Forget what you’ve heard about hooligans: Russia’s World Cup will be the safest yet

Vladimir Putin sees the tournament as a crucial PR exercise for his country. He won’t risk losing face.

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Last week I overheard an entertaining conversation at a networking event in London. An English football fan was asking a Russian guy living in London for advice ahead of travelling to the World Cup in Moscow.

“I’m a bit worried about the crazy Russian fans – can you teach me a word or two in Russian?” the fan asked. The Muscovite replied: “Krym nash – that’s what you need to learn and shout if some nasty looking fellas have a go at you.”

The Russian sense of humour tends to be underrated, which is a shame. Krym nash means “Crimea is ours” and is associated with Putin’s rise in popularity in Russia following the annexation of Crimea. Bellowing nationalist slogans would be a desperate tactic against blood-thirsty hooligans – but at least it would sound funny with a layer of British accent.

The anxiety among Brits travelling to Russia for the championship is understandable. In the last few weeks I recall reading just one positive article in the Financial Times talking about a Russian consumer retail billionaire Sergei Galitsky who sold his chain of supermarkets and invested in a local football club, stadium and a junior academy in Krasnodar. The rest of the British media focussed their reporting on Russian far-right movements, incidents of racism,homophobia, neo-Nazi hooligans and how to tame them.

If I didn’t know better, I’d be scared to travel to Russia myself amidst so many scaremongering stories. To make matters worse, Katie Hopkins suddenly elbowed her way into my Twitter feed praising the Russian metro, people and culture. When I asked for an ally, I didn’t mean I wanted it to be Britain’s most infamous clickbait-generator.

Russian hooliganism was originally inspired by English hooligans of the 1970s and 1980s. Even the word “hooligan” is pronounced identically in Russian. Russian hooligans gained notoriety at the 2016 European Championship in Marseille, where they injured some 100 English fans and showed unprecedented violence at the international event. Unlike their idols, the Russian hooligans weren’t drunk – they were sober, fit, trained in martials arts and merciless (two English fans ended up in coma).

The Marseille incident looked even worse after the Alex Stockley documentary Russia’s Hooligan Army aired on the BBC with one of the fan club leaders, Vassily Stepanov, allegedly implying that Marseille brawl had been ordered by Putin himself. (Stepanov vehemently denied this in an interview with Russia Today, saying Stockley, who had used an interpreter, misconstrued their conversation.) As a result, in preparation for the World Cup, the British press went out of its way to interview every notorious hooligan they could find in obscure corners of Russia.

Amidst stories of violence, obscene racism and homophobia, it would be controversial to say that the World Cup in Russia is set to be the most peaceful football tournament in history. And yet that is my prediction.

Under the autocratic reign of President Putin, few things can be expected to happen at such a large scale event without his blessing – and for Putin, it would be inconceivable to lose face. The World Cup in 2018 is much like the Olympics in 1980: a prime chance to show the world that Russia can stage large scale events with no expenses spared. It’s an important PR exercise to show the West that Putin enjoys popular support, and any accusations of human rights violations are nothing but Western attempts to undermine Russia and its people. As part of that narrative construction, hooligans must be tamed. Racism won’t be tolerated. Homophobia? It doesn’t exist.

Some time in the last couple of years the Kremlin tasked the FSB (formerly the KGB) to tackle football hooliganism. FSB agents were dispatched to the major Russian clubs and met with the fan liaisons officers (also known as the representatives of the major hooligan organisations). Maxim Putintsev, a journalist at a Russian radio station told me he had heard that hooligans had been told in no uncertain terms that should they cause any trouble, they’d be put in prison. Recent reports by the Express and Al Jazeera state that over 400 names have been put on the “blacklist” by the FSB network.

In July 2017, Kaluga FC fan club posted a statement on a Russian social media network saying that they are pausing their fan activities because of “repressions coming from law enforcement agencies”. Alexander Shprygin, head of the All-Russia Union of Supporters (VOB) and an FC Dinamo Moscow ultra-fan told Al Jazeera that since Marseille Russian ultras faced bans, searches, arrests and trials: “While before, once you leave the stadium, you could forget about what happened there, now they'd come to your home, they’d find you, they'd search your house, they'd call you for a ‘talk’.”

In the last six months, Russian fans behaved impeccably at the local matches with some hooligans banned from attending them and others toning down their act. There are reports about prominent hooligans planning to travel abroad during the World Cup so that they could have an alibi in case trouble takes place and they get the blame. In the country ruled by a former FSB officer even the worst troublemakers know which line they cannot cross.

The Russian far-right movement, prominent in early-2000s with ultra-nationalist organisations staging demonstrations and preaching patriotism to the youth via such organisations as Eurasian Youth Union, has faded as well. In the early years it suited Putin to turn a blind eye to the nationalist slogans because they helped to push the opposite rhetoric to the one associated with Western values such as democracy, individual freedoms and liberalism. Like many of his contemporaries, Putin mourned the collapse of the Soviet Union and everything that Russians had lost as a result: a feeling of supremacy in world affairs, science, technology, economic power and sport.

Putin rebuilt the Russian sense of self-worth, badly damaged by the economically difficult and ideologically empty and confusing 1990s, by focussing on the so-called traditional values of integrity, orthodoxy and the “national spirit”. Annexation of Crimea, lavish annual celebrations of the victory in the World War Two, emphasis on family values serve to boost national psyche – with the help of state monopoly of the media.

However, now that Putin has established himself as close as it gets to being a tsar, his rule is necessarily becoming more autocratic. Far-right ideas are dismissed, simply because the only opposition allowed in Russia is the one that sits in the Duma and votes through Putin’s new laws. Neo-Nazi demonstrations would – ironically – appear to be too liberal for Putin’s Russia.

As a Russian living in London, my media feed has the benefit of diversity. I see my friends in Ekaterinburg and Moscow getting genuinely excited about the World Cup and eagerly anticipating the arrival of so many foreign guests. A regional article shared on social media showed a volunteer in Ekaterinburg washing off graffiti from the bridge in the centre of the city to make Ekaterinburg look more presentable. Someone posted a link to the newly launched telephone hotline for tourists and asked to share it on Facebook. A friend from Volgograd assures me that the restaurant scene there is the best in Russia: the food is good and prices aren’t crazy like in Moscow. I smile when I read that – most Russians will try to outdo each other in hospitality.

As the World Cup nears, I am not naïve enough to hope for Russia to do well on the pitch. Nor do I feel any easier about the politics in Russia, and how it affects the world in general now that Putin has started his latest six-year term. In the past few years, travelling home to see my family and friends has been an exercise in biting my tongue when conversations steer towards politics. I have lived in Britain all my adult life and am now finding myself at a clash with the Putin-hailing, democracy-bashing sentiment I encounter in Russia.

But politics and present geopolitical animosity aside, ordinary Russians are still some of the warmest, welcoming and generous people I know. I’m certain that Russians will surprise foreign fans with their genuine pride to be hosting the tournament, friendliness and warm hospitality.

Jana Bakunina is the author of Bird’s Milk (2017), a memoir about Russia. She tweets @janabakunina.