Soccer and Revolution in Ukraine
Photo by R.J. Rico

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Soccer and Revolution in Ukraine

A deep dive into the tangled up world of soccer and revolutionary nationalism in war-torn Ukraine.
September 26, 2014, 11:45am

Vice Sports contributor R.J. Rico spent two weeks in Ukraine reporting on the role of soccer and soccer fans in the nation's conflict, and how that conflict has affected the sport. Below are his compiled stories.

The Ultras, Azov Battalion, and Soccer From Inside Ukraine

There are no hot dog guys at Olympic Stadium in Kiev, no one there to hawk sweets or souvenirs up and down the stairs as the Ukrainian national soccer team plays.

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If you're looking for someone to give your money to, you've got two options: the beer vendors selling pints for about $2 apiece, or the men dressed in paramilitary gear with balaclavas over their faces and donation boxes in hand.

The latter would be members of Azov Battalion, a prominent far-right paramilitary group that has been fighting separatists some 400 miles east of Kiev. They've been labeled patriots by some, neo-Nazis by others, and on Monday night they were impossible to overlook.

During the Euro 2016 qualifying match between Ukraine and Slovakia, a group of about a dozen Azov soldiers worked in teams of three, one man standing in the middle of the stairs holding a large Ukrainian flag with the Azov logo, while two others walked alongside the seated crowd, each holding a box of money, silently soliciting donations for the Ukrainian Army as if they were ushers racking up on Sunday service.

The majority of the Azov soldiers at the game, at least according to one of them nicknamed "Spot" are former diehard "ultra" fans who have shifted their focus from the soccer field to the battlefield.

"The ultra movements used to be completely separate and had conflicts with each other," Spot explained. "Now they are standing shoulder to shoulder because of the situation. Those of us who are still here in the West are doing everything we can to support Azov before we join them in the East."

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The presence of the "men in black" has become such a routine part of life in the Ukrainian capital that an American mother working in Kiev said she had no qualms about letting her two young daughters walk right by the masked men to enter the stadium.

"It's absolutely not intimidating," said the mother, who asked not to be named. It i s part of everything now and they're defending their country. As Americans our family supports them in that."

By Eastern European soccer standards, Monday's qualifier—Ukraine's first competitive game since the war with separatists began in the East—was a somewhat muted affair.

There were no coordinated marches into the stadium, no tifo banners unfurled by the ultras across the seats, and no flares set off. According to one of the men in charge of organizing the Kiev ultras, though, the absence of such pageantry had in and of itself been coordinated.

"We don't want the rest of the world to think that we are radicals with huge banners or marches," a 42-year-old Kiev resident named Denis said. "We're afraid that the Western audience would misinterpret that. We had a rule that we would not use pyrotechnics at this game. First of all we don't want to scare anyone and second of all, pyro is money: It's better to donate this money to Azov Battalion."

Denis explained all of this while doing some fundraising of his own. An hour before the match, he and a few dozen fellow Dynamo Kiev ultras were selling nationalist t-shirts for $11 in front of a prominent fountain near the stadium, having already publicized the sale on social media. The money (all of which was off the books) would be going to Azov and similar battalions fighting in the East to buy weapons and military supplies, he said.

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Back inside the stadium for the game, Denis and a few hundred other ultras stood in their designated corner of the field waving Ukrainian flags as well as the flag of the controversial WWII-era Ukrainian Insurgent Army, all while leading the 42,000-strong crowd in song throughout the match. Some of the evening's biggest hits were, unsurprisingly, anti-Russian, including "The Putin Song" (sample lyrics: "Putin is a dickhead la-la-la-la-la-la-la") and a tune that got everyone in the stadium off their feet, literally, "Those Who Don't Jump are Rude Russians."

"Before, we used to sing these songs about Russians, but they were jokes and nothing serious," Denis said. "Now they are serious."

WIth nationalism riding so high in the country, Ukrainian players admitted after the game—a 1-0 loss to the Slovaks, who had never before defeated the Yellow-Blues—that they were especially disappointed to have lost in front of such a boisterous crowd.

"It was so pleasant to be so warmly supported despite the situation in the country," said midfielder Taras Stepanenko, who plays for Ukraine's famed Shakhtar Donetsk club team and is from the eastern Donetsk region. "I can only apologize to the fans, because we could not justify their expectations today."

"I know our victories bring at least some confidence to our people," goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov said. "It's a real shame that we could not win for our country."

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That's not to say that the whole night was a failure for every Ukraine supporter. While some fans exited their seats with middle fingers held aloft at the referees for calling off a late equalizer—Pyatov, the goalkeeper, improbably almost scored—the Azov men quietly left the stadium. Their boxes were full.

Heroes Are Not Dead: How the Conflict is Playing Out in Ukraine's Top Soccer League

"If everyone will go fight in the battalions, who will go and support the team?"

Roman, 20, is a Zorya Luhansk ultra. Once, he was one of about 150 ultras who traveled to attend every Zorya Luhansk home game—a small but significant group supporting a small but successful club in the Ukrainian Premier League. On Saturday night, as Zorya hosted Dynamo Kiev, the ultras' numbers were limited to just 30.

With fighting having broken out in eastern Ukraine, neither Roman nor his beloved team's players live in Luhansk anymore. Mortar fire has partially wrecked Zorya's Avangard Stadium and left a crater in the middle of the field. So Roman and the team he supports have fled to the industrial city of Zaporizhia, some 230 miles southwest of the war-torn city.

During Saturday's match in Zaporizhia, there may have been 30 young men standing in the stadium, vociferously singing Zorya's songs, but the real number of Zorya ultras was smaller than that. Only six of the 30 were longtime supporters from Luhansk. The other 24 were actually Metalurh Zaporizhia ultras who put on Zorya's black and white colors in solidarity, to support their city's new inhabitants.

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"It's because of heritage," 19-year-old Zaporizhia ultra Vitali said, explaining his newfound secondary allegiance. "Since Soviet times, fans of both of our clubs have been very friendly. Now especially it's very important to support each other."

Zorya is one of five teams in the 14-team UPL that have been relocated, and Roman is one of its few ultras who are still able to attend the club's games. The rest have either stayed behind in Luhansk or scattered across Ukraine and Russia. Some have joined voluntary Ukrainian militias, including Azov Battalion, the controversial nationalist paramilitary group that is especially popular with the ultras.

There were eight pro-Ukraine, pro-Zorya banners hanging in the Zorya ultras' section of the stadium on Saturday night, and many more throughout the stadium. The largest, a white banner with handwritten black letters said: "Heroes are not dead: AKSYON 4.07.1994 - 20.08.2014."

Aksyon was one of Roman's friends. They were ultras together and played soccer together. Earlier this year, Aksyon joined Azov Battalion. Roman did not. Last month, Aksyon was fatally shot in the eye while fighting in the town of Ilovaysk. The banner has been at Zorya matches ever since.

"The best thing we can do is not to forget [Aksyon] as a group," Roman said. "I've thought about joining the battalion, but that's a very big step to take. If it becomes necessary, I will join the ranks and fight. Right now my team needs the support."

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For the Dynamo Kiev ultras, trips to Zaporizhia used to be an occasion to fight. Most away trips were. Before the conflict, fighting was one of the primary things Ukranian ultras were known for.

Artem, a seven-year veteran of the Dynamo Kiev ultras, who is now one of their organizers, loves talking about the old days.

Unprompted, with two taps on his smartphone, Artem pulls up a video of a huge swarm of red-clad men—Chornomorets Odessa ultras—marching towards a slightly smaller group of Dynamo Kiev ultras wearing white. Chaos ensues.

"250 [vs.] 150," he says. "2009."

Those were different times. Now, the Kiev and Odessa ultras get along just fine.

Fighting between the ultra groups, which because of heavy police presence around the stadiums was always carefully orchestrated in secret locations, has been entirely shelved this season.

"We used to have a longstanding war with the Donetsk ultras, but after many of them had to flee Donetsk [because of the war], we helped them find apartments and jobs in Kiev," Artem said. "I miss [the fighting], but during the war there's no place for it."

Ever since the Euromaidan protest movement of last winter, which led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych, ultras now go to UPL games to show support for their club, their country and, surprisingly, the other team's ultras.

During the match in Zaporizhia, the ultras sang to each other multiple times throughout the night.

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"Kiev!" the Zorya Luhansk ultras yelled. "Luhansk!" the Dynamo Kiev ultras, standing behind the opposite goal, responded. The two groups repeated the exchange for about 30 seconds, before they died down.

Later, the groups unleashed a more elaborate call-and-response song:

"Glory to Ukraine!" the Dynamo ultras started.

"Glory to the heroes!" the Zorya ultras answered.

"Glory to the nation!"

"Death to the enemies!"

"Ukraine!"

"Above all!"

The entire crowd of 4,100 applauded.

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That attendance figure of 4,100 was surprisingly high, and likely only because of the draw of powerhouse Dynamo Kiev. Last month, Zorya drew just 1,000 fans for its "home" debut.

Of course, before the crisis, when their home games were actually played at home, Zorya Luhansk drew much larger crowds. The club routinely played in front of more than 10,000 fans, garnering as many as 13,100 when Kiev was in town last season.

Those who did make it to Saturday's match, however, were rewarded with a thriller. Zorya, which entered the game in eleventh place, scored the first goal midway through the first half off of a perfect, curling free kick into the bottom corner of the goal. The underdogs held on against third-place Dynamo until the fifty-ninth minute, when Kiev equalized. Dynamo scored again in the eighty-eighth minute to unleash massive celebrations from the players and flare-wielding Dynamo ultras. But the game wasn't over yet, and in the final minute of stoppage time, Zorya scored a second time, shocking everyone. The draw was Zorya's.

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After the game, the athletes from both teams gradually left their locker rooms and walked out to the players' parking lot. In front of the Dynamo exit, a crowd of 100 people was pressed up against the fence, rabidly cheering for the famous club.

The Zorya players—the "home team"—got no such greeting. No one yelled their names, and as they quietly stepped into their cars, no one asked for their autographs.

Not that it mattered to midfielder Mykyta Kamenyuka, the captain of Zorya and seven-year veteran of the club. All he wants is to be back in Luhansk.

"It's awful here—we all want to go home, honestly," he said. "We lack peace and face all the uncertainty and anxiety comes from that. I spend every day thinking about my family, relatives and friends [in Luhansk], wondering if they are alive. That makes it hard to concentrate [on playing soccer]. If I could, I would have them all brought here to Zaporizhia. But I can't."

White Nationalism, Left-Wing Alliances, and Straight Edge Lifestyles

Ukraine's soccer ultras used to be ridiculed by many Ukrainians. The seemingly senseless brawls they held against rivals, the frenzied chants they led while watching a soccer game—how could anyone take these "hooligans" seriously? This year, that all changed.

"They used to be thought of as public garbage," said Vlad Dudka, a sportswriter for the popular Ukrainian website Sport.ua. "Now people view them as heroes. They're young guys who are ready to fight for their countries."

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Brave and popular as these men may be, they are also armed with striking right-wing philosophies. Many ultras are fighting not just for an independent, united Ukraine, but a Ukraine that matches their vision of a "white nation."

I spoke with two Dynamo Kiev ultras, Zhura and Philya, who joined the far-right paramilitary group Azov Battalion soon after they had returned from fighting separatists in eastern Ukraine. They explained how two young soccer fans could suddenly become part of one of the world's most talked about military forces

On Friday, November 29, 2013, Zhura, Philya, and about 40 other ultras returned to Kiev from Belgium, where they had watched Dynamo Kiev lose 3-1 to KRC Genk in a Europa League group stage match. For many Dynamo ultras, that would be the last time soccer truly mattered.

The next morning the ultras began to hear about violence that had occurred in Kiev's main square overnight. The student protesters who'd been gathering as part of the Euromaidan protests for the past 10 days were attacked by police. No one was killed, but dozens were injured.

"There was no [big meeting] amongst the ultras—we just all knew that we had to take part against the attacks," said Zhura, a thin, bearded 25-year-old.

Within days, Zhura and other ultras had seized some of the buildings surrounding Independence Square and began acting as the Maidan protesters' strongest line of defense.

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The degree to which the different ultra groups were able to swiftly organize surprised Zhura, but his friend Philya, a 20-year-old Dynamo ultra, said the ultras' common experiences and nationalist views were unifying factors. The long-standing hatred between the clubs' ultra groups could be shelved for the sake of greater Ukraine.

Of course, Zhura and Philya did not join the Dynamo ultras expecting to help start a revolution and fight a war. Six years ago, Zhura was working as a systems engineer. He became an ultra because he was drawn to the "straight edge" lifestyle that Dynamo ultras are known to support. Many Ukrainian ultras don't smoke, drink alcohol, or take drugs. Instead, their activities are focused on being physically active through recreational soccer competitions and politically involved through community activism.

"I became an ultra for the sports," Zhura said. "I liked the idea of a healthy lifestyle, the idea of love for the country, and wanted to find people with a similar [political] outlook."

Photo by R.J. Rico

The ultras first dabbled in anti-regime politics in 2011 through their support of a Dynamo Kiev ultra and his father, who many said were wrongfully convicted of killing a judge. The struggle to release the Pavlychenko family saw ultras take part in demonstration for the next two years. "Today Pavlychenko, Tomorrow You!" and similar banners were held aloft at protests and during games.

The Pavlychenkos would not be released until three months after the Maidan protests started, but the effort had seen ultras grow as a political force, making them one of Ukraine's most prominent voices once they became involved in Maidan.

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Once Maidan ended, President Yanukovych had fled and pro-Russian rebels rose up in the East, many ultras saw joining the ranks to fight the separatists as the logical next step—including Zhura and Philya. But which group to join? The Ukrainian Army? Or one of the numerous voluntary militias that had sprung up? For these two ultras, they felt drawn to Azov Battalion.

Zhura and Philya joined Azov in May along with many other Dynamo ultras, confident in their comrades, having fought alongside each other in countless brawls before soccer games over the years. With the leaders of each Ukrainian club's ultras having signed a non-violence pact earlier this year, those skirmishes may seem irrelevant now, but Philya said they were foundational moments for him, as he learned both how to fight and who he could trust to have his back.

"You know, to be honest, none of us were ready for war, since it isn't taught in school," Philya said. "But we realized that what is more important than military experience is having confidence in the person standing next to you. Since those times, when we arranged those fights in the woods and on construction sites, we knew who is tough, who will stand up, and will fight to the end. That's [Zhura]. I know that he will not fail."

From the early days of Azov's formation in May, the group has been made up predominantly of ultras. They are all very nationalistic, and while their political views may differ slightly, many, according to Philya, share his far-right stance of National Socialism. But don't confuse this with neo-Nazism, Philya says, calling Hitler "an invader of our country and [someone who] messed up the whole idea."

"The ultras of Dynamo Kiev basically chose Azov because the battalion command does not hide its social-nationalist ideas, its honoring of Slavic heritage," Philya said. "We are white brothers. We are supporters of the white nation. We want to keep the white offspring constantly evolving spiritually and physically, to eat properly, and to not use drugs or alcohol."

Not every Ukrainian soldier holds these views, though, and, for the time being, Philya is fine with that. The ultras of Arsenal Kiev (a club that went bankrupt last season) were notable far-left radicals and clear political rivals of the Dynamo Kiev supporters, yet many have also taken up arms against the separatists, albeit in different battalions.

"We have found more in common than we thought [with the leftist soldiers]," Philya said. "The most important idea is to fight against Putin's fascism. Ideologically right ultras are stronger and after the war I believe we'll quarrel, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It's simple."

Having already fought in Mariupol, Mariyanka and Illovaysk (where Philya's left elbow was hit by a small piece of shrapnel), Zhura and Philya are in Kiev for the time being. Until they are sent back out to the front, they will continue to work on Azov's behalf in the capital city and drum up support for the cause in whatever ways possible.

They will also try to attend Dynamo Kiev home games. But whereas the games previously held a huge amount of significance to Zhura, now he sees them as a welcome distraction.

"It's important to be distracted and see your old friends," he said. "Soccer is now in the background. Now we need to concentrate on defending the country, protecting the right to watch soccer, and protecting Ukraine's future."