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The neo-Nazi de-Nazifiers The role Russian ‘soccer hooligans’ play in the invasion of Ukraine

Source: Cherta Media

Journalists at Cherta Media investigated the role of Russian “football [soccer] hooligans” in the invasion of Ukraine, focusing on the so-called Española detachment. After reorganizing themselves from a neo-Nazi brawling community into a “private military company” active in occupied Donetsk, Española started recruiting new combatants in February 2023. The group is even doing outreach to children in Donetsk. Ilya Khanin and Alexey Trifonov act as its main “humanitarian wing,” and they recently helped create a boys’ soccer team in Horlivka named after Española with a pirate mascot, modeled on the real group’s skull-and-crossbones iconography. Meduza summarizes Cherta Media’s report about the history of soccer hooliganism in Russia, the authorities’ efforts to “tame” these violent groups, and why men in this neo-Nazi community are now going to Ukraine to join the Kremlin’s “de-Nazification” campaign.

A study by scholars at the Higher School of Economics in 2020 breaks down Russian soccer fans into four groups: okolofutbolshchiki (near-soccer fans, the most active and aggressive of the bunch), ultras (also aggressive, but more about pyrotechnics and demonstrations at the stadium itself), hooligans (less aggressive, as their fights are usually limited to stadiums and bars), and ordinary fans (kuzmichi).

Cherta Media’s report offers insights into why Russian soccer hooligans have taken up arms in Ukraine. For example, one source said many of these young men didn’t support the February invasion immediately, but the subsequent global anti-Russian backlash changed their perception of the war, convincing them that Russian civilization itself, not just the state, is at stake.

Extremism expert and SOVA Center director Alexander Verkhovsky says Russia’s soccer culture didn’t start out engulfed in right-wing politics but gradually developed in this direction beginning in the mid-1990s. (He acknowledges, however, that the fans’ frequent embrace of violence and xenophobia made them a “natural reservoir” for the far-right.) According to historian Nikolai Mitrokhin, Russia’s earlier soccer-fan movement wasn’t about politics so much as young men trying to assert themselves through force. Mitrokhin argues that there’s a layer of young men eager to prove their manliness in battle in both Russia and Ukraine. In the latter country, he says, the soccer-fan groups became one of the most valuable parts of the army, in particular for the Azov battalion. Ironically, many of the neo-Nazis now fighting against each other in Ukraine existed somewhat harmoniously before 2014, says Mitrokhin.

Researchers at InformNapalm previously connected Española’s leader, Stanislav Orlov, to the Donbas Volunteers Union, which then Kremlin adviser Vladislav Surkov reportedly helped create in one of his many efforts to orchestrate separatist activity in the Donbas. Cherta Media points out that the Russian authorities have attempted repeatedly over the past two decades to “tame” hardcore soccer fans, apparently hoping to use them as muscle to keep in check Russia’s anti-Kremlin opposition. (Vladimir Zhirinovsky tried it in the late 1990s, the Nashi youth movement used soccer fans as security guards in the 2000s, and even the FSB allegedly ordered the creation of the All-Russian Association of Fans.)

Even the December 2010 Manezhnaya Square riots didn’t halt the presidential administration’s campaign to domesticate Russia’s soccer hooligans, but the Kremlin finally had a change of heart following Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan Revolution and especially after Russian soccer fans instigated mass brawls with English fans at the 2016 UEFA Euro tournament in France. In 2017, Russia introduced its “Fan ID” pass system, alienating many fans and making it difficult for fans with criminal records to gain entry to stadiums.

Summary by Kevin Rothrock

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