The truth behind being a Russian ultra, with Spartak Moscow’s Fratria

The truth behind being a Russian ultra, with Spartak Moscow’s Fratria

The intensity of the fans behind the home goal is almost palpable. From a distance they seem to bubble rather than jump and sway. Bodies are only visible between swishes of the rippling blanket of flags emblazoned with emblems and messages – “Original Fans – 1972” reads one, “One For All, All For One” another.

Underneath them smaller banners are held above bobbing heads by two sticks alongside raised arms and raised scarves. From somewhere inside the rabble, voices are regimented into booming chants. “Forrrrrrr-ward Sparrrrrrr-tak” comes the call. It sends a prickling bolt through those not part of the voracious blush of crimson from where it came. There is a loud bang, then another, then another, followed by the fizzle of bright red flares igniting and then opaque plumes of smoke. A flock of cinders circles the stadium, littering onto those of us seated near the dugout.

This is Moscow’s Otkrytie Arena, home of FC Spartak Moscow. That blush of crimson is known as Fratria. They are supporting their side through a labouring 2-2 draw against lowly FC Mordovia Saransk. Despite a drab result, Fratria are emphatic throughout. The imagery and intricacy behind the goal stayed with me long after the final whistle. It was impressive, rather than intimidating, artistic rather than aggressive.

These are not words normally associated with Russian football fans. Western perceptions of them have been tainted by grainy videos of groups of young men in secluded woodland baiting each other, marching forward to meet, and then battling so severely that the winners and losers suffer in equal disturbing measure. Ruthless clashes between English and Russian fans have done nothing to quell apprehensions. But somewhere in the violence the ethos of Russian fan culture has been lost. The story of Fratria, the largest supporters group of any Russian club, is a lot less sinister.

“The group was established on October 28, 2005, in a Moscow pub to improve support because at that time there were no real organised performances by supporters.”

Pavel is the leader of Spartak’s ‘fanati’ stand, a portion of Spartak’s ground dedicated to visual and audio support, a position he was asked to fill in 2012. A robustly-built Muscovite of 32, he has been following Spartak since his first game 20 years ago and is described in a Fratria anniversary booklet as “the distinctive fella with the megaphone in his hand”.

We’d agreed to meet in Magazin Fratria, a Spartak supporters’ shop on the second floor of Moscow’s Kazan train station. Everything inside is Spartak. There are replica shirts, postcards, keyrings, badges, pencils and rubbers, car window stickers and even dog collars. Pavel was late, which gave me time to scan over the slogans sprawled across the front of t-shirts. “Ultras mentality no criminality” stood out in particular.

Pavel arrived in a summer shirt, shorts and boat shoes, all typically in-keeping with terrace style and suiting the surprise Moscow heatwave well. He extended a burly arm, shook my hand and ushered me through a door into the back of the shop, past towering shelves where stacks of unopened t-shirts were stored and into a tiny office. A friend had briefed me on Fratria, their history and the quirks of their support. Pavel was to provide further insight into its foundation and current situation.

Perched on a chair across the table from me, Pavel begins to tell me, in a gravelly voice obtained presumably by years of cheering, that the Fratria roots stretch back to individual groups of “five to 10 fans” who typically supported the club “more fanatically than the rest” and travelled to away games.

“They took the initiative to somehow lead fans but none of it was centralised. We decided to make our own organisation of fans that could solely work on the direct support of the team, to express opinions, to defend the rights of true fans. Last year marked exactly 10 years [2005-2015] of the organisation. We decided to celebrate the milestone with 10 or 11 bright, colourful performances dedicated to each year – the sixth, the seventh, the eighth and so on.”


• • • •


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• • • •

I had noticed another Spartak anniversary on a banner at Petrovsky Stadium, home of Zenit Saint Petersburg. Around 2,000 Spartak fans had made the journey north to create a menacing sea of red in the away end. There, Saint Petersburg-based Spartak ultras group The Aliens – so-called because of their location – were celebrating their 15th year in organisation with a banner reading: ‘The Aliens – 15 years Among Strangers’.

After Spartak lost 5-2, the players laid a separate flag onto the pitch to acknowledge the anniversary. They placed it in front of the fans and then made their way down the tunnel. Subsequently a lone Zenit fan broke onto the field, snatched it, and ran back towards Music Hall Virazh, the main stand of Zenit’s ultras. This caused enraged men in black to clamber from the Spartak end over the fences separating them from the pitch, only to be tackled by heftily-clad police.

A Spartak-supporting journalist relayed to me the significance of what had happened post-match. “Never lose or leave your banners – if the opposition steal it, it’s a disgrace.”

Fratria and The Aliens are the two notable Spartak supporters’ groups today. But the nucleus of hardcore support that led to the formation of both dates back further.

“Spartak weren’t only the first Russians to travel to away games,” says Pavel. “They were the first on the football supporters scene in general, even in the Soviet Union when fanaticism was frowned upon. It’s officially recognised that in 1972 they became the first fans to begin travelling to virtually any town to support their team. As Spartak were the best side in Russia at that time, they represented the people of Russia – ‘The People’s Club’.

“Spartak were a good side, so qualified for Europe and were the first organised group to travel around Europe in the 1980s. But back then it still wasn’t an organised movement, it was more just a large gathering of fans who made the journey off their own back, people who shared one idea, whereas right now we really try to organise sets of groups.

“Namely the ‘Original Fans 1972’ banner was dedicated to … hang on I’ll just find it.” Pavel takes down a calendar from the wall and flicks through the collages of Spartak performances that mark each month before landing on March. “That’s it there, the performance, it’s a photograph of the first European away game. There are people sat there on the [terrace] steps and the date given is 1972.”

But why, if there is such pride in being the first group of fans that travelled to Europe specifically from Russia, are some banners are written in English.

“Like the name of the firm, some things were borrowed from the West; we took something from the Italians we took something from the English. We also wanted a stylish name to emulate the West. I think it is better to use your mother tongue in performances and on banners and in general support of your team.”

The name Fratria means brotherhood in Greek and stems from ties with Greek side Olympiacos. Spartak also have a strong affiliation with Red Star of Serbia. Each club share the same red and white kit colours and core Orthodox Christianity beliefs.

“[Red Star] is the only club with which we have an official sort of friendship,” Pavel dryly clarifies. “Two years ago our fans invited Red Star to a friendly match at Spartak because the club wanted the fans to not just socialise among themselves, but have a connection with their fans. Talks are currently ongoing about a return match in Belgrade – our friendly visit to them.”

• • • •


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• • • •

It is normal practice for Serbians to travel to see Spartak compete in European competition. When Spartak played Swiss side St. Gallen in the 2013 Europa League, around 60 hardcore Red Star fans travelled to the game from Serbia. But the friendship extends further than just club support.

“[Serbians] often travel whether it be Spartak or the Russian national side playing. I know Serbia are going to support Russia at Euro 2016. When Serbia played in the World Cup in South Africa [in 2010], Russians supported the Serbian team in the tournament and travelled specifically for their matches.”

Given Spartak have an affiliation hinging on religious ideology with a club formed by a youth anti-fascist league at the end of World War Two, it is only natural to wonder whether elements of their roots are reflected in both sets of fans’ support.

Pavel furrows his brow. “It is generally considered that there is no place for politics or religion on the terraces. It is said in the stands for us there is only one religion and that is football, so when we come to the terraces we forget about it. It’s right in principle because football is often used by those who see it to their advantage, those who see football fanaticism to be used as some sort of tool by which to resolve their issues,” he tells me resolutely.


• • “It is said in the stands for us there is only one religion, and that is football” • •


“Politically we tend to support the position of our Serbian brothers. They’re the only exception because we share the same views on many issues. As regards politics, we have a lot of people and, as they say, ‘there are as many people as opinions’.

“Views can change, but with Serbia we are connected, we always support them, for example the issue of Kosovo in Serbia very often features on our terraces. The last action of support was ‘UEFA Support Terrorism’, directed against UEFA’s recognition of Kosovo as an independent state and football nation. [The Serbs] made a huge performance [against it] and we hung up a few banners in support.”

Kosovo became a member of UEFA in May 2016, but played their first FIFA-recognised international match in March 2014 following persistent lobbying from prominent Kosovar professionals. It was met with strong opposition from Serbia. Incidentally, one month later the Assembly of Kosovo approved a special court of Kosovo to be held in The Hague to adjudicate cases against individuals based on a 2010 Council of Europe report in Switzerland.

It is likely to charge Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) members of alleged war crimes during the Kosovo War. The KLA are considered heroes by Kosovars; they are considered terrorists by Serbs. Serbia and consequently Fratria perceive recognising Kosovo’s right to a national football team as supporting extremism. This topic seems to be the exception to the Fratria terrace political etiquette.

But aside from politics, I wondered what kind of messages had been planned for performances at Euro 2016 in France. Heightened terror alerts mean stadia have heightened security, making any kind of coruscating support difficult to execute.

“Pyrotechnics are banned all over the world, so wherever we go security is always this difficult. I can tell you that it does worry a few people. Everyone will go in any case, despite the threat.

• • • •

Fratria Spartak Moscow Ultras
Spartak Moscow fans

• • • •

“I’m certain there will be pyrotechnics in France but it’s hard to say in what quantity, whether frequent or sporadic. In any case there will be those going who like to provide pyro-support.”

Maybe my question was hasty. Security at any Spartak home game is stringently thorough and regimented at every entrance and checkpoint, yet flares are commonplace inside, integral even.

“We always find a way, we won’t hide that secret,” Pavel shoots me a wink and chuckles. “We support the club in every way. It is an outlet for football fans old and young. Setting flares off is like a release for them. If you’re fed up and everything is getting on top of you and you go to the football and you set off flares and you don’t get caught running from the police you buzz off it. Then after you go for a beer. It’s a great way to spend your free time. Others like spending time tending their allotments – it’s that kind of feeling.”

“We say ‘Pyro is Not a Crime’. We have visual support in many of our banners, for example ‘Fuck Police’. One of the elements of personal support of the team is that it’s an expression of your feelings on these big banners and boards in all ways including humorous ones and those with club symbols.”


• • “If the heart beats, honour is not sold out” • •


My eyes wander over the banners in the calendar, which serves as our centrepiece. Some I’ve already sourced out at matches, noted down the design and the lettering, remembered when they were swung and when they were at rest. Whilst doing so I thought how felicitous it was that Fratria, who exist to watch Spartak, are sometimes as intently observed themselves.

The most important of all banners bears the Fratria mantra: “If the heart does not beat, honour is not sold out”. I’d noticed it in the away end during a 2-0 win against local rivals Lokomotiv at Lokomotiv Stadium. With Dinamo having been relegated last season, Moscow now has three teams in the Russian Premier League: Spartak, Lokomotiv and current champions CSKA, who all contest potent cross-town rivalries.

At Spartak, honour is sacrosanct and must be displayed by all involved with the club. The “Dima Where is the Honour” banner is aimed at manager Dmitry Alenichev who, despite four league titles whist a player at Spartak, has been met with criticism from some corners during his tenure as coach. I spotted the banner at the Mordovia game, after which some players climbed into the crowd to construct dialogue with the fans, a common occurrence in Russia.

All artwork is designed autonomously by self-styled ‘painters’ and ‘artists’ who take it upon themselves to invent and draw out designs. The idea is to ensure each is created by a Spartak supporter.

“It’s not like we pay them to come up with ideas or anything, it’s all off the top of their heads,” laughs Pavel. “Five or six people sit down once a month, come up with a design and discuss the best decision. Now of course the level of performances has been very much raised, as you can see all our performances signal something.

• • • •

Spartak Moscow

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• • • •

“I see now in some parts of England they try to emulate this type of thing in the lower leagues, but in England they don’t get the concept. English football developed in the wrong direction, into hooliganism.”

Although that last comment sounds misplaced, it isn’t irrational. Pre-emptive punitive measures against football hooligans in the 1980s in England, inflicted by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s “war cabinet”, have on occasion been blamed for over-compensating and sterilising modern English support. Pasha considers this excuse less than viable.

“It is more likely down to control of fans the world over. But why don’t [English fans] create visual support like us? It’s not like they are prohibited. English stadia are ideal for choreographed support: they have rectangular stands on which it is easy to perform both simple and complex support creations. Every club has different kinds of performances, but from the same model of designs and banners. But in England they don’t use any kind of structure. Every now and again I see they use flares, but rarely.”

Use or possession of flares in English football grounds can lead to a ban or prison sentence. A flare was set off at the recent Russia versus Slovakia game after strict warnings that Russia may be disqualified if rowdiness among fans continues. At club level it is also prohibited, but is rarely an issue.

“It’s illegal everywhere, in Russia maybe more so, but in general it isn’t that risky. The worst you can get [in Russia] is a 3,000 rouble fine (£32). They can give you a six-month ban that can stop you from entering any stadium but it doesn’t stop anyone because we don’t really have a system like in England.

“We have supporters who get bans but they can get to the football easily enough and so turn up anyway. Police in the stands even search for banned fans by face recognition. They check your ID against a list of recently arrested and banned fans and if you’re on it you get five or six days in a cell.”

Russian fans are generally flippant in bypassing rules in search of their ‘release’. It’s clear Fratria aren’t men hell-bent on upset and driven by violence, but they are a force nonetheless, specifically one which prefers to keep on the strictly supporting side of a sometimes blurred line between organised support and organised chaos. In Russian vernacular, “bolelshiki” (supporters) and “fanati” (fanatics) are associated to varying degrees with the former, and “ultras” with the latter.

“You can say that we have bolelshiki – supporters who come into the central stand just to support Spartak. To them, the most important thing is beautiful football. While they watch the match they have a chat, a hot dog and a beer,” Pavel explains with no hint of condescendence.

“Whereas fanati are ultras – we won’t say ‘ultras’ because the phenomenon of ultras in Russia is poor. Rather, we have fans who take it by the scruff of the neck and actively take part in vocal support. The central stand isn’t like in England, where there isn’t the concept of a fanati stand, only cheaper seats and more expensive seats, but everyone is together and supports the team identically. We have fanati stands behind the goals where they support the team how they want. Plus, these fans use pyrotechnics and take part in all of our visual displays.”

• • • •


Read  |  Oleg Romantsev: the incredible man of two halves

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While those operating under the cloak of the ultras phenomenon may appear to share the same taste for radical support as the fanati, theirs is a distinctly more bellicose environment. Their sphere of support is wholly different from banners and flares in that their release is obtained from choreographed carnage.

Footage was recently taken in France of hooligans filming organised attacks on English fans on GoPro cameras. The Russian Ultras page on VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook, is one social media platform to feature footage of disturbances at the tournament. Posts range from the artistic to the juxtapositional to the vicious. There are photographs of groups of young men clad in expensive trainers and balaclavas reading literature, snaps of club emblems and designs, portraits of bloodied rival fans with gloating captions, and Russians posing for celebratory pictures with a collection of captured English flags

Extremism has, on occasion, infected the Fratria organism itself. Former leader Ivan Katanaev, nicknamed Combat 18, was revealed as being involved in a touting scandal of Russian national team tickets along with two well-known supporters of Dinamo Moscow and CSKA Moscow. Each had alleged close ties to Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko. Katanaev later posted images of himself with an AK-74 rifle in Ukraine where he had become a leader of an Orthodox Christian youth organisation. Fratria later made an official statement that Katanaev was not a part of their support.

Pavel himself was, admittedly, “someone between an ultra and a hooligan” before he offered to take care of the crowd in a friendly match against Torpedo. Now he is known as the man who “with a swift flick of the hand can elicit intimidating roars” and “in just a few seconds can transform the ground into a cauldron”. Not his words, his comrades’.

For Pavel, supporting Spartak does not depend on success. Spartak have not won a major trophy since the 2003 Russian Cup and the club finished fifth in the league last season. He admits that the generation today are accustomed to underachievement. It is a stark contrast to the 1990s under idiosyncratic manager Oleg Romantsev, who steered the Spartak to nine Russian titles, four Russian cups and three European semi-finals.

“Our younger generation have grown used to Spartak not occupying top spot, it’s sometimes third, fourth, maybe even fifth or eighth – they don’t know what success is. My generation remember the glory years; it stays with us.

“I began supporting Spartak in 1996, I only turned up to see the club, although we had so-called glory hunters because in 10 years we won nine titles from 1992 to 2001. When I was six years old Spartak lost to Marseille in the 1991 Champions League semi-final. If they had won they would have faced Red Star in the final. There wouldn’t have been any kind of friendship like we talked about,” Pavel laughs, affirming that, despite friendship, there is no question where his loyalty lies.

Support for Spartak stretches way beyond success. Whole lives are pumped into every movement and every roar that convene to simultaneously shock and inspire awe to those that see them, hear them and feel them. Spartak pulses through the veins of every member of Fratria, who embody that seldom celebrated spirit of Russian tribalism. They are not the mindlessly violent minority; they are the beating heart, never surrendering their honour.

“What does Spartak mean to me in a word?” Pavel grins, unfolds his arms and offers them skyward. “Life.” His answer means that although the body that carries the heart may alter, the spirit of Fratria will live on through generations.

By Daniel Armstrong. Follow @DannyWArmstrong

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