Ukraine’s “ultras” are among the world’s most notorious football hooligans. As their country slides towards civil war, men who once engaged in bloody battles on the terraces are joining forces to fight the pro-Russian separatis. Marc Bennetts joins the fans of Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev for the final match of a season like no other.
I’m walking along a tree-lined street in Donetsk, east Ukraine, when a pro-Russia separatist fighter cradling an automatic weapon steps into view.
“Shit,” says Vova, a dark-haired national unity activist, who is my contact in the city. I follow his gaze and see that more rebel fighters are lurking in the doorways of nearby cafés. Vova was taken captive and interrogated by these wild-eyed gunmen in the weeks before my arrival here after being spotted translating for a foreign journalist, and he clearly has no wish to repeat the experience. He slows his pace, putting a respectable distance between us.
We slide by the rebel fighters and into the safety of a shadowy side-street. “I’ve seen these separatists hundreds of times, of course,” Vova tells me, lighting a cigarette. “But they’ve never been wandering around cafés like that before. Weird.” He shakes his head, and glances over at the nearest café, where a crowd is gathered around a big screen. “Is that football? Who’s playing?” he asks. It is, I tell Vova, whose passion for the beautiful game is almost as great as his desire for a united Ukraine, the Europa League final between Benfica and Sevilla. Vova sighs despairingly, one eye on the screen, one eye open for separatists. “I’ve missed so many big matches since all this idiocy started here,” he says.
It is both “this idiocy” and football that have drawn me to Donetsk, although not — you will be unsurprised to learn — the opportunity to peek at the Europa League final over the shoulders of pro-Kremlin gunmen. I am in town to speak to the ultras of Shakhtar Donetsk, the country’s most successful side of recent years, on the eve of the club’s Ukrainian Cup Final appearance. But first I have to find them. And that may not be so easy.
Ever since Shakhtar ultras took part in a pro-Ukraine rally in the city centre this spring, these hard-core football fans with a reputation for violent hooliganism have been targeted relentlessly by heavily-armed separatists. The same separatists who will, within weeks of my visit, gain instant international notoriety when they are suspected of shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, killing all 298 people on board.
The ultras’ photos and names have been posted on rebel websites, and some of their homes have been visited by insurgents wearing the black and orange ribbons of the pro-Russia movement. Appealing to the police for protection is not an option, even if the ultras — among whom a popular slogan is “all cops are bastards” — would contemplate such a thing.
What police officers there are left in this city of about one million people are believed to be handing over information on pro-Ukraine activists to the rebels. Outnumbered and outgunned, many ultras have already fled Donetsk, the largest city in the coal-mining Donbass region that stretches across a large part of east Ukraine. I can’t say I blame them. While both opinion polls and my own research indicate that far from a majority of locals support the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, the trigger-happy rebels have little, if any, tolerance for dissent.
“Who are these separatists? They are the dregs of society — lots of them are just well-known pissheads and junkies who never had anything,” said Svyat, a young ultra from the Donetsk region, when I spoke to him by telephone before my visit to the city. “Many are ex-cons and the like. When they attacked our unity march in Donetsk, I’d never seen so many people with prison tattoos in one place. Now they have picked up guns and are shouting ‘Donetsk People’s Republic!’”
But what Svyat fails to mention is that the ranks of the pro-Russia rebels also contain hardened fighters with experience in hot-spots across the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. Gunmen who have fought and killed in places like Bosnia and Chechnya. These are the men that Ukraine’s ultras — and not only in Donetsk — have picked a fight with. It is a far cry from scrapping it out on the terraces on match day. And so what I want to know is this: why are the ultras risking their lives to take sides in the battle for Ukraine?
Vova checks his phone for text messages. We are supposed to be meeting two young Shakhtar ultras, but there is no sign of them. We walk towards Donetsk’s main street, where rebels huddle in tents under a vast statue of Vladimir Lenin. By day, an uneasy calm rules the city, but at night the veneer of normality falls away. “Be careful,” a young man, drunk or perhaps not in his right mind, giggles when he sees us. “There are guys with machine guns around the corner!” He points in the direction of the local administration building, where the separatists have set up their chaotic HQ.
Donetsk was founded in the 1870s by — somewhat incongruously — a Welsh steel magnate named John Hughes, who accepted an invitation from the Russian Empire to build a metals factory in the region. The city originally bore his name: Hughesovka (or Yuzovka). There’s not much sign of the city’s debt to Britain today, though, save for a statue of a bearded Hughes and the high-profile Liverpool Hotel that no doubt thrilled the Manchester United fans who made the long journey here last autumn to see their side draw 1–1 with Shakhtar.
In modern-day Donetsk, it is another steel tycoon — Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, with a net worth of over £7.25bn — who runs things. Like many multibillionaire businessmen in this part of the world, Akhmetov has diverted some of his vast wealth into football. Since 1996, he has been the president of FC Shakhtar Donetsk, a position he obtained after his predecessor was assassinated in a match-day bomb blast.
A mysterious figure, Akhmetov has been accused of funding the rebels in a bid to protect his business interests in the Donbass region, although he went some way towards alleviating suspicions when he came out with a series of pro-Ukraine statements this spring. He remains widely loathed by Shakhtar’s ultras, however, who boycotted home games earlier this year after a number of fans were banned from the club’s state-of-the-art stadium over their anti-Putin chants. Shakhtar justified the ban by saying the club wanted to stay out of the political tensions tearing Ukraine apart, but for the ultras it was a betrayal of the highest degree.
“It’s tough enough taking on the separatists, without having to fight our own club, as well,” Oleksandr, a young Shakhtar ultra, says ahead of the cup final.
Vova’s phone buzzes. It is the two ultras. They have been at a meeting in the city’s suburbs to discuss plans for a pro-united Ukraine rally on the afternoon of the cup final, but are unable to make it through rebel checkpoints, which were reinforced earlier in the day for reasons no one is quite clear about. They promise to meet me before the big match, set to take place far from rebel-held Donetsk.
The cup final should be the biggest event of the 2013–’14 Ukrainian football season, with runaway league leaders Shakhtar looking to seal the domestic double with victory over their great rivals from the capital, Dynamo Kiev. But due to security concerns, the game is to be played in the quiet provincial town of Poltava, mid-way between Kiev and Donetsk. This is, as one English Premier League football fan in Kiev jokes, a bit like “Manchester United and Arsenal meeting in the FA Cup final in Hull. And on a Thursday.”
It’s incredible, though, that the game is even going ahead at all. Top level Ukrainian Premier League matches have already provided the spark for deadly violence in recent months. In the most horrific incident to date, 46 people were killed during clashes in the southern Ukrainian seaside city of Odessa ahead of a 2 May game between local side Chernomorets and Metalist Kharkiv. Fighting broke out when an angry pro-Russia crowd confronted a national unity rally, whose participants included tooled-up ultras from both teams.
The majority of the victims were separatist supporters who were burned alive after being trapped in the local trade union building. Vova was at the march, and he recalls how a pro-Ukraine supporter was shot dead in front of him. “No one knew what to do,” he tells me, as we wander the darkness of Donetsk in search of taxis. “The guy, just a kid really, was lying there in a pool of blood. So someone picked up his mobile phone and called his mum to tell her.”
Although football hooliganism was hardly unknown in the Soviet Union, it was not widespread. It was not until the Nineties that it began to take hold in Ukraine. At first, the English hooligan scene and its appetite for extreme violence was the undisputed role model for Ukraine’s fledgling firms. Over time, however, the influence of the far more expressive Italian ultras, with their massive banners and spectacular pyrotechnics, became increasingly dominant.
Today, while both groups remain an inspiration, Ukraine’s ultras perhaps have more in common with the revolutionary football fans who so memorably united at anti-government protests in Egypt and Turkey in recent years. It might sound strange, but football has taken a back seat for Ukraine’s most passionate and high-profile fans.
No one knows how many ultras there are today in Ukraine. The Ukrainian ultras group on VKontakte (the Facebook of the former Soviet states) has some 50,000 members, but not all of them are ultras, or even reside in Ukraine — merely supporters. I’ve heard estimates of anywhere between 15,000 and 30,000 (“but a few thousand of those are girls and kids,” a Dynamo Kiev ultra told me, apologetically).
Up until the present crisis, Ukraine’s justifiably maligned ultras were renowned for little more than frequent match-day violence and their far-right views. Indeed, in the run-up to Euro 2012, co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine, former Arsenal, Tottenham and Portsmouth defender Sol Campbell warned black England fans they risked “coming back in a coffin”.
But as Ukraine lurched into political crisis earlier this year, the ultras, like almost everyone else in this country of 46m people, were pulled into the maelstrom. Remaining on the sidelines was increasingly impossible, especially for such a potentially powerful force. As one ultra told me, quoting a popular saying here: “If you don’t get interested in politics, then politics will get interested in you.”
The options were clear-cut: support President Viktor Yanukovych, who had, under heavy pressure from neighbouring Russia, backed out of a deal that would have put Ukraine on the path to EU membership in favour of closer ties with Moscow, or side with the protesters who had taken to Kiev’s Maidan square to demand the return of their “European future”. For some ultras, particularly those in Kiev and the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country, the choice was simple.
“We’d followed our club and the national side to Europe — to London, Berlin, Paris and so on — and we’d seen how people live there,” recalled Kirill, a hulking, yet remarkably erudite 28-year-old Dynamo Kiev ultra, when I met him near Maidan square ahead of my trip to Donetsk. “It was a real eye-opener. Many of us asked ourselves, ‘How come living standards are so much better there?’ We wanted the same for our own country. When Yanukovych decided to tear up the EU deal and take us closer to Russia, we realised we had to do something or slip back into the Soviet past.”
When the pro-Europe protesters were beaten senseless — and at times worse — by members of the elite Berkut (Golden Eagle) police unit, the ultras decided the time had come to take a stand. Following an online vote, they pledged to defend Maidan’s activists from both the “bastard sellout” police and the Titushky, hired pro-Yanukovych bully boys. Even more remarkably, the ultras also announced a truce in inter-club hostilities. Seasons-long enmities were forgotten as the ultras united for a common cause.
Until Ukraine’s future was resolved, there would be no fighting on or off the terraces, no insulting chants about opposing clubs, no “hunting” for the scarves and banners of rival supporters, and no graffiti wars. In a startling show of discipline, even those many ultras who were hostile to the EU — loathed across much of Eastern Europe for its “gay parades” and tolerance of same-sex marriages — agreed to the deal.
“There is no common position on EU membership among ultras,” Andrei Korenevsky, a shaven-headed 30-year old who is one of the leaders of Dynamo Kiev’s ultras, told me when I chatted to him online. “We did what we did because we considered this was the correct way to act. And we will continue until the situation in our country is stable.”
The truce was a genuine sensation, one made even more astonishing by the decision of ultras from the Russian-speaking east to sign up. After all, cities across the Donbass region, including Donetsk, the president’s hometown, should have been Yanukovych strongholds. Their decision to side with the pro-Ukraine movement put paid to the Kremlin-run media’s pernicious lie that the Donbass was overwhelmingly seeking to secede to Mother Russia.
“Putin and Yanukovych brought everyone together against them. Even people who hated each other and would never have even spoken before,” said Kirill, who combines his ultra activities with his “day job” as a financial expert. “Suddenly, football didn’t seem so important anymore. We realised that instead of fighting each other, we had to fight for the future of our country.”
Before the truce, Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar ultras had been involved in some of the most spectacular football-related violence in Ukraine. But the alliance between the once-bitter enemies was cemented when ultras from the clubs played a match at Dynamo’s vast Olympic Stadium after their scheduled league game was postponed over the unstable security situation.
“We turned up and saw that the Donetsk guys were good, normal Ukrainians,” Kirill says. “Plus they said straight off that they were in favour of a united Ukraine.”
What was the score?
“One–all,” smiled Kirill. “Most matches between ultras tend to end in a draw. So that no one gets upset, you know?”
Yanukovych was finally toppled in February, after days of harrowing violence that culminated in the deaths of around 100 protesters. Ultras were at the thick of things, with one fan suffering serious injuries as he tried to throw a nail-studded grenade back towards police lines. With Yanukovych deposed, the epicentre of the struggle for Ukraine then shifted east, where a patchwork of militia groups opposed to the new authorities — dubbed “fascists” by Russian media because of the presence of far-right groups within the ranks of the Maidan activists — began seizing local administration buildings.
Although there was no clear evidence that Moscow was arming the rebels, many of the separatist leaders were Russian nationals, at least one of whom had links to the Kremlin’s military intelligence. Simultaneously, thousands of Russian troops began massing on the border. For the ultras, this was when things got really serious.
Yanukovych had been a daunting opponent, but now the ultras were pitting themselves against the greatest power in the former Soviet republics — Vladimir Putin. They responded to the challenge by coming up with an insanely catchy, wildly obscene chant about the ex-KGB agent. In late March, scores of ultras in east Ukraine’s Kharkiv bellowed the phrase, “Putin khuilo! La, la, la, la, la, la!” at a march in support of national unity. The chant is perhaps best translated as “Putin is a fucking dickhead! La, la, la, la, la, la,” although it loses something of its wanton obscenity in its English-language rendering. Online footage of the chant went viral.
Within three months, Ukraine’s newly appointed foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, would be filmed uttering the phrase to the delight of an angry crowd that had gathered outside the Russian embassy in Kiev. “Yeah, yeah, Putin is a fucking dickhead,” said Deshchytsia, in what he would later claim was an attempt to tame the passions of the mob. Russian diplomats were unconvinced by his explanation and vowed never to speak to Deshchytsia again. Ultra culture had entered the political mainstream.
But offensive songs were not the ultras’ only weapon. As the conflict intensified in eastern Ukraine, ultras across the country began volunteering for units such as the Azov Battalion, a nationalist group of fighters tolerated by the new authorities in Kiev. By late June, around 100 ultras were active on the battlefields around Donetsk. Others, such as the Dynamo Kiev ultra Kirill, were busy raising funds to purchase much-needed supplies for both Azov militia and the woefully under-equipped military.
“Everyone knows what kind of army we have,” Kirill said. “Those officials have spent years pocketing money that should have been used for the military, and our soldiers are being sent there without even basic gear, without flak jackets, helmets — even food in some cases.”
Life in a combat zone is a far cry from mixing it up on the terraces, however. Did the ultras marching off to war understand the seriousness of what they were getting into? And the possible consequences? “Of course,” replied Kirill, grimly. “We all understand that the rebels are shooting live ammo, not just chucking rocks.”
The “Putin khulio!” chant gets another airing in the hours before the 2014 cup final, as hundreds of ultras march through the pleasant streets of Poltava. Masked ultras from Kiev and Donetsk, as well as local side Vorskla, hold burning flares and nationalist banners aloft as they brush past local police and towards Poltava’s crumbling, concrete bowl of a stadium. Another popular chant is “If you’re not jumping, you’re a Moskal” — a centuries-old term of abuse for those Russians considered imperialists.
“I’ve got nothing against Russians,” insists Volodymyr, a lanky Shakhtar ultra who bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Tim Roth. “We all have relatives and friends there. I’m half-Russian myself. But most people in Russia believe all the lies on Kremlin TV channels, and there is no point in even talking to them anymore.”
I ask him what will happen if Shakhtar are drawn against a Russian club in Europe next season. After all, since the crisis in Ukraine began, Russia’s ultras have lined up behind Putin, whose domestic approval rating has shot through the roof since Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March. Relations between Russian and Ukrainian ultras, always tense, have plummeted perhaps even further than ties between Moscow and Kiev.
“I’ll go to Russia to support my club, of course,” Volodymyr replies. “But there will be bloodshed, that’s for sure. How could there not be?”
Even here, in the decidedly pro-Ukrainian city of Poltava, where separatism is an alien sentiment and the country’s blue and yellow flags fly from almost every building, Shakhtar’s ultras are wary. Most refuse to give their surnames, and one glances down nervously at my Dictaphone to make sure I’m not somehow filming our interview.
“We don’t walk around Donetsk like this, of course,” laughs Taras, a hefty Shakhtar ultra dressed in the club’s bright orange and black strip. “It’s getting harder and harder for us to stay in the city. Some of us have already been hospitalised by the separatists. I’ve got friends in hospital with cracked skulls, broken legs and so on.”
Despite the obvious commitment of the Shakhtar ultras to their cause, few are able to articulate precisely the reasons that have led to them risking their lives. It’s tempting to suspect that, for some, their participation in the national unity campaign is little more than an excuse for a fight. But although clashes with the separatists and their supporters are extemely violent, the inter-club truce actually means the ultras are involved in fewer clashes over the season, not more. The reason for their involvement boils down, it seems, to a fervent patriotism twinned with a desire to defend Ukraine from “outsiders”.
“Lots of people might have been surprised when we joined the national unity pact,” adds Bohgan, a bearded ultra with an intense stare. “But we are Ukrainian patriots. Putin might think that Ukraine is just a part of Russia, but this is our motherland and we are ready to defend it.”
To the death?
“To the death,” replies another ultra. He looks away when I ask if he is planning to also take up arms. “That’s not for an interview,” he tells me, and strides off to join his fellow ultras as they stream into the stadium.
The match starts with a flurry of chances, as both sides look to snatch an early goal. But events on the pitch are far less captivating than the action on the terraces, where Shakhtar and Kiev fans are busy engaging in another remarkable display of inter-club unity.
“Kiev!” chant the Shakhtar Donetsk fans. “Donetsk!” comes the instant response from the Dynamo side of the ground. This ultra lovefest continues for a good five minutes, before the fans break into more Putin-baiting. After this, their target becomes the Donetsk People’s Republic: “Fuck them in the mouth!” chant the fans.
The politics is only interrupted briefly when Dynamo open the scoring in the 40th minute, Shakhtar defender Oleksandr Kucher nodding the ball into his own net. Dynamo increase their lead from a well-worked free-kick just before the half-time whistle, when Croatian midfielder Domagoj Vida heads home. Even though their dream of the league and cup double seems to be slipping away, Shakhtar’s ultras remain focused on the task at hand: there is no let-up in the national unity chants. “Shit,” one emotional Shakhtar fan says into his mobile phone at the break. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Mutual support, that’s what’s going on here. Mutual support, fuck.”
Shakhtar grab one back with around half-an-hour to play, when Brazilian midfielder Douglas Costa nips through Dynamo’s static back four to fire hard and low into the bottom left-hand corner of the net. But the joy on the Shakhtar side of the stadium is short-lived. Just minutes after Costa’s goal, a shout goes up to my left. With one hand, an ultra is holding aloft a black bag decorated with the black, blue and red flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic emblem.
His other is clasped around the neck of the bag’s owner, a teenage Shakhtar fan. “What the fuck is this?” the ultra yells. The frightened fan reaches out to grab back his bag. Within seconds, ultras are upon him. Fists and boots lash out. The teen is hustled away by ultras. Security is nowhere to be seen. I never find out what happened to the fan.
Shakhtar are unable to find an equaliser, and the game ends with victory for Dynamo Kiev. After the Dynamo players have accepted the trophy, a number of them walk over to the Shakhtar fans and applaud them. The Shakhtar fans roar back their approval with a long, sustained chant of “Kiev!” Ten minutes after the final whistle, Dynamo’s winger, Ukrainian international Oleh Husyev, reemerges from the dressing room and again makes his way to the Shakhtar ultras. “Glory to Ukraine!” he shouts, the first line in a famous Maidan square chant. “Glory to the heroes!” bellow the ultras, in response. It is, perhaps, the most amazing thing I have ever seen at a football stadium.
“I know how hard the Shakhtar fans have it right now in their region,” a thoughtful Husyev tells Ukrainian TV after the game. “I couldn’t get their own players to go over to them, though.”
Shakhtar have been denied the double, but there are few signs of disappointment on the faces of the Donetsk ultras. Instead, they join the Dynamo fans outside the stadium to chant and sing songs of unity and resistance. I eventually head back to my hotel room: the cries of “Putin is a fucking dickhead, la, la, la, la, la, la,” go on long into the night.
The conflict tearing Ukraine apart will leave scars that will take at least a generation to heal. Yet Ukraine’s ultras, who have stood together on the battlefields of Maidan and the Donetsk region, will find it hard to return to their old ways, once the crisis is over.
“I can’t imagine that after all we have been through together, we will be able to go back to kicking the shit out of each other again,” said Andriy, a masked Shakhtar ultra, after the game. “This crisis has changed our outlook on things. Football is no longer a matter of life and death.