Inside Russia: Football Hooligans, Underground Wrestling, and Riots

Photographer Pavel Volkov documents from the heart of his motherland.
March 14, 2018, 11:27pm

This article is supported by Rusty, who stand for action, adventure, and taking risks to make it happen. In this article, we explore the archives of one our favourite intrepid young photographers to find out about the stories behind their images.

Pavel Volkov dedicates himself to documenting his country, Russia, and the people who live there. He identifies his subjects as heroes—and they all are, whether it's in the theatrics of physical strength, or the potency of emotional and mental strength.


Volkov travels around Russia embedding into all kinds of scenes. Whether he’s shooting organised fights among reckless football hooligans; the bedroom of Kirill, a young boy with a serious disease and huge dreams; people on the verge of deportation; or wrestling enthusiasts, Volkov channels doubt, risk, and fear to capture photos you want to know the story behind.

We hit Volkov with some questions about reporting from the heart of Russia, immersing in action, and chasing stories that mean something.

VICE: What were you doing before photography?
Pavel Volkov: I would call it a search of myself. I tried different jobs, worked in a steel plant and railway, moved from town to town. I tried myself in various activities but chose photography. At first I made portraits and shot weddings, but when I realised that I wanted to do more in photography, I studied photojournalism.

Did you feel like you had a lot to lose?
Yes, sure, it was like a space flight. I left everything I had and moved to another city, far from my native city, to study. I didn't have any friends or work there. It was scary sometimes.

Is there much risk involved in documenting stories from within Russia, especially when they're aligned with something like the military?
I think that nowadays there is some risk in working with any serious photo stories in Russia. The relations between Russian society and journalists are complicated. It doesn't matter what you write and shoot about, there always may be someone who doesn't like your work. If there is a goal to make problems for a journalist, it is not difficult to find a reason—whether it’s a story about the military or something else.

A series shot during the tragic events of the Maidan Revolution in the spring of 2014.

What made you want to explore these stories?
Working with stories, with different heroes, is a way to understand people and the world better. Searching for stories is my life now.

How do you find these scenes and subjects?
I think that now you can find all the information you need on the internet. Almost all people use social networks. And even if they don't, their friends or relatives do. The main thing is to understand what to search for, a social group or a particular hero. I try to notice stories and issues and collect info about interesting people. I think a lot about them and analyse what I can do with them.


Are you ever uneasy about approaching your subjects?
You always have some difficulties, each hero and social group is particular. They need special treatment. But the most important thing is not your work as a photographer, but your work as a producer who can organise everything and find a way to your hero.

A shot from the Spaceboy series, which documented an incurably ill child. "This is not a story about disease. This is a story about a big dream of a small boy. Despite serious disease, this boy dreams of boundless space," says Volkov.

While lots of your work is explicitly adventurous, you do also focus on some emotional stories—children with disabilities, your 'Deportation' series, and the incredible 'Spaceboy'. How does shooting these types of essays impact you compared to, say, underground wrestling?
Each story for me is particular, it is a small life that I live with my hero. The stories about ‘Spaceboy’ and wrestling are absolutely different for me. Wrestling was interesting for me as a social issue, a kind of theatre, with theatrical cruelty and brutality. There are actors and visitors there and in general it all seemed to me like a metaphor of a modern society. ‘Spaceboy’ is a story about a person, about pure dreams, about life drama, struggling with illness. In that case this story showed me the life of a concrete person, and his fight through his dreams.

Of all of your adventures, are there any you'd change or erase?
Of course sometimes some shit happened. But I don't want to delete anything from my past and my life. Everything that happens in our life, shapes us, makes us stronger, wiser. And if you deny anything, any events or facts from your life, it is like denying yourself.

Portrait of a rebel from the southeast of Ukraine.

Volkov has captured Russia's underground wrestling scene.

Wrestling is not popular in Russia, and there is only one club in a Moscow basement where enthusiasts gather.

Sergei Mangos, a member of the Paralympic Russian football team for visually impaired people. "This story for me is an example of outstanding human strength and power—not only physical but also spiritual," says Volkov.

For two years, Volkov travelled across Russia with football hooligans.

He documented different football hooligan gangs and their members.

He documented different football hooligan gangs and their members.

Reporting from the frontlines of the violent Maidan revolution.

You can see more of Pavel Volkov's work here and follow him on Instagram.

This article is supported by Rusty.