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."
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.
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."
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.
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."