fans, but it was actually right-wing activists. This is the story of their violence.
On the night of December 6, 2010, twenty-eight-year-old Spartak soccer fan Egor Sviridov was killed in a street fight outside of a Moscow cafe. The shooter and his friends, immigrants from the North Caucasus, were all arrested and taken to the police station, but in the morning, the police let most of them go free. The following day, about a thousand soccer fans gathered outside of the Investigative Committee building and marched in peaceful protest, covering Leningrad highway.
On December 11, there was another gathering, this time on Manezhnaya square. Things quickly turned violent — people started chanting patriotic slogans, fighting with cops, and assaulting bystanders.
Ten days later, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met with the leaders of the soccer fan clubs. As a result, “Manezhka” is widely remembered in Russia as a protest led by soccer fans. In reality, it was largely a right-wing rally, with the longest prison sentences given to members of the illegal National Bolshevik Party. Meduza correspondent Maxim Solopov spoke with one of the convicted party members, a soccer fan club leader, a detective, and a photojournalist about the riots on Manezhnaya, the meeting with Putin, and the aftermath.
“This was a right-wing revolt.”
On the morning of December 11, several thousand fans of Spartak and other Moscow soccer teams led a procession on Kronstadt Boulevard, laying flowers at the site of Sviridov’s death. At about 3:00 pm the same day, people gathered on Manezhnaya Square, brought out by calls on social media for a rally dedicated to Sviridov. Estimates of the number of people vary; the Moscow police reported 5,000 demonstrators, while unofficial sources reported up to 50,000 people. The rally quickly turned violent — according to official data, 32 people were injured and 80 were arrested.
A Moscow detective who oversaw work with youth extremist groups (anonymous)
There’s a widespread idea that this was a riot of soccer fans, but this isn’t true. There were definitely no organized groups of fans there — this was a right-wing revolt. A few years earlier, in late 2009 and 2010, various nationalist ideologues were writing about how the next revolution in Russia would involve the national question. It was fashionable.
The story of Sviridov’s murder was wrapped up pretty quickly. Spartak fans covered Leningrad highway. It was quickly dealt with, they got the right people, and everything was cleared up quickly. The fan community was quick to say, “Wait, what are we doing? There’s nothing for us to do. We’re sorry that he was killed, but we see that everyone’s already been arrested, and now there’s not really anything to demand. How the trial goes is another issue, but today we don’t have any complaints.”
What’s more, they even publicly called for people not to engage in political protests. They were just suggesting that everyone come to the wake. And that’s what happened, actually: the fan community came and went unnoticed. When all of these Potkins and Demushkins came to the site of the murder, there wasn’t a single fan left. Everything was covered in wreaths.
Everything [on Manezhnaya] started quietly enough. Riot police officers were there at Manezhnaya with about 15 loudmouths. […] They started shouting, “One for all and all for one!” and something else. Everyone, specifically law enforcement, just missed their moment.
More people came, and soon it wasn’t 15, but 30. One passerby was slapped on the cheek. They got away with that, too. Eventually, the riot police were faced with a huge crowd of tightly-packed people. They should have just started making arrests, but since this was some kind of new street technology, they weren’t ready for it and they got confused. The media, the digital age, all that.
So Manezhka was a matter of not working out the technology. It was nothing out of the ordinary, but everything was happening outside the Kremlin’s walls, so there was a huge media response.
An important point: in addition to all of these crazy affinity groups [from the Internet] on Manezhnaya, the National Bolsheviks showed up, too. And they weren’t just a drop in the sea. There were older, time-hardened people like [Kirill] Unchuk — in other words, familiar faces at street protests. There was a small part of the active right, but — whatever anyone says — the Bolsheviks were out in numbers.
There’s video footage of them throwing themselves at riot officers, like in the golden age of the NBP [National Bolshevik Party]. The right-wing had absolutely no experience with confronting the police; there were a lot of youngsters there. What could they do? Walk over to the [nationalist] Russian March? None of them had any serious experience with the use of force, and the National Bolsheviks seized any cause they could, other than hunger strikes.
When did [then Moscow police chief Vladimir] Kolokoltsev show up? Don’t ask me, ask the Moscow Police Department’s press service. I have no idea why he came. Probably to hear what they would shout at him. Everyone saw the footage: he didn’t play any role at all. But the riot police played a role, like every time before and since, the bused them in from all over, just like always. The approach hasn’t changed in 150 years. Some groups were dispersed, and some people were arrested for the day.
Rustan Buzanov, former photographer for RIA Novosti
For me, it all began at the mourning event for Egor Sviridov. There were already rumors that people were gathering at Manezhnaya. There were plainclothes cops, we were chatting with them, and they already knew people were gathering there. After that, the reporters and I went to Manezhnaya, and the riot police and the protesters were already there.
At first, they just demonstrated, set off flares, yelled, and then… I didn’t see the exact moment when the beating outside Okhotny Ryad happened. I’m not even sure the shots of the guys getting beaten up were mine, because there was another photographer with us. The beating probably made the crowd move closer to Manezhnaya, where the main clashes with riot police were happening. I remember everyone rushing somewhere. One of the protesters was walking next to me, he had a gun. I don’t know if it was non-lethal or not, but it probably was. The guys were armed.
At the peak of the confrontation with the police, I got hit. I stood with the other photographers between the riot police and the protesters. I heard screams — something about journalists — and I was punched in the head a couple of times (it was nothing serious). Andryukha Stenin pulled me out of the crowd. I stood about two yards away from the protesters. Some guy just came at me from behind and started hitting me in the head, and that was it. It didn’t last very long. Andryukha pulled me out immediately, and we got back to work.
I wouldn’t say there was any aggression toward journalists specifically. My case was an exception. Basically, none of the journalists was injured, but I could be mistaken here. There were also beatings in the subway, throughout the city, but I didn’t get footage of that.
There were arrests, but the crowd didn’t disperse and continued to be aggressive toward the police. If [the officers] had wanted, I think they could have dispersed them. They always have a way — gas, batons — there’s basically a whole arsenal. I think a lot of riot police were sympathetic. As far as I know, there are a lot of police officers in the world of soccer fan groups. I don’t know how it is now, but definitely back then. Maybe they didn’t want to get in each other’s way.
As a whole, looking back as a photographer, I have pleasant memories. As cynical as it sounds, at least it led to a lot of nice photos.
Kirill Unchuk, member of the National Bolshevik party
We joined the mourning event [before Manezhnaya] at the site of [Egor Sviridov’s] murder at River station. I’m pretty involved in the fan community — Torpedo is my team. I came just to express my civic position. After the mourning event, we stuck around to hang out and headed toward the city’s center. I expected it to be a regular protest, but there were already a ton of people when we got there.
At first, we stood there with everyone — yelled, messed around. When the confrontation with the police started, […] my partner, Igor Berezyuk, got in a fight with some local riot police who were working separately, without shields. His temper drew him into it; he wanted to lend some momentum to what was happening. They immediately got him, just knocked him out in one second.
I ran up to him and yelled, “Stop, I’m a journalist!” I pulled him out of there. He’d taken blows from five batons. “You okay?” I asked. He was like, “I’ll make it.” He was running on adrenaline — after that, he also saved someone else the cops knocked out. He called out to Kolokoltsev, “What are you doing? You almost killed him.” He thought the guy had actually died. Then Kolokoltsev walked out like he was somebody’s mom, and clucked on his microphone, “Calm down. Everything will be okay. We’ll deal with everyone.” When the real clash started, he was nowhere to be found.
With the help of barricades, we started holding back the wave of riot police. I was knocked down, crushed, and dragged to a police car. I had a huge cut on my head, and I started yelling that I was bleeding and that I needed to be taken to an ambulance. At the ambulance, they told the riot officers that they would hospitalize me. The officer left, and I asked the medic to let me go smoke. I looked around — there were no cops, so I went home.
That same evening, Nurgaliev waved our photographs around at a press conference and said that it wasn’t the soccer fans who stirred this all up, because everything was fine with them. [He said] it was the same radical leftists who had led the oppositionist “Dissenters’ March” and “Strategy 31” protests. In those days, we really did have a united opposition — liberals and Communist together. At some point, we had an initiative group that was active throughout the city, stirring up action.
I told you what our role at Manezhka really was. Yes, maybe, Igor [Berezyuk] showed everyone that it’s possible to hit cops. We realized they’ll always find us. So why hide? If you’re a revolutionary and you chose this path, you should be ready to go to jail — to die. I saw how they killed our comrades — Yuri Chervochkin was beaten with bats, others were taken out into the forest. When the interior minister issued his statement after Manezhka, naming the guilty parties, I understood that we were in their crosshairs again.
In the case documents, I saw how they fired nonlethal rounds at the perimeter and rammed people with steel fixtures. Barehanded, what could I have done against a riot cop in full gear? I kicked Christmas ornaments and threw pieces of the police barrier at them. Why should they look for anyone else to blame, if they could kill two birds with one stone, eliminating us by filing their report? There were 30 police raids against people in our group across Moscow in a single day. They confiscated a bunch of equipment. We were knocked down financially — a single copy machine cost half a million rubles. But we kept going, even after that.
Any problem could be solved in an instant
Ten days after the events at Manezhnaya, Russia’s TV networks showed something unusual: a meeting between then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the leaders of soccer fan groups. Before the conversation began, Putin suggested that everyone stand and observe a moment of silence for Egor Sviridov. “It’s very good that representatives of the leading organizations of soccer fans, otherwise known as fan clubs, have gathered here today,” said Putin. After the press conference formalities, Putin asked the press to leave. He proceeded to talk with the fans for about an hour, and then went with them to leave flowers at Sviridov’s grave.
Alexander Shprygin, former head of the All-Russian Society of Fans (VOB)
That year, a day before what happened, on December 2, Comrade Blatter opened an envelope with “Russia” written on it, which meant the World Cup would take place in Russia.
Back then, Vitaly Mutko was the minister of sports, tourism, and youth policy, and [Sergey] Fursenko was the president of Russia’s Soccer Union. Both interacted with the VOB and both were responsible for youth policy. After Manezhnaya, I got a call from Mutko’s deputy, Oleg Alexandrovich Rozhnov, who said: “Sasha, the minister wants to meet with soccer fans on the 21st to discuss all these thorny issues. Help us organize it, please. Gather all your guys and all the other guys, all the main people, especially in Moscow, especially the Spartak fans.”
Nobody told me who was going to be at the meeting — they’d requested a meeting with the minister [Mutko]. That day, I came to Kazakov street, and there were traffic cops everywhere. I went up to the ministry building and there were two more riot-police buses. I was a little confused. People had trusted me and agreed to come, and now there were so many policemen — like it was a soccer game or a mafia meeting.
In the entrance to the Sports Ministry building, where I went a dozen times a year, there was now a security checkpoint with a metal detector. All the guards at the entrance knew me, but they still said, “Sasha, go through the frame.” And I said, “Come on, guys.” “Well, Sasha, we have to — the FSO is here.” And it hit me — this was all because of one high-security person. I basically understood everything, and a smile appeared on my face.
Mr. Putin came in and sat down. You can find it all online. “Hello,” he said. “I decided to meet with you all because you showed strength.” And for several minutes, he gave a speech for the news channels. Then the media left, and for about 40 minutes — maybe an hour — everyone asked him questions. When asked about the murder, he said he’d personally ordered [Investigative Committee head Alexander] Bastrykin to punish the officers who’d initially mishandled it. I think if these investigators from the Northern District had known what would happen next, they might have reconsidered their methods.
The standard problems were brought up. Two-thirds of the questions had to do with the history of the relationship between fans and the police at soccer games. For example, Sasha Makasin, the leader of Zenit fans, told Putin this story: “You understand, Mr. Putin, that the color of our club is sacred to us, but in Kazan, the police came up with this: after a game, they put a Zenit scarf on their service dog. And this made us angry, and we went after the dog to remove the scarf, but it turns out that the dog is also considered an officer, and they drew up a report about us assaulting an officer.”
Putin chuckled and said, “Well, Tatars have always been inventive guys.” And Makasin was outraged. “What are you laughing for?! These colors are our pride, our life, how can they do such a thing!” And Mr. Putin corrected himself. “I agree, I’ll talk with Rashid [Nurgaliyev].”
And, literally a few days later, Nurgaliyev had a meeting with the fans at the Interior Ministry. He supported us in every possible way and sent out a directive to the whole country. In a nutshell, it said: don’t mess with the soccer fans. At all the meetings, they made it clear that fans would be involved in preparations for the World Cup, and that the Sports Ministry would give an order to Russia’s Soccer Union to work more closely with us.
This [meeting] brought new life to the All-Russian Society of Fans. We’d experienced definite stagnation in 2010. That winter, there was internal chaos, there were re-elections, and Spartak and CSKA fans left the organization. Suddenly, the VOB was revived. It reached a new level. I joked that everything in the country was easy to solve when there was a command from the top. Any problem, even a trivial one, could be solved in an instant. Papers were sent, calls were made from the top down, and there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be resolved administratively. This, of course, was a fantasy.
The fan base shit itself
“I’m personally counting on the fact that the leaders of the fan clubs, and all soccer fans in general, will be involved, firstly, in preparations for the World Cup and will help make it a real holiday for everyone who loves this wonderful sport,” Putin said in 2012 at a different meeting with the leaders of the fan organizations. This time, they even drank beer together. Everything changed dramatically in 2016, after a fight between Russian and English soccer fans at the 2016 UEFA European Football Championship. After that, everyone began criticizing Russia, claiming that the Russian government was barely able to ensure the security of World Cup attendees, and Putin’s cordiality toward the fans was replaced by reprimands.
A year ago, at the last tournament in December, all the fans left the stands in protest against the police crackdowns, and the response was just — wow. The national networks were reluctant to report on it, but they had to. And then they hit a dead end. There was no continuation, no official statement, no meetings initiated — nothing. A lot of noise and no result.
Years earlier, Marseille had been the last straw. It was an international scandal, and Putin was forced to comment on the situation at a forum in St. Petersburg. “Fighting is bad, of course. But how did two hundred Russians beat a thousand Englishmen?” he laughed. The imperial sense of humor showed, but conclusions were drawn. We returned from Marseille triumphant, but Mutko was already listening to people on the other side.
I heard from several sources that Mutko was basically scolded after Euro 2016 at a National Security Council meeting — and that my name was mentioned — but there were no direct orders to take any serious action, or things would have ended badly for me. Perhaps God intervened, and the president remembered our meeting.
The fan base shit itself. [Mutko] no longer wanted to use his influence and opportunities to take care of soccer fans — he’d become disappointed. After the events in Marseille, when they started excluding the VOB from the Russian Soccer Union, I was arrested at one of the union’s conferences. A lot of the VOB’s detractors were pleased to see the footage of me being led out in custody. I said, “Guys, you shouldn’t be so happy — if they did this to the head of an association, all soccer fans can expect hard times.”
And the number of raids became out of control in those years. If you did something wrong at a game, it was guaranteed that someone would show up at your door in two or three days. If a Torpedo fan was causing trouble on the subway after a Luzhniki match, everyone would have someone at their door after a couple of days. “Hello, let’s begin,” they’d say. And this continues now.
I’d hoped that this would end after the World Cup. It’s absurd — in what other country does the intelligence community deal with sports fans? Does the CIA or the MI6 deal with fans? Does Mossad deal with Israeli fans? I don’t think so. But the FSB, our central security agency, busies itself with fans to this day.
I’ve talked to some security officials, even some who are soccer fans themselves. They tell me, “Sasha, they just wanted to scare you to make sure you understand: sit still.” But I’ve been sitting still. In this country, they’ll find some reason, and they can always stage something in an instant, even if they don’t find anything. I’ve preferred to stay in the country, not traveling beyond the Pskov region. I’m just trying to do something good for my soul. I just want to recharge.
The never-ending pressure [from the authorities] recently led fans to start chanting “Long live Belarus!” in the stands. The oppositionist sentiment isn’t just in the air now — it’s ready to explode. There’s never been anything like it.
Recently, I was talking to some friends, who joked: “How did the people in power sleep through the fanaticism all those years?” Today, I bet a lot of people wouldn’t even attend a meeting with the president. “The Sports Ministry wants to meet?” “No, we won’t talk to them.” When Ukraine started, yes, there were also some pro-Ukraine sentiments, but most people were for Novorossiya and everyone observed neutrality — it didn’t manifest outwardly, especially in the stands.
What did four years of endlessly cracking people’s heads get us? For an ordinary man, the logic is simple: if they came to my house in the morning, seized everything, and didn’t return anything, it means they stole it. What do you think this man will do next? Hold a grudge against the specific officer who did it? No, he’ll hate the government for the rest of his life.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale