Friday, April 13, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russian Hockey Fans -- Dangerous Nationalists or Simple Hooligans?

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 13 – The loutish behavior of ethnic Russian hockey fans at a match between a Russian team and a Tatar one has stirred debate between those who see such anti-Tatar outbursts as simply an excess of emotion and those who are convinced that such actions threaten ethnic peace in the Russian Federation.
On April 11, Kazan’s Ak Bars ice hockey squad traveled to Magnitogorsk to play that city’s Metallurg team in a championship match. Russian fans held up banners with slogans like “Beat Up the Tatars!” “Don’t Shame the Memory of Ivan the Terrible!” and “Drown the Tatars—Save Russia!” (
The federal Sports television channel carried the match, broadcasting pictures of these fans and their banners to a wide audience and provoking outrage among the authorities in Tatarstan, concern by Orthodox and Islamic leaders, and dismissive comments by some Russian politicians.
Immediately after the match, Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev denounced the behavior of the Russian fans and said that such actions must not be allowed to go unpunished lest they exert an unhealthy influence on relations between Russians and Tatars.
Tatarstan youth affairs minister Marat Bariyev dispatched telegrams of complaint to the Metallurg hockey team, to the Russian Hockey Federation and to the Russian Sports organization expressing Kazan’s outrage at the Russian fans’ “impermissible” actions.
The news agency took the lead in investigating the case and determining the reaction of political and religious leaders to it. In a summary of its findings, the agency said that these banners were the latest in a series of outrageous actions by fans in the Russian Federation.
The news service said that “in recent times,” some Russian sports fans have carried flags “with Nazi symbols” on them and have changed “corresponding slogans.” And it noted that in such gatherings, activities of this kind can prove “difficult to control and have tragic consequences.”
Yuri Sharandin, who heads the Federation Council’s committee on constitutional law, told that in the case of the Magnitogorsk match, there was every basis for bringing charges against those who prepared and held up these signs. And he suggested that the Metallurg club itself should be heavily fined or even disqualified.
His fellow senator, Nikolai Tulayev, who heads the upper house committee on parliamentary activity, agreed: All this is “dangerous,” he said, because it can quickly spread from sports arenas to every day life. Consequently, the authorities must “react to this in the harshest way possible.”
Senator Issa Kostoyev, a member of the Federation Council’s security committee, took a similar position. He told that the use of such slogans must be nipped in the bud. Otherwise, he suggested, calls for “’Beating Up the Tatars’” will be followed by calls to “beat up” Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Chechens, Negroes, Jews, and so on.”
But not all of the members of the upper chamber of the Russian parliament agreed. Anatoliy Lyskov, who chairs that body’s committee on legal and judicial questions, said “only people of Tatar nationality could conceive such slogans as nationalistic.”
Instead, he said, these slogans were a kind of “sports humor.” He noted that earlier fans had changed “Beat Up the Georgians” when that republic’s team was in Moscow or urged that “Let Us Remind the Swedes of Poltava” when a Russian team played Sweden.
But despite his general conclusion, Lyskov acknowledged that “it is possible” that such slogans could have unfortunate consequences.
Members of the Duma were also divided on the banners displayed in Magnitogorsk. Aleksandr Chuyev, the deputy head of the committee on social groups and religious organizations, said what had happened at the Ak Bars-Metallurg game was “a purely hooligan-like situation,” reflecting “an absence of culture.”
Gennadiy Gudkov, a member of the Duma security committee, agreed that the slogans of the Magnitogorsk fans were insulting, but given that those who held them up were mostly young people, “it is not worth speaking about extremism in this case.” “Making a tragedy out of it” by bringing serious charges is thus a mistake, he said.
And Yevgeniy Roizman, another member of the Duma security committee, was similarly inclined. The slogans the fans held up at the Magnitogorsk match were indeed “swinish,” he said. But “it is not necessary to turn one’s attention on the behavior of the fans.”
Two religious leaders also weighed in on this issue in comments to the news service. Father Vsevolod Chaplin, the deputy head of the External Affairs Department of the Moscow Patriarchate, denounced the appearance of these slogans: “Russia is unthinkable without the Tatars,” a community that supports inter-religious peace.
And Gusman-khazrat Iskhakov, the head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Tatarstan, said that what struck him most about this case was “the very strange behavior of the militiamen of the Urals city.” Had they been doing their jobs, those responsible would have been at least detained, but that did not happen.
“The reaction from the procuracy and the Ministry of Internal Affairs toward extremists ‘showing themselves’ at hockey matches must be quick,” Iskhakov said. If not, bystanders are likely to conclude that officials have given a kind of permission for actions of this kind.
Should that happen, the situation in the multi-national Russian Federation might quickly get out of hand.

UPDATE ON APRIL 17: The Tatar Social Center (TOTs) published an open letter to Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev calling on him to block hockey matches between the Tatar squad and Russian teams whose fans adopt openly anti-Tatar positions. The letter was published in the current issue of "Zvezda Povol'zhya" and is available at,

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