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Over nearly four decades on earth, while living in half a dozen cities and two countries, whether employed or not, happy or not, sober or not, I have never — not ever — punched someone.
Vova laughs at me. Of course Vova has punched someone. Vova lives in Moscow, on the edge of Russia’s capital. He says he has been punching people for years, says he loves punching people, says it is part of his identity. He thinks I am an alien, basically, and that a man without scars on his hands is no man at all.
Vova is 19.
By any measure, Vova has a comfortable life. His mother is a flight attendant, and so his room in the family’s apartment has pictures and posters from the places he has traveled. He is studying to be a graphic designer, and he loves surfing. He also has an affinity for poetry (including Pushkin and Yesenin, who wrote about, among other things, hooligans in the early 1900s). Vova enjoys literature, particularly the writings of famed German novelist Erich Maria Remarque. In a coffee shop one afternoon, we briefly debate The Night in Lisbon versus All Quiet on the Western Front. (Lisbon is his favorite book of all time.)
Yet in the evenings or on weekends, Vova says, he goes to the forest. He says he is part of a group of hooligans known as IX Legion, which supports a professional soccer team, Dinamo Moscow, and which fights against other groups supporting other teams. These fights almost always take place in the woods, away from the eyes of the police (or anyone else, really). These fights have no written rules or regulations, have no certified referees or officials, and while it is generally considered gauche to murder someone at one of these fights, everything short of that is pretty much fine.
To Vova, this is glorious. To Vova, this is magical. To Vova, the idea of not punching people makes no sense, even though he knows that the Russian authorities are desperate for the upcoming World Cup to be safe and peaceful.
“So,” I say to Vova one evening in the center of the city, “what are you like when you’re in a fight?” Vova is smart and earnest, with a fresh face, thin eyes and a soft nose. His waist is tiny and his legs are spindly, giving him the bony look of a high school cross-country runner. “In a fight, everything is different,” he says. “It requires anger, some kind of rage or something like that.”
It is hard to see rage from Vova, with his soft voice and innocent giggle and nervous tic in which his shoulder shakes as he thinks about a difficult question. It is hard to see rage at all. But to Vova, the rage is as much a part of him as the poetry or the textbooks in his backpack.
The woods, he says, is where he lets the rage out, where he immerses himself in something that “strengthens the mind.”
I interrupt him. How could this possibly strengthen your mind?
He does not hesitate. “Well, because when you see people coming at you,” he says, “not just one or two people, and you know they are about to kick you in the face and it’ll be painful, you don’t run away.”
The World Cup begins in Russia on June 14. About 2 million visitors are expected to arrive during the tournament, and there is a wide variety of items about which one could be reasonably concerned: abhorrent acts of racism by Russian fans, for instance, as well as draconian “gay propaganda” laws, the government’s general attitude of blatant intolerance toward those with dissenting opinions, potential terrorist attacks and — perhaps most visibly — ugly spasms of punishing street violence.
Much of that last worry stems from what happened in France two years ago. During the European soccer championship, Russia and England met in a game in Marseille. Several hundred Russians — inflamed by the presence of some drunken, belligerent Britons as well as an appreciation for history (England being the nominal birthplace of hooliganism) — went on a rampage, destroying cafés and storefronts while attacking anyone who even appeared to be English.
The attacks continued in the stands at the game, leading to the Russian federation being punished by tournament organizers, while the Russian fans were, in some cases, arrested or deported. Videos of the carnage went viral, and within days, World Cup officials and Russian authorities hastily began a campaign to assure everyone that nothing like this could ever happen again.
Russia must “ensure maximum security for players and fans,” President Vladimir Putin said in a speech to Russian police this winter, before telling the officers that “the way this event goes and our country’s image will directly depend on your smooth, skillful work.”
Here is the thing, though: That work isn’t just about metal detectors and checkpoints once the games begin. Russian officials are certainly cognizant of doing whatever is necessary to avoid a repeat of the horrendous scenes from Marseille during the upcoming tournament, but the government has also spent considerable time over the past two years doing whatever it can to shut down (or at least hide until after the World Cup) this ever-growing subculture of a hooliganism that involves young, devoted and violent fighters — like Vova — engaging in vicious, bare-knuckle brawling for fun.
While part of the concern from Russian authorities has to do with the country’s global reputation, much of it also has to do with the inherent unpredictability of hooligans and their whims.
Will there be trouble during the World Cup? Russian officials have repeatedly said they don’t expect any issues. But no one can say for sure, including the hooligans themselves. “It won’t happen in Russia because our police services work a lot better” than in France, says Vlad, who is a friend of Vova’s and also a member of the Legion. Vlad seems fairly certain about this too. Except then Vlad reconsiders and says, “Maybe some small conflicts will occur.” And a few moments later, he reconsiders again and says, “Small conflicts are bound to occur but not because Russians will provoke them.”
Vlad’s opinion is common among hooligans. So too is his approach to privacy: He does not share that he is a hooligan with many people in his life because “it is not a social thing; it’s personal.” Like Vova, he doesn’t want his full name revealed because “there is a lot of tension right now” surrounding hooligans and the police, and Vlad says the crackdown from the authorities over the past year has been considerable.
Friends have been detained and questioned. Some hooligan brothers have had their apartments searched. It has made it much more difficult to stage the big fights hooligans crave.
“So when you come home with a black eye or something like that,” I ask Vlad, “what do you tell your family about how it happened?” I am trying to imagine the sorts of stories Vlad must concoct, since his face has the pockmarks of roasted turkey skin.
Turns out, this isn’t much of a problem.
“No one really pays attention to it,” Vlad says, explaining that in Russia, boys are generally expected to fight. “So a boy got into a fight — no big deal. After all, I am a guy, not a girl.” He seizes upon this idea and waves his hands. “You can be like a girl,” he says, “or you can be a person who fights everywhere and stands up for himself. It’s your own choice.”
Anton chooses to fight everywhere. Anton is a bouncer and a boxing coach and an instructor at a gym in St. Petersburg that specializes in training hooligans. Anton loves fighting, loves talking about it, loves the language of it.
There is an entire section of Russian slang related to hooligan fighting, Anton says one day, starting with the idea that fighting takes place during the “third half,” a sly reference to a traditional soccer game having only two halves. Someone who is otmorozok is so cold-blooded as to be psychotic (the expression comes from the word for “frostbitten”). Otpizdil is a term for having beaten up someone to the point where he is unrecognizable and includes a derogatory reference to the female anatomy. A solyanka — which, in regular life, is a thick, sweet-and-sour Russian soup — refers to a massive fight (say, 50-on-50) in which the mess of arms and legs and fists and fingers looks like a human stew. Anton adores a good solyanka.
Anton belongs to the Rude Boys, a group that supports Russia’s oldest elite team, CSKA Moscow. Anton came to fighting typically: When he was 11, he was walking home from a game between Zenit St. Petersburg and CSKA with a small group of neighborhood boys. Suddenly, a group of Zenit fans jumped off a nearby tram and attacked Anton’s group, pummeling the older boys but leaving Anton and the other youngest boy to stand by and watch the carnage. Anton still remembers the moans from his friends.
Anton is now 20. He is about 5-foot-10 and thick, with a barrel chest, fire hydrant arms and shoulders that look like slabs of meat. His cheekbones, though, are flat and soft, with deep dimples. His nickname is Antosha — as in, little Anton — because his features are almost cherubic, though his left ear is a mess of twisted cartilage and bulbous scar tissue that resembles dried Play-Doh.
When he walks, Anton moves with his fingers nearly always balled into fists.
“I have been in about 60 fights,” he says one evening over dinner, casually calling up videos on his phone that show him in combat — a solyanka held on his birthday is a particular favorite. When the volume gets loud — a gentleman on the screen is shouting “Get up, motherf—er!” in Russian — Anton lowers it so as not to disturb a nearby table.
The vast majority of fights are organized by group leaders who text or call each other to set a time and place. Forests are most popular, though empty industrial areas and scrubland behind apartment blocks are workable too. How many fighters each team brings is negotiated and can range from 5-on-5 to 100-on-100. At the appointed time, the groups approach each other and, on a signal, attack.
This is the part Russian authorities do not want you to see, as the chaos is frightening and immediate. Groups set up in two (or more) lines, and the fighters at the front often open the proceedings with a flying kick before the mass of bodies becomes so tightly crowded that it’s difficult to move.
There is some strategy in how a group arranges its fighters — certain groups like their biggest members in the front, for example — and while most fighters engage with the opponent directly across from them, Anton says he has always preferred to gain the advantage of surprise by initially punching the fighter who is just to the side of that opponent, which helps inject even more confusion.
The only significant rule — and one that is distinctly Russian — is that foreign objects are not allowed; hooligans in other countries in Europe often use brass knuckles or knives, but Russians fight with fists only. Head-stomps, knee-drops and repeated face-kicking are commonplace.
Most of the time, Anton says, fighters are operating in such a fog that they just rely on instincts. “You understand that if you don’t hit someone, then someone hits you,” he says, noting that a fight is over only when one group is standing over the other.
Injuries are expected and, frequently, revered. “I saw a guy who had his nose broken — actually it wasn’t just his nose,” Anton says. “He smashed his face on a curb and shattered his whole face.” There is awe in Anton’s voice. “They put in a titanium and plastic splint under his eye.”
For young fighters, the goal — such as it is — is to obtain a T-shirt. Group leaders bestow T-shirts on newer members as an initiation ritual after they’ve proved themselves. Once membership is granted, the bond among members is essentially familial. “You are not simply fighting alone,” Anton says. “It is a fight of characters.”