Elizabethan parody and Russian soul: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

Cheek by Jowl director Declan Donnellan tells us about the company’s Russian-language production of Francis Beaumont’s 1607 play, at the Barbican 5-8 June.

Image © Johan Persson

Image © Johan Persson

Could you tell us a bit about The Knight of the Burning Pestle?

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a unique piece of meta-theatre. It is daring and centuries ahead of its time. It’s a play about a play which gets changed by frustrated audience members. They want to see something more popular, more positive, more glamorous. And now! So they take control of the drama unfolding on stage. It may be very funny but it’s also very dark. Francis Beaumont was writing at the brink of a revolution. A few years after the play’s performances, the new and highly popular nationalist government seized power through violence and closed down every single theatre. 

Why are you directing it now?

I think it’s a very important play for now and it was also for then. Everything seems new about The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Today, the fantasy that everyone can be an expert, without any experience, everyone can be a celebrity, everyone can tell the story, everyone can manipulate and control facts. Perhaps we have always been like that, only now we have the technology to make the delusion seem more real. What seems new is a confusion between democracy and capitalism. One-click government and the people have the right to get what they want. Like Amazon, like parliament.

Agrippina Steklova and Alexander Feklistov in rehearsal. Image © Johan Persson

Agrippina Steklova and Alexander Feklistov in rehearsal. Image © Johan Persson

Nazar Safronov as Rafe. Image © Johan Persson

Nazar Safronov as Rafe. Image © Johan Persson

How do you find working in different languages?

All great writers know that words are ambivalent and dangerous... They only take you part of the way on a journey of communication. But more importantly we also use words to deceive ourselves. This particular theme is an obsession with most of the writers I have ever staged. And they demand us to be alert and use our common sense and not be duped by what the characters profess. But only sometimes. It depends.

The different languages are not the "problem" — it is the very nature of language itself. So directing in a foreign language can actually very liberating in many ways. You don't get so confused by the apparent "meaning" and you approach words in a spirit of ignorant humility. Which is harder to do I feel in your own tongue. We are delighted to be working with our Russian actors again and to present this new show with the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre. We’ve been working in Russian for 20 years, most recently on Measure for Measure which was presented at the Barbican in 2015 and is still performing around the world.

Talking of performing around the world: do you notice differences in audience reactions?

If a work is alive, wherever it is performed, it will throw up contemporary references. No two Moscow audiences are the same… And their reactions to the same production will differ as much as if we play in Milan or Madrid. Of course, people are likely to see a production in the light of recent events taking place locally. Although these local differences are interesting, it is always the similarities that are almost more revealing: patterns of what is essentially human slowly reveal themselves across audiences and countries and decades. Human nature does not have frontier problems. But human culture and politics often do. Personally, I always hope the audience will have an encounter with a multi-faceted and imaginary world. And that they will have many different, hopefully conflicting responses, which we are not here to dictate.

But we really, really must try hard to resist generalisations about nationalities. It is very tempting and seems like harmless fun but no good ever comes of it. We are each of us unique. Agonisingly, frighteningly and beautifully unique. And although we all want to belong, although we all yearn never to be rejected, there is no "they" — there is no "we".

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is performing at the Barbican Theatre 5-8 June. The play is a co-production with the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre and is performed in Russian with English surtitles

Art Revolutions behind the Iron Curtain: Re-introducing Timur Novikov

Arianna Cantarelli dives into the work of the groundbreaking artist who became an underground cultural force

Apollo trampling on black square , 1991. Mixed media on fabric.

Apollo trampling on black square, 1991. Mixed media on fabric.

When nostalgia transports us back to the second half of the 20th century, one word quickly comes to mind to the tune of a pop-hit crescendo: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes! From the rock’n’roll 60s to the punk movement of the 80s and the politicalisation of the 90s, this period saw daring subcultures relentlessly erode away convention to shape the society we know and thrive in today. But we too often find ourselves shying away from acknowledging the nonconformities of the Soviet Union — perhaps because of its reputation for rigid censorship. However, rebels and creatives were operating just as intensely on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and not without significance. One of the most influential names on this subject is that of Timur Novikov (1958-2002).

An artist, philosopher, writer and musician, Novikov became an active pioneer for the development of Russian art and culture during the 80s and 90s. He found his calling as a frontman for Russia’s wild youth, fighting for concepts that had always been fundamental to his native St Petersburg: innovation and modernity. Novikov was in fact the founder of two progressive artist groups — the New Artists (1982) and the New Academy (1989) — which in turn dominated the scenes of St Petersburg’s underground culture during the perestroika, encouraging young people to embrace contemporary art as a means of social rebellion.

‘The New Artists’ (1987) — From left to right: Georgy Gurianov, Evgeny Kozlov, Timur Novikov, Igor Verichev. Taken at Kozlov’s apartment in Peterhof. Image credit: Paquita Escofet Miro

‘The New Artists’ (1987) — From left to right: Georgy Gurianov, Evgeny Kozlov, Timur Novikov, Igor Verichev. Taken at Kozlov’s apartment in Peterhof. Image credit: Paquita Escofet Miro

To say Novikov brought change to Russia is an understatement. From his early years, the artist foresaw the revolutionary potential of uniting media and art with mass-culture. His aim was not only to liberate these from their traditional boundaries, but also to liquidate them to the everyday person as a form of self-expression. Novikov was in fact the USSR’s first recipient of a prize dedicated to film design for his work in Sergey Solovev’s experimental cult film AssA (1987), making him the first Soviet media artist.

Moreover, just like his Western counterparts, Novikov began to experiment with technology in the music sphere. He collaborated with the experimental electro group New Composers for example, and even invented his own futuristic, sculpture-like instruments like the utyugon, which was inaugurated as ‘the first Russian synthesiser’. Novikov was also the unofficial ‘band artist’ for Viktor Tsoi’s popular rock group Kino, whose song Перемен (Our hearts demand changes! Our eyes demand changes!) is still sung by buskers as an anthem to freedom today. Recognising music’s power in bringing people together, Novikov was one of the first to introduce rave culture to St Petersburg, organising subversive parties at Fontanka 145 that provided youth with a new space in which they could express themselves freely, without feeling bound by political ideology or local custom.

Sea Sunrise,  1990. Acrylic on fabric.

Sea Sunrise, 1990. Acrylic on fabric.

ASSA , 1987. Acrylic on cloth (photographer’s backdrop).

ASSA, 1987. Acrylic on cloth (photographer’s backdrop).

There is no doubt, however, that Novikov’s strongest legacy is his artworks. Shockingly progressive and unusual for their time, these works were initially showcased in hidden costal towns to avoid complications with authorities. It is arguably the wall-hung textiles developed alongside his own philosophy of Neoacademism that are most compelling; their invitation to become absorbed by classical beauty boldly opposes the Soviet Union’s rejection of decor in favour of practicality. Once again, they hail the city of St Petersburg, echoing its classical architecture, reinstating it as a gravitational centre for the Russian avant-garde. Novikov’s later developments of these compositions, which now featured bold block colour and simplistic symbolic imagery, are today considered to be the beginnings of modern advertising. Indeed, it was these works that would capture the eyes of big names in the Western world, including Andy Warhol and Keith Haring.

In an interview with Joseph Brodsky, Novikov explains how the sharp horizontal lines that characterise his later works designate Petersburg as ‘a city on the edge’. At the time, this was probably a reference to a society that was on the brink of a century, looking towards that horizon, impatient for long-awaited changes… and perhaps he was not only talking about Petersburg, but about Russia as a whole. Twenty years on, Novikov’s works are not only recognised as catalysts for that cultural revolution he was fighting for. They also serve as striking reminders that beauty, culture and art never cede — not even under the pressures of government suppression or the bleakness of civil hardship.

Start (rocket) , 1989. Acrylic on canvas.

Start (rocket), 1989. Acrylic on canvas.


About the author:

Arianna Cantarelli is a third year student at UCL, undertaking a BA degree in Comparative Literature and Russian. Right now, she is living and studying in St Petersburg on her year abroad.


The possibilities of freedom - for Soviet toys in a Moscow kindergarten...

Paweł Wargan describes the historical and personal roots of his debut film

Nevalyashka - a sort of Soviet weeble - among other Soviet toys. Image credit: Museum of Soviet Childhood

Nevalyashka - a sort of Soviet weeble - among other Soviet toys. Image credit: Museum of Soviet Childhood

Rendering image for the character of Lyalya, from  A Soviet Toy Tale

Rendering image for the character of Lyalya, from A Soviet Toy Tale

Near the end of A Soviet Toy Tale, an animated short that I am co-creating with my partner Kristina Lanis, a kindergarten teacher decries the violence dealt upon her classroom by the rising tide of lawlessness that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union. “We were promised freedom,” she says. “But all we got is freedom from responsibility” — to which her colleague, equally embittered by the “hooliganism” and “anarchy” of the early 1990s, responds: at least they got Coca Cola.

There are no staunch free-marketeers on the production of A Soviet Toy Tale - and I suspect that, in the Moscow of 1991, there were fewer than we like to imagine. In the romanticised, prevailing Western narrative of that time, the collapse of the Soviet Union came as a liberation. It was the final trickle from the Red Iceberg — as a piece of McCarthy-era propaganda called it — that ended history. A whole industry emerged to study the spectacle of Russian failure and its Western sprouts. It became rhetorical fodder for those who believe that, to quote the Iron Lady, “there is no alternative” to the illusory freedom of a deregulated market economy. Then all that was apparently interrupted by the rise of a pasty-skinned, quietly intransigent KGB apparatchik who allegedly acquired a video tape of the American President wetting the bed…

We asked the toys what it means to be free, and how much work goes into finding that freedom

All this Western pining for easy explanations ignores the very real suffering the Soviet Union’s collapse inflicted. Now, as our own political moment pushes a generation into rediscovering the possibilities of socialism — possibilities that died in the Gulag; in Prague in 1968; and again, in Moscow in August 1991 — it feels right to revisit the moment at which the Soviet Union crumbled. What, really, was lost? What, if anything, should be salvaged?

Kristina and I came to the film through our own experience of Soviet-style expropriation. In 1995, I brought my favourite toy truck to a boxy concrete kindergarten in Gdańsk, Poland. At the end of the day, I tried to take it back, only to be accused of theft. My parents were dismissed as accomplices when they came to my defence. I never went back. Kristina didn’t either, after a similar experience in a Moscow kindergarten some three years after mine. We were in Bangkok when we discovered that our distaste for authority had the same origins. Then the story wrote itself — we had to know what our lost toys would say if they could speak.

So, we pushed onto our toys the entire weight of our creative and political anxieties. We asked them what it means to be free, and how much work goes into finding that freedom — yearnings that increasingly collide with the realities of the lived world. You see, it’s not hooliganism that trashes the teachers’ classroom at the end of our film — it’s the toys’ battle over the future of their world.

Rashka (voiced by Yana Lyapunova), a big-eyed soft toy, wakes in Kindergarten No. 1678 in Moscow to find that she had been stolen from her Masha by the kindergarten teachers. She learns that she is not alone. Other toys had also been taken over the years, condemned to seeing their rightful owners in the kindergarten each morning, but unable to go back home. Together with Gagarin (Victor Averyanov), Commander (Igor Pavlovs) and Pruzhinka, Rashka plots to escape.

But as they devise their plan, Stamp and Spravka (literally, a stamp and permit, the former voiced by Liza Mercer) insist that the escape be rubber-stamped by the authorities. The other toys — a group of American-made chess pieces and a Yeltsin Russian doll — take a stand against the bureaucratic power-duo. And as our protagonists try to escape, the toys re-enact the events of August 1991 in Moscow, in which a group of Communist hard-liners tried to unseat General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev by staging a coup in Moscow. Things get bloody.

Svetlana Alexievich, the Belorussian writer whose collected accounts of that era earned her a Nobel, writes about the failed coup in Second-Hand Time. Marshal Sergey Akhromeyev, one of its backers, left five neatly-stacked handwritten notes on his Kremlin desk before hanging himself from the radiator. “I cannot go on living,” he wrote in one, “while my Fatherland is dying and everything I heretofore considered to be the meaning of my life is being destroyed.” Alexievich then speaks to an unnamed Kremlin insider, N., who tries to make sense of the suicide. “He saw the young predators stirring… the pioneers of capitalism,” N. says. “Instead of Marx and Lenin, they had their minds on dollars.” The discovery of money, another interviewee says, “hit us like an atom bomb.”

None of this is to rehabilitate the Soviet Union — a regime that murdered tens of millions of its own citizens and usurped the power that it promised to spread. But it does question whether the history of the 20th century has really been written in stone.

Look, our film is about toys. It’s silly. It’s short. It pits an evil nevalyashka against a plastic Gagarin that was once made for a competition in Detskii Mir. But by going back to the drawing board (really, the 3D modelling software), we found an opportunity to delve into the convulsions of a place in transition. To take the past and collide it with the future. To channel that something in the Russian spirit that, as Alexievich said in her Nobel Lecture, “compels it to try to turn… dreams into reality.”

Our film will be out next year if we raise the money in the next few months (if you are sitting on a pile, please get in touch). Hopefully, it might make a small dent in the telling of a history that is still being written.

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About the author:

Paweł Wargan is a filmmaker, writer, photographer, and policy adviser. He is the writer and director, with Kristina Lanis, of A Soviet Toy Tale.




You can follow A Soviet Toy Tale on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Look out for our crowdfunding campaign in late May.

Vladimir Vysotsky: The greatest singer-songwriter you've never heard of

Pushkin House blog editor Rafy Hay dives into the world of Russia’s gravel-voiced bard

A Russian stamp from 1999 celebrating Vysotsky.

A Russian stamp from 1999 celebrating Vysotsky.

When you ask the average person who the greatest singer-songwriters are, the answers will be along these lines: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, maybe Carole King. If they’re more internationally-oriented than usual, you might get Jacques Brel, Victor Jara or Georges Brassens. But there’s a name missing from this list, hugely acclaimed in his home country but almost entirely unknown in the West: Vladimir Vysotsky.

Within the Russophone world he is far and away the most famous “bard” — half-poet, half-singer. His songs are standard repertoire in Russian bars and around family gatherings, and though formed in the specific conditions of the post-Stalinist Thaw and Brezhnev’s Stagnation, they carry special meaning for Russians to this day.

Vysotsky’s songs, with their mix of allegory, archetype and anecdote, appeal to the Russian sense of “Что делать?/ What can you do?” — endurance in the face of the indignities and demands of life. Paired with this, though, is the bard’s fiercely rebellious streak, as he spoke out in a cutting and lyrical way about living under an authoritarian regime. It’s perhaps for this reason that Vysotsky’s music has found some of its most ardent fans in formerly and currently oppressed countries, where his wry but humanistic commentaries ring true to people’s experiences.

Though many have likened Vladimir Vysotsky to Bob Dylan, Vadim Astrakhan, who sings translations of Vysotsky’s songs in English, argues that his style and tendencies lean more towards “a Russian blend of John Lennon, Johnny Cash, and Tom Waits” than Bob Dylan’s literary style.

Vladimir Semyonovich Vysotsky was born in Moscow on January 25, 1938, to a Jewish Red Army colonel from Kiev and his Russian wife. His childhood was spent evacuated during WW2 and then between his divorced parents’ homes. As a young adult he tried to make his way in the official Soviet acting schools but his rebelliousness (and sometimes drunkenness) worked against him.

During his time as a student Vysotsky started performing in the underground music scene, singing first about the criminal underworld. His self-recorded tapes circulated among the unofficial artists and intelligentsia, but it was starring in the film The Vertical in 1967 which brought Vysotsky real fame. His songs, produced concurrently with his prolific career as an actor, became part of the mainstream Soviet culture.

A photo of Vysotsky from 1979 at the Taganka theatre, playing his signature 7-string Russian guitar.

A photo of Vysotsky from 1979 at the Taganka theatre, playing his signature 7-string Russian guitar.

With such immense fame, naturally Vysotsky worried the Soviet authorities. His incisive and critical songs were heard by millions as he toured the country and released records, and his (third) marriage to French actress Marina Vlady meant he was spending more and more time in the West. He walked the tightrope between officialdom and dissidence, but the authorities never pushed Vysotsky into open rebellion, preferring to keep him manageable and legal than ban him and face a riot. It is testament to his touring schedule and his songs’ power that he managed to attract so many fans despite never being allowed on Soviet television.

During his meteoric rise in the 70s Vysotsky’s problems with drink and drugs deteriorated. His wife describes the strain that his substance abuse had on their relationship in her bestselling memoir, and though details of Vysotsky’s personal life were often obscure, this is one area where the facts are more known. His work was certainly influenced by his drinking, with darker themes emerging during the late 70s, and from about 1977 he was also self-medicating with amphetamines and prescription drugs. As 1980 rolled in, and the Soviet authorities made drugs harder to acquire during the Olympic games, Vysotsky went back to hard drinking. Drug withdrawal was gruelling, though, and over a four-day period from 21st July, he went into medical supervision at his home in Moscow. On the morning of the 25th, he was found dead.

No official notice was made of his death, but tens of thousands of fans mourned him at the Taganka theatre where he had been playing Hamlet. The Soviet authorities sent the army in, fearing a riot. Vysotsky’s legend only grew in the years following his death. By 1989 his legacy was so firm that, when the Berlin Wall fell, memorials and statues to Vysotsky sprung up across Russia and the Eastern Bloc.

Vysotsky memorial in Samara, Russia. Image credit: Yuri Vantsev.

Vysotsky memorial in Samara, Russia. Image credit: Yuri Vantsev.

Vysotsky’s output was so prodigious that to narrow it down to a few “greatest hits” would be folly, but here is a selection to help get you into the poet’s music.

  1. Song about a friend / Песня о Друге

This was the first that many Russians heard of Vysotsky, as it was featured in the film The Vertical. It encapsulates Vysotsky’s grasp of idiom and metaphor, describing how hardship and opposition are the keys to telling when a friend is a true one.

2. I Don’t Like / Я не люблю

Vysotsky’s songs often build up, verse by verse, until the ironic meaning is clear. This is one such song, where the narrator’s boredom and annoyance with life are layered into a critique of Soviet society at large.

3. Wolf hunt / Охота на волков

This is one of Vysotsky’s most searing songs, and probably my favourite — the extended metaphor of the way a hunt traps wolves reflects Vysotsky’s rejection of authoritarianism and desire for new, liberated ways of thinking. His voice, like whiskey over gravel, crackles and snarls with righteous fury until it’s hard to believe you’re only hearing one man and his guitar, and not a whole symphony at full tilt.

4. Capricious Horses / Kони привередливые

The interpretation of many of Vysotsky’s songs is entirely personal — many see in this song a message of political anguish and contradiction. Personally, this song makes more sense to me as being about Vysotsky’s experiences of addiction and self-destruction, the inescapable galloping horses leading him over a cliff. Listen, and decide for yourself what it means:

Bonus: Be Grateful You’re Alive / Скажи еще спасибо, что живой

This is another wry commentary on life and its indignities, with a trademark twist at the end. The staying power of Vysotsky as a cultural icon can be put down at least in part to the way his songs can be covered by almost anyone. This video is from Vadim Astrakhan, who’ll be performing his English versions of Vysotsky’s songs (with a few Russian ones thrown in) on Thursday 18th April at Pushkin House. Tickets and further details are available here.

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Rafy Hay is Events Manager at Pushkin House, and edits the Pushkin House blog. If you have an idea for a blog submission, please feel free to email him at rafy.hay@pushkinhouse.org.uk.

From Glasgow to Marseille: the story of Russian football hooliganism

Avram Liebenau delves into the backstory behind the violence against England fans at the 2016 European Championship

Image credit: Piotr Drabik

Image credit: Piotr Drabik

In June 2016, around 150 Russian hooligans charged a group of England fans in a square of Marseille. In a savage and brutal rampage, multiple Brits were left injured. Shortly after, Feduk, a Russian rapper and a notorious fan of football hooliganism, which Russians somewhat ironically call okolofutbola (literally, “around/surrounding football”), released a track entitled ‘Tour de France’ glorifying the event. The British press, in contrast, lambasted the football authorities for allowing this to happen and expressed concern about the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The Telegraph even interviewed some members of the attackers, who saw themselves as the counter-force to the English, whom they perceived as their natural enemy in the football hooligan world. Understanding this view requires an understanding of Russian football hooliganism’s complex history which is tied to our own (now nigh-on taboo) past of sporting violence.

To trace this tale, we need to go back to the early Brezhnev era, when the young stilyagi (basically hipsters) were listening to punk, and footballers who travelled abroad were smuggling vinyl back to Russia in their suitcases to make an extra rouble or two. Particularly relevant and impressive in describing this period is Vladimir Kozlov’s book Fanaty, tracing the history of hooliganism through interviews with former participants in hooligan acts. We learn that these were youths, in some cases who also identified with stilyagi culture, and were drawn to football for a complex set of reasons.

Crucial to this was the USSR top league’s accessibility to the average citizen, due to the increase in televised games after the spread of TV from the mid-1960s. Despite television ownership being limited and mainly confined to the major cities, it provided a window to enjoy professional football and was a contributing factor in football’s growth in popularity, shown by the trend of rising attendances at matches from 1965-1980.

Russian hooliganism had a framework through which to spread rapidly, and clear lines along which fans divided

Unintentionally, however, watching football exposed Soviet citizens to the hooliganism already present in the European game, culminating in the 1972 Cup Winners’ Cup final between Glasgow Rangers and Dynamo Moscow. Soviet fans witnessed a pitch invasion and violence on the part of the Rangers fans, which halted the game and swung the momentum in favour of the Scottish side as Dynamo pressed for an equaliser in the dying moments of the encounter. The club, fans and players never got over the injustice of nearly completing one of the greatest comebacks in European footballing history. But, as the underbelly of European football beamed into Soviet living rooms, Russian youths saw rebellion, escapism and camaraderie in creating their own.

The early hooligan gangs sprung up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dynamo Moscow were early on the scene, officially organising in 1972, while Spartak’s supporters coalesced in 1979. These fans styled themselves as hooligans through banners at matches, synchronised chanting and clothing, dominating particular areas of stadia, and violence and intimidation towards opposition fans, players and match officials. By the end of the 1970s, riots on matchdays – particularly on the common Moscow derby-days between CSKA, Dynamo, Spartak and Lokomotiv – were common. Kozlov’s interviewees proudly describe the carnage they wrought as their numbers swelled into an uncontrollable mob down Pushkinskaya ulitsa.

The appeal of hooliganism wasn’t limited to the big clubs at the pinnacle of Russian and European football. A local club, Avtomobilst, had fans who on one occasion in 1972, caused a match to be abandoned because of a pitch invasion and vicious attacks on the referee and opposition coach. A unique feature of Russian football has always been the irrelevance of geography to football fans’ chosen clubs. Where in Western Europe we associate football with a distinct community drawn primarily along geographic lines, in the USSR and modern Russia fans congregated based on profession, the most obvious case being Lokomotiv, the club of the railway workers, whose fans still refer to the team as ‘the railwaymen’. There were many affiliated ‘Lokomotiv’ clubs across the USSR, and remnants of it exist today: Lokomotiv Minsk are one of many Lokomotivs still competing. This meant that Russian hooliganism had a framework through which to spread rapidly, and clear lines along which fans divided.

In their style and intent, the hooligans individually and collectively modelled themselves along British hooligan lines. Kozlov’s interviewees attest to their dress being taken from British punk fashion and their chants and paraphernalia deliberately resembling British teams. Like the British hooligans of the 1970s, the Russians created a sense of ‘honour’ associated with their club, which incorporated elements of masculine aggression and veneration of bravery, expressed by violence towards, overwhelmingly, other hooligan gangs. The reasons for this were clear: British football hooligans were the most feared, and therefore respected, hooligans. The Russian fans were acutely aware of the foreign influence on their activities, as many Soviet youth subcultures were, and this placed them in a broader European arena for their actions and style.

Russian riot police in Moscow. Image credit: Aleksey Toritsyn

Russian riot police in Moscow. Image credit: Aleksey Toritsyn

The Soviet hooligans weren’t blind copycats, however: their acts occurred in an entirely different political context from the British. Successive Soviet leaders suppressed dissent and disorder, in different ways and to different extents. Surprisingly, however, the authorities were slow to react to the violence and antisocial behaviour of the football fans. According to one of Kozlov’s interviewees, ‘Batya’, the police were often outnumbered, shocked and didn’t possess the required capabilities to manage the crowds. They ended up being on the receiving end of as much violence as the opposition hooligans, although the reasons for this were less political and more incidental – few hooligans, at least according to Kozlov’s book, intended to make a political message by attacking the police.

British hooliganism, surprisingly, was more directed at the authorities than in Russia. Possibly for this reason, accusations of hooliganism made an effective scapegoat in the cover-up of the catastrophic handling of football crowds in the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. The case remains close to footballing hearts due to the public blame-game against the deceased and their families, which implicated members of the police force and the media.

The growth of Russian football hooligan gangs was inspired by their British counterparts, whose escapades during the 1960s and 70s began to come under the microscope of Soviet fans. Over time, Russian football hooliganism developed its own distinct iconography and identity. Violence in any capacity is not tolerable, but the increasing infiltration of right-wing and racist ideologies into much of Russian football hooliganism has lent it an even more sinister image. As the balaclava-ed Russian “ultras” charged at the Brits in 2016, what was happening was not just a group of crazed criminals going on a rampage, but the culmination of forty years of Russian hooligan history: finally, the English were dethroned, and there were new hooligans to admire. The Russian hooligan’s mission was complete.


I'm Avram Altay Liebenau, I've been studying Russian since I was 15 and am in my final year studying BA Russian and History at University College London. I enjoy writing about varying topics, from financial history to football hooliganism.

Avram can be reached at avram.liebenau@gmail.com.