“Just look at all this stuff they wrote about me,” sighed Shprygin, using his smartphone to scroll through multiple English language newspaper stories about the disturbances, which culminated in dozens of Russian hooligans — or ultras, as they prefer to be called these days — storming the English fan sector of Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome.
It didn’t seem to me that Shprygin, who founded the All-Russia Supporters’ Union in 2007, had much to complain about as far as media coverage goes. After all, he has a long and inglorious history in far-right football hooliganism. This life-long Dynamo Moscow fan once told Russian media that “all fans like white power.” He has been photographed throwing a Nazi salute and, more recently, tweeted that he wanted to see only “Slavic faces” in the Russian team at the 2018 World Cup, and that there is “something wrong” with the presence of so many black players in France’s national side.
Although his social media statements whipped up a storm of outrage among anti-discrimination campaigners in Europe, Shprygin’s attitudes are hardly controversial in his homeland, where they reflect an everyday, almost casual racism at the heart of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The anti-discrimination Fare network, which monitors racism in football for governing bodies UEFA and FIFA, has said it considers Shprygin to be a major figure in Russia’s network of extreme-right fan groups. His presence in France as an official member of Russia’s delegation was, Fare stated, a worrying indication of “the apparent nexus of high-level politicians, far-right leaders and extreme nationalism” ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“I’m not a racist,” Shprygin insisted. He looked affronted by the very suggestion and launched into a lengthy — and dubious — denial. “Look, if I meet a Negro on the street, I don’t feel anything,” he said. “When I was at Heathrow, for example, there were Pakistanis, Indians, Negros … you can’t get your head round who they all are. You don’t know where you are, in London or somewhere else. When I was in Paris, it was the same thing. I was stunned. It was like I was in Algeria. There were so many of them. But, look, this didn’t provoke any emotions in me whatsoever!”
His “white power” statement, he told me, was made in the 1990s, when he was still young, and his Nazi salute was merely a drunken act performed while he was working as a bodyguard for Korrozia Metalla, a far-right Russian heavy metal band. As for the “Slavic faces” comment, Shprygin stressed he had meant “products of the Russian soccer system.” He dodged the question when I asked him if that meant he would be happy to see Chechens, Tatars, or any representatives of Russia’s myriad ethnic groups in the national side.
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Shprygin is also a parliamentary assistant to Igor Lebedev, a prominent politician with the ultra-nationalist, pro-Kremlin Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which has, over the years, urged Putin to drop nuclear bombs on Latvia, Japan and Turkey. Following the clashes in France, which left two English fans in comas and others with serious injuries, Lebedev offered unequivocal support for Russia’s ultras. “I don’t see anything wrong with the fans fighting,” he said. “Quite the opposite. Our guys are great. Keep it up!”
Encouraged by Lebedev’s praise and glowing coverage of the ultras’ rampages by state-run media, Shprygin made a stealthy return to France, arriving in time for Russia’s final group game against Wales. After announcing his presence at the match with a series of inflammatory social media posts, he was swiftly nabbed again and put on a plane back to Russia. This time the French annulled his visa. Three other Russians were handed jail sentences of up to two years over the unrest in Marseille.
For Shprygin, his deportations and the jail sentences are an indication of what Kremlin officials claim is rampant Russophobia in the West amid spiraling tensions over Ukraine and Syria. “We were hostages of the political situation,” he told me as we sat in his office next to blown-up photographs of jailed Russian fans, or the “martyrs of Marseille” as Shprygin called them.
The ultras who wreaked havoc in Marseille were extremely vocal about their support for Putin, and an anonymous Whitehall official even claimed they were foot-soldiers in a Kremlin campaign of “hybrid warfare.”
Liberal Russian analysts drew parallels with Putin’s military campaigns in Ukraine and Syria. “Our fans in Marseille are a copy of Russian foreign policy,” said Sergei Medvedev from Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “We won’t win the championship but let’s at least put on a brave face, beat some people up, and have the whole world talking about us.” As for Putin, he laughed off the violence at the Euros, saying: “I don’t know how 200 Russian fans could hurt several thousand Englishmen.”
For Shprygin, the answer to that puzzler was simple.
“Russian fans do sport. They go to the gym,” he said. “We have lots of champions, Thai boxing, wrestling and so on, in fan groups. They meet up in the forest and fight, one group against another. They are very physically prepared. Your average English soccer fan isn’t going to stand a chance against them. Even in Russia, some people say the hooligans need to be less focused. If they get into a fight with an average person, they are so fit and ready for violence that they would cripple them immediately.”
While he dismissed allegations that the ultras were deployed to France on the Kremlin’s orders, he freely admitted that Russian football hooligans were a “fist” that Putin would use to crush any large-scale opposition protests in Moscow.
“They called us Putin’s army. I’ll tell you why. In Russia, politicians speak to the fans. Putin has met up with us and drunk beer with us. Football hooligans in Russia would never take part in a Maidan type situation,” he said, referring to the demonstrations that toppled Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych, in 2014. “Ukrainian football hooligans and nationalists made Maidan. But here, hooligan groups would be used as a weapon against the opposition.”
The Kremlin’s links with football hooligans stretch back to 2004, and the aftermath of another pro-West Ukrainian uprising, the so-called Orange Revolution. Nervous that this passion for political protest would spread to Moscow, the Kremlin reached out to fan clubs, installing members of the pro-Putin youth organization, Nashi, as their leaders. In 2006, Nashi’s own leader, an alleged former crime gang boss named Vasily Yakemenko, boasted he would summon thousands of Spartak Moscow fans to “chase away” any pro-democracy protesters, if they dared congregate in large numbers anywhere near Red Square. Nashi’s football hooligans were later linked to the savage beatings of Kremlin critics.
Relations between the ultras and the Kremlin haven’t always been so cozy.
In 2010, enraged ultras and nationalists rioted near Red Square after the murder of a Spartak Moscow fan named Yegor Svidorov by residents of Russia’s mainly Muslim North Caucasus region. The rioting was triggered by what the ultras said was the failure of police to investigative the murder properly, but it was the culmination of years of far-right dissatisfaction over Putin’s ethnic policies, which have included massive federal funding for Chechnya, and a refusal to introduce a visa regime for former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
At the peak of the unrest, which saw dozens of attacks on non-Russians, Moscow’s chief of police, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, held negotiations with masked ultras as smoke billowed around the Kremlin’s famous towers.
It wasn’t until 2014, and the dramatic worsening of Moscow’s ties with Washington and London, that the ultras came back into the Kremlin’s fold, adopting anti-Western slogans and glorifying Russian military might. “The English fans were shouting ‘Fuck off Russia, fuck off Putin’ in Marseille and the Russian fans answered them,” Shprygin said, matter-of-factly. “I mean, how would you react, if someone insulted you?”
Shprygin had a point. Russian ultras have been feeling the strain at home since 2010, when police started to get more serious about organized football hooliganism. As a result, most fan violence now takes place in forests and other secluded areas, away from the eyes of the authorities.
Even as we spoke, there were storm clouds gathering around Shprygin and his supporters’ association. While he and the other Russians who had been deported from France received what he described as a “hero’s welcome” after their first expulsion from Euro 2016, the second time around the reaction wasn’t quite so euphoric. Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s sports minister, unexpectedly accused Shprygin and the ultras of harming Russia’s reputation, while state media swiftly toned down its celebratory reports of the Marseille violence.
Worse was to come for Shprygin. In late September, his supporters’ association was expelled from the Russian Football Union, the domestic game’s ruling body, during a conference at a central Moscow hotel. As for Shprygin, he was detained by masked police officers on suspicion of involvement in a mass brawl between ultras from rival teams in Moscow in January. Although he was quickly released without charge, that very same evening someone torched his Volkswagen SUV. “God will punish whoever did this,” Shprygin told Russian journalists as he watched his expensive car burn.
From national hero to outcast in just a few weeks, it was a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for Shprygin. Indeed, it was tempting to draw a comparison between the fates of Shprygin and the Russian-born leaders of east Ukraine’s separatist movement. Both were feted by Russia while causing devastation abroad, but ostracized and even murdered when they returned to their homeland.
In early December, with less than six months to go before a warm-up international tournament in Russia that will feature Germany and Portugal’s national sides, police raided the homes of nine fans suspected of organizing football violence. The message is clear: no one, not even Shprygin and the ultras, will be allowed to get in the way of Putin’s vision for the World Cup.
But did he organize any violence in France? It is the million dollar question, and Shprygin took a deep breath before replying.
“Some media reports said I have no influence over fans, that I’m just an official,” he said. “Others said I gathered all the radical fans together and organized attacks on the English. But, you know, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”
It was a curious moment, and seemed to at least partly confirm the alleged crossover of Russian officialdom and hooliganism. But Shprygin was in no mood to elaborate. Instead, he began to wax lyrical on why exactly the Russian ultras took such obvious delight in, as he put it, “chasing English fans all over Marseille.” As he explained it, the violence was, in a strange way, a mark of respect.
“This wasn’t anything to do with some kind of special hatred for England,” Shprygin said. “Russian hooligans have long looked up to the English as the founders of modern football hooliganism. This started in the Soviet Union. We didn’t know anything back then, it was like living in North Korea, but when we started to find out about football hooligans, it was the English who were our role models. All the kids went out and bought Stone Island T-shirts, even though they cost a month’s salary back then, because the English hools were all wearing them. Later, we all got into the books of Dougie Brimson, [a British author of a number of books about hooliganism]. So, you know, maybe it’s hard for you to understand, but it was just so incredibly cool for the ultras to boast that they’d beaten up the heroes of Brimson’s books.”
So should Western football fans be concerned about traveling to Russia in 2018?
Shprygin shook his head. “I’m absolutely certain that nothing even close to what took place in Marseille will happen here. The authorities are a lot more in control of the firms here. There is total surveillance. Even I feel the pressure, and I’m an official with a public organization.”
Author: Marc Bennetts