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Russia: Studying Online Mobilization of the Manezh Riots

Recent riots on Manezhnaya Square next to the Kremlin showed that Russian soccer fans have become a powerful community who can mobilize thousands very quickly around an event. Last week, that  event was the commemoration of Yegor Sviridov, a fan of the Moscow soccer club “Spartak” who was murdered in during a brawl among soccer fans on December 6. The memorial turned riot, and the crowd attacked people from North Caucasian and Central Asian republics, with many injured and one killed [RUS]. This was the third memorial for Sviridov, and all were characterized by their xenophobia and dissatisfaction with a system of justice that failed to prosecute Sviridov's killers.

Blogosphere documents riots

Yegor Sviridov [RUS], a member of the fan group “Union”, was murdered according to witnesses [RUS] friendly with him by a group of eight men from the Caucasus. The witnesses assert that the men approached Sviridov and his friends, and after a short quarrel began shooting an automatic weapon, robbed them, and fled. One attacker, named Cherkesov, allegedly shot 12 times, one of which struck Sviridov in the head. He was quickly caught by the police. Police caught five other alleged attackers, but released them, reportedly due pressure from their relatives. RusNovosti provides their photos.

Earlier this year, a similar case provoked a peaceful protest. Yuri Volkov, a member of the fan group “Fratria” was killed in a street fight. His alleged killers were released and the case was closed.

The first rally for Sviridov took place on Kronshtadt boulevard in Moscow, where Sviridov was killed, and ended up blocking Leningradskiy prospect, a major thoroughfare. User ВАХНОВ shot a video of a crowd shouting “Russians, forward” and “Hey, get the f…k out of here”:

The second rally was peaceful, and held at the same place on the morning of December 11. Fans came with flowers and later  dispersed. Ilya Varlamov (aka LJ-user Zyalt) captured the moment:

Soccer fans commemorating Yegor Sviridov

Soccer fans commemorating Yegor Sviridov, photo by Ilya Varlamov

The third rally, just several hours later, turned into an a mass manifestation followed by assaults on people with non-Slavic appearance and clashes with police. User pakea2 uploaded a video of the clashes and assaults on single people with dark complexions:

Online mobilization

The riot has undoubtedly been the most discussed topic on RuNet in recent weeks. Besides the many political and ethnic implications of the riots, an important question is: how did such a large group of protesters mobilize?

Analysis of the largest soccer fan websites, such as fratria.ru, fanat1k.ru, and spartak.msk.ru, using available online data, shows that all increased in popularity. The figure below reveals that the main beneficiary was fanat1k.ru, meaning “fanatic”, a website linked to “Spartak” hooligans.

Popularity of the main "Spartak" fan websites

Popularity of the main "Spartak" fan websites

A forum message on fanat1k.ru was an early source of news about Sviridov's murder. It gathered almost 1,500 comments and nearly 200 pageviews. The language of this discussion was plainly racist and seemingly impelled a direct response rather than a discussion. User Zoidberg was one of the only commenters to propose at least investigate the case [RUS]. The following language comes from a view responding to him:

Какие на ху_й разбирательства могут быть?! Русский убит чеченцами, этим всё сказано!

What f…ng investigations can be made?! A Russian killed by Chechens (the same user wrote couple of messages prior to this, that Sviridov was killed by people from Dagestan), what else can be said!

Zoidberg received about 20 comments calling him Russophobic or stupid. Most of the other 1,500 comments were also laced with hatred and disappointment.

The statistical data of site attendance is important because it reveals that sites such as fanat1k.ru create environments that incite mass anger.

Commenters shared many links to neo-Nazi websites, suggesting that neo-Nazis might be behind the memorials. According to site data, however, the most vocal neo-Nazi websites did not compare to activity on the soccer fan websites. Eduard Limonov, leader of a radical leftist group, wrote that at the Manezh riot [RUS], the most active provocateurs weren't numerous, only about 50.

Various Vkontakte groups were created, many of them closed or invitation-only, including groups with five- to ten-thousand participants. They distributed anti-Caucasian posters and slogans. Examples can be found here [RUS] and here [RUS]. At the same time, Fratria, one of the largest fan groups, tried to stop the violence by denouncing support [RUS] for the memorial at Manezhnaya Square and calling on fans to stay out of the center of Moscow.

Several bloggers noted that the fan groups are connected to the Kremlin and often take sides against opposition political groups including an attack on environmentalists in summer 2010. Tacit support from the elite could explain the mobilization, though more documentation is needed. Oleg Kashin in his blog pointed out [RUS] that one of the organizers of the mob was a member of the pro-Kremlin youth movement “Nashi”. Blogger palmoliveprotiv noticed that one of the provocateurs was a former member of a pro-Kremlin regional movement. User anticompromat commented that at the end of the day, the main benificiary of the story was Vladimir Putin, since the riots showed everyone that Russia needed strong hand and “it was too early to give Russians full political rights”.

Conclusions

In 2008, Floriana Fossato, a renowned scholar of Russian media, wrote:

Nationalists simply did not want to seriously popularize their cause, even at a time of heightened political awareness and mobilisation, beyond their own circles. [...] A well-planned internet presence could do much to promulgate these views and launch propaganda campaigns across a much broader spectrum. But their world remains self-enclosed.

Now, ethno-nationalists have found a way to extend and merge their online and offline presence. Likewise, a merger between soccer fans and neo-Nazis is a global trend and exists in Italy, Germany and other countries. Alexander Tarasov, scholar of Russian nationalism, wrote [RUS] that the first steps for this merger in the Russian context began in 2001 and have been increasing. Economic crisis and recent unsolved murders influence that process and have contributed to the spreading of nationalist ideas to the online environment of soccer fans. The result: advocates for justice, responsible investigation, and legal reform have been drowned out by a simpler, more vicious, and ultimately dehumanizing rhetoric that neatly pairs with street violence.

“The leap from the murky online world of soccer fan and neo-Nazi forums that few outsiders were reading right into the spotlight”, as Veronika Khokhlova puts it, has taken place and is in danger of spreading. A subculture of mass fighting as a form of entertainment, in which “Caucasian” is synonymous with enemy, has emerged onto Russia's central square. Not even Russia's neutered and cowed television channels can ignore it, or misinterpret the message of its participants.

This post was re-published in Russian by the Ezhednevniy Zhurnal (Daily Journal) as part of a content partnership with Global Voices’ RuNet Echo.

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