"Hooliganism" describes a semi-organised approach to wasted fighting at football matches. Groups of fans band together before matches, get pissed, and head to games expressly to fight the opposing team's supporters. It's a hobby based on adrenaline, tribalism, and playful violence, and few football fans do hooliganism like Russia's.
Hooliganism was born in the English Football League of the 1970s, and spread to such other football-loving nations as Australia and Germany before arriving in Russia in the 90s. By the end of the decade, Russian fans had made a name for themselves holding shirtless fights in the snow and club meetings in boxing rings. In recent years tensions between English and Russian hooligans overflowed, with mass brawls in Marseilles in 2016 during the European Championship.
Weary of negative foreign press, Russian police began cracking down on hooligans in the lead up to the 2018 Soccer World Cup. From then on, even setting off fireworks at a football game drew terrorism charges, which understandably put a dampener on the scene, leading to very few brawls at the World Cup.
Russian photographer Pavel Volkov managed to embed himself in the scene during its mid-2000s heyday. He's one of the few photographers to capture a group from an insider perspective, and come away with his teeth intact. Here he speaks to VICE about how he integrated the group, what he saw, and what the future holds for the community.
VICE: Hey Pavel, I understand you started this project about seven years ago. Can you set the scene? What was happening at this time?
Pavel Volkov: So in around 2012 Russian football hooligans were a lot more serious than they are now. They were fighting each other all the time, and people were uploading fight videos to the internet—some people were even selling fight compilation DVDs. There were even fanzines about the hooligan's subculture. Some of my friends were also a part of it, so I knew a lot of people involved. It was just a big part of Russian football culture.
And how did you get involved?
I got in via some friends but it wasn’t easy. I had to prove I wouldn’t snitch on them to the police. So at first I just started visiting football matches with them. Then I actually got into a fight and took some pictures, which I shared with everyone. Time passed, and they began to trust me, and I think they understood that I didn’t want to harm their community. In the end, the most important thing was to understand the hierarchy of the group. I got acquainted with their leader because he was the only guy who could decide whether to let me in or not. And he let me in.
What were these guys like?
Well, what’s interesting is that Football hooligans aren't necessarily working class. Many of them are prosperous people who work in specialised jobs, but keep their hobbies separate. I have one photo in particular that always surprises people because it’s a guy in his office with a football flag. And after we took the photo we took his expensive car to a football match. Admittedly, this guy asked me to stop using his photo, but the point is all kinds of people join these groups.
Did you ever feel threatened being around these people?
I can’t say that I was ever afraid. Of course, I understood that we could get into trouble—we could be beaten or arrested, but I understood the risks and I felt ready for them. Something that you can’t overlook is how much fun it was being around these guys. We had real adventures. While shooting these fights I really began to empathise with these people. I was upset when they were beaten and injured. I was upset when their favourite football team lost the game. They became my friends and I still communicate with some of them.
Do you have a favourite memory from your time together?
Yeah, we once arrived in this small Russian town for a game. It was very early and the city centre was empty so the guys decided to swim in the water fountain. Some passers-by weren’t too happy about it but no one stopped us. Someone eventually called the police but even they didn’t do anything. They just told us to behave.
Can you tell me about the single biggest fight you ever witnessed?
The biggest ever—I didn’t actually see it. I’ve just seen photos of a fight that happened in the middle of a main Russian city with heaps of people involved. Some of them were badly injured, but they all ended up in overnight lock-up. According to their lawyers, the guys who were injured didn’t tell the police who beat them. They didn’t snitch on their rivals, even though they were injured. And you know, it was definitely the best day of their lives.
The hooligan scene in Russia has changed a lot now. Why is that?
I think more people just prefer to watch the football matches than fight each other now. It’s now possible to divide the "football hooligans" from the ordinary fans, whereas it used to be all the same. The subculture of football hooligans that existed seven to eight years ago just aren't around any more, and a lot of that is also due to the police. The World Cup that took place in Russia proved that the police are having an effect. There were no serious clashes with Russian football hooligans during the entire event.
**But do people still fight each other away from the football matches?**No, it is quite impossible to see a fight in the centre of a city now. The police try to prevent fights, and hooligans don’t want to go to jail. So you no longer see these beautiful moments where 100 guys beat the shit out of each other. This time has passed and maybe it’s for the best.
More photos below. Interview by Sam Elliot. Photographer Pavel Volkov is also on Instagram
This article originally appeared on VICE AU.