Putin The Permissive and Russian Football Hooligans

Posted June 26th, 2012 at 6:09 pm (UTC+0)

A Russian soccer fan (white T-shirt) learns history the hard way as he spars with a Polish fan (hood) in Warsaw on June 12, just before the Russia-Poland game in the Euro 2012 soccer tournament. Photo: Reuters/Peter Andrews

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.

You don’t need a Phd in psychiatry to figure out the sexual message here. Russian fans greet Poland’s national team with a half-ton banner they lugged all way from Moscow. Scene at the start of the Russia-Poland game, in Warsaw’s brand new National Stadium, on June 12, 2012. Photo: Reuters/Pascal Lauener

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.

Poland’s Jakub Blaszczykowski celebrates after he scored the tying goal in the second half of the Russia Poland game. Photo AP/Matt Dunham

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.”

Poland soccer fans mass before crucial soccer match with Russia in Warsaw. Photo: Reuters/Pawel Ulatowski

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.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

5 responses to “Putin The Permissive and Russian Football Hooligans”

  1. Gennady says:

    1.The other day my pre-paid fiber-optic Internet with no faults of its own & explanations went blank as I got a friendly reminder from the FSB that in Putin’s Russia I am free to speak out …just to myself, but God forbids to any other soul. It was on the pattern of December 2011- days of facing the rigged election, when for a week I was denied my basic human right – to have an Internet access..
    2. The article gave me the whole picture of “Putin’s football fans” abroad as the domestic gagged press presented the one-sided “victims” version. It’s crystal clear that in the FSB high-jacked country nothing could have happened spontaneously but with the highest approval, particularly having that scale & abroad. The same as under J.Stalin, in Putin’s Russia just three-man groups could get together following Goldilocks rule: enough to “crack” a bottle of vodka but not to cause any harm to the totalitarian state. Larger groups were highly organized & were before-hand approved by the authorities; otherwise they were treated as criminal and punished severely. So, when a) thousands fans simultaneously moved ABROAD for a trip that is an expensive one for Russians (at the time when anybody at an airport or a railroad terminal in Putin’s Russia is easily detained and arrested without any explanation), b) when they weren’t viewed as troublesome or suspicious as potential terrorists, c) when hundreds fans put up huge half-ton poster of a grey-history image at Poland (the event needing previous rehearsals), d) when hundreds fans marched through foreign streets (such couldn’t have been imagined in Putin’s Russia) crying out and displaying openly provocative chants and hammer & sickles. All fans were born after the demise of the USSR, beloved by Putin, had already been accomplished. Knowing the poor state of high school education, majority of fans couldn’t write a three lettered word “ещё” without four spelling mistakes “исчо”, so how could they know about Stalin’s version of communist ideology, about communist chants & hammer-sickles? You are right. They were specially prepared. IT’S CLEAR – IT WAS A POLITICAL DEMARCHES.
    3. Now about hangover. Usually who pays that orders “music”(performance). The things are a) whose money were paid? Just fines for the “performance” did cost Russia’s budget 400K$. b) What sort of “music” was ordered? c) What place was ordered for the “music” to play? d) Who permitted Stalin’s nostalgia to be displayed as Russia’s favorite theme in international arena?
    4. Money paid for the performance was distracted from the country that badly needs them after it was badly devastated by communist mismanagement. The money derived from the sell-off of already dwindling non-renewable natural resources. The irony is – more money was misspent for ill-preparation of the national football team to play good football.
    5. The “music” ordered was of failed & demised ideology. The place the “music” was played was heavily sensitive to such ordeals as Poland suffered very much from J.Stalin’s iron fist.
    6. I bet Mr.Putin’s logic looks weird or his right hand doesn’t know what his left hand does. From one side – the aim of the DEMARCHES was to harass former colonies that gained independence and rapid economic development, to alienate foreign people. From the other side – Putin’s Russia time & again invites foreign investment. After Magnitsky murder. Who in clear & sober mind would trust such aggressive country stuck in distant past? Just in a couple years time Putin’s Russia will invite foreign fans to Sochi Olympics. Who will wish to come to a host country with fans that are able to stage such violent and ideologically tainted performances abroad? What will they stage when being at home?

  2. Gavril says:

    Having spent time in both countries, and having made friends there as well, it is saddening to me to have to admit that I don’t believe that Poles and Russians will ever mend the bridges between them. Then again, this is just another footnote in the story of Russian-Polish history.

    At a time when the EU appears to be at the point of breaking up, it seems a shame to me that these two very similar peoples, (in terms of culture, language. and traditions), cannot put the past behind, and unite in a pro-Slavic partnership against the globalist Western decadence that would destroy both Polish and Russian traditions and peoples.

  3. Gennady says:

    To Gavril:

    Thank you for your great understanding of the incident.
    I agree that the episode seems a shame.
    Really, Poles are great, heroic and industrious people in prosperous and free country.
    I have a feeling that Russian youths at the event have been manipulated and with no apparent reasons showed unexpected sympathy in by-gone days Soviet relics that deeply offended Poles.
    I hope that after Russia has returned to real democratic values, respect of law and order has restored all over the country, Poland and Russia will once again discover that we are brotherly nations and have a lot in common, we can be helpful to each other.

  4. Paul T says:

    You don’t need a PhD in psychiatry to figure out that the message on the Russians’ gigantic banner is not primarily sexual or that the writer of the caption will not soon grow up and out of adolescence.

  5. Nailon says:

    There are some conflicts and there is some bad blood but Polish and Russians have more of a love/hate relationship then it may seam for people watching us from distance.
    We even got that saying that the people of Russia are wonderful but the government is the source of all evil.

    Personally I cant really remember when have I met a Russian I wouldn’t like. Usually after our initial disputes it seamed we get along surprisingly well.

    P.S. On the first photo that’s a polish fan in white t shirt. Easy to see by the flags on his cheekbones



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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