The world may indeed be flat.
Several thousand Russians recently traveled to the western edge of their country – and fell off.
They fell into a largely invisible history chasm that cuts Russia from its Western and Southern neighbors.
This mental moat is on full display at Euro 2012, the once every four years European Football Championship which has its finale this Sunday.
The Russians may look like tough guys – they were beefy, football fans, some prepared with mouth guards and brass knuckles. But handicapped by their Moscow-centric view of history, they wandered into Poland as innocents abroad.
First, a little background.
From 500 years of interaction with Poland, Russian historians have cherry picked two feel good moments for public consumption.
First, there is the moment of Russia, the Victim.
In 2005, the Kremlin rebranded a November national holiday long used to mark the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Today, Nov. 4 is National Unity Day, marking the month when Polish occupiers were expelled from Moscow. That happened in 1612.
If you ask the average American what the British did in Washington in August 1814, the reply would probably be: Huh? (Correct answer: The Brits burned the White House, the Capitol and the United States Treasury.)
A second, more modern, moment dominates Russians’ view of Poland: Russia, the Liberator.
Indeed, in early 1945, the Red Army liberated Poland from the Nazis.
Ignored is the fine print of the larger historical context. In 1939, Hitler and Stalin carved up Poland. In late 1944, the Red Army waited for two months across the Vistula River from Warsaw, until the Nazis had crushed the Warsaw Uprising, largely fought by non-Communist Poles. And then, after the Soviets rolled through the German army to reach Berlin, they controlled Poland for the next 45 years.
In fact, since the early 1700s, there are only about 40 years when Poland was not – directly or indirectly — under Russia’s thumb.
Into this chasm of history, 5,500 Russian fans prepared to march June 12 to the Russia-Poland match in Warsaw’s National Stadium. Since it was Russia Day, they had brought along Russian flags and a fair number of communist symbols for their march through the heart of Poland’s capital.
While hammer and sickle symbols are commonplace in Russia, they have been banned in recent years in Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and Georgia. Five countries formerly under Soviet rule have asked the EU to institute a an EU ban on displaying the hammer and sickle.
Minutes before the June 12 march started, Alexander Shrpygin, leader of the All-Russia Fans’ Union, got angry when journalists suggested the march might be seen in Poland as provocative.
Protected by phalanxes of helmeted riot police, the Russians made it safely past a memorial to the 2010 air crash that killed Poland’s president and dozens of Polish notables in western Russia.
But, then the Polish riot police lost control.
Some Russian men broke through police lines and attacked Polish men who were taunting them. Then Polish men attacked the column.
When the tear gas had lifted, the flares had burned out, and the rubber bullets and broken bottles had been swept up, Warsaw jails held 153 Poles and 24 Russians. Medics treated 150 fans. Seven Poles and one Russian were hospitalized overnight.
The majority of the Russian fans made it safe and sound to the stadium and settled into their seats for the Russia – Poland football match.
The Poles struck up their national anthem, a lively 18th century mazurka that opens with the optimistic line: “Poland has not yet perished.”
As the host nation’s anthem played, Russian fans booed, jeered and whistled. They waved their massive, half ton banner. Announcing “This is Russia,” the banner depicted a medieval Russian warrior brandishing a massive sword.
Fortunately, the game ended with a diplomatic 1-1 tie.
Post-game aggression was largely limited to gangs of Polish young men roaming Warsaw and chanting: “Smash the red trash, with a hammer, with a sickle.”
In the late 1980s, Margaret Thatcher faced hooligan violence from traveling British fans. The British Prime Minister publicly called for ‘stiff’ jail sentences and a temporary ban on British teams playing on the Continent.
In contrast to the Iron Lady, Russia’s President comes off looking like “Putin the Permissive.”
The morning after the hooligan violence, Putin telephoned Poland’s President to express his “concern” about the safety of Russian fans. He immediately dispatched the head of the presidential Council for Human Rights Advisor to Warsaw to monitor the status of the jailed Russians. Russian diplomats at the Russian embassy in Warsaw assured Russian television viewers that their jailed countrymen would get prison visits and good, bilingual lawyers.
“Where has all this aggression against Russians come from?” Russia’s bewildered Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko asked reporters the day after the street fighting. Referring to Russian fans in Poland, he said: “People don’t feel safe at all.”
Three days later, Russian fans were hit with another blow: a $150,000 fine for disorder surrounding the Russia’s first game in the European Cup. In that game, against the Czech Republic, fans threw a flare on the pitch, chanted nationalist slogans, waved Czarist imperial flags, beat up Polish stadium stewards, and shouted racist taunts at Theodor Gebre Selassie, a Czech player whose father is from Ethiopia.
Sergei Fursenko, president of the Russian Football Federation, complained that the fine was unfair because one of the stewards seemed to deserve a beating.
“It’s especially harsh after the fans commented that he deserved it,” Fursenko told reporters. Click on the link, and you be the judge:
By the time the third game rolled around, on June 17, Polish police took preemptive action. They preventively detained 72 Russian fans who apparently were preparing a revenge attack on Polish fans. That game ended poorly, with Russia losing 0-1 to Greece, a country with one tenth the population of Russia. And so ended Russia’s Europe Cup ambitions. The final will be played this Sunday in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.
In total, the Euro 2012’s organizing body has fined the Russian Football Federation $235,000 for the behavior of Russian fans in Poland. On June 25, Fursenko resigned as head of the Federation. He apologized to Putin and to fans for…the national team’s poor performance.
Meanwhile, Russian diplomats continue to work overtime on the plight of the seven Russian fans still under arrest. On June 22, a Russian deputy foreign minister met his Polish counterpart in Moscow and demanded “the earliest possible repatriation” from Poland of all jailed Russian fans.
Although seven times as many Poles were jailed or hospitalized than Russians, the Russian media coverage largely followed the theme of “Russians as victims.”
Paula Bogutyn, a Polish student from Middlebury College, watched the Poland-Russia game in a Moscow café. Her brother was at the stadium in Warsaw.
Paula emailed me: “The problem is that media in both countries seem to not have truthfully portrayed the actual events. Russian side raved about mean Polish nationalists attacking innocent peaceful Russian supporters. The other side criticized violent marching Russians, apparently waving hammer and sickle and shouting communist slogans around the center of Warsaw.”
Many Poles have noted that in 2012 it would be unthinkable for soccer fans from their Western neighbor, Germany, to parade through central Warsaw chanting nationalist slogans and waving symbols of a discredited totalitarian regime. The difference is that mainstream Germans and mainstream Poles share a view of 20th century history that is not so far apart.
Juliusz Kłosowski, an editor friend at the Warsaw Voice newspaper, emailed his view of Russia’s innocents abroad.
“Yeah, poor them! Nice little boys from Russia came to big bad Poland with the flags and symbols we all just love here. His Excellency Mr.P. had to heat up the red line with Warszawa to defend them. Thanks God he has so big a heart!”
Behind the Russian reaction, there seem to be two forces.
There was the psychological level where the former colonial power was outraged to see that the ex-colonials had gotten so uppity.
In terms of Russia’s foreign relations with its neighbors, this history gap may increasingly threaten peaceful relations.
Mark Beissinger, a visiting Princeton professor of politics told me after lunch in Moscow: “In terms of their understanding of the past, Poles and Russians–particularly nationalist-minded Poles and Russians–might as well have come from different planets.”
Poland’s fears of its eastern neighbor are not eased by recent Russian military war games acting out invasions of Poland or by recent declarations from Russian leaders that Poland is a legitimate military target if Warsaw joins NATO’s missile defense program.
There is also a domestic political element to the Kremlin’s indulgence of Russia’s football hooligans.
Since December, Moscow’s streets have become a factor in Russia’s political equation. But the ‘Putin Youth” groups that the Kremlin formed in the mid-2000s proved useless as counterweights to the large anti-Putin street marches.
At a minimum, Vladimir Putin does not want to antagonize football fans, many of whom are fervent nationalists.
At a maximum, if he one days feels that his back is against the wall, Russia’s President could well turn to the bully boys for street muscle.