MOSCOW — The Bloody Sunday of June 9 took Moscow by surprise. Nobody expected a mob of soccer fans, upset by the performance of the national team, to launch a drunken rampage barely 100 meters away from President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin residence. The outburst of violence lasted for several hours, leaving people beaten up, cars destroyed, high-end shops vandalized and Muscovites bewildered and angry.
Not that it was the first soccer riot in Moscow. Back in the Soviet days, the fans of the Spartak soccer team caused trouble after each spectacular victory or defeat of their club. Yet in comparison with the June 9 mob, the Spartak fans were almost peaceful. They would clog an entrance to a subway station chanting “Spartak is number one!”, then march in without paying the fare and maybe haze a group of fans of a rival team. Their raving would disrupt commuters for an hour or so and that would be the end of it. The police, who prepared for every important Spartak match, regarded its fans as a major nuisance but knew that their aggression could be easily controlled. On June 9, the Moscow police encountered a new breed of soccer fans. Whereas the Spartak boys had been silly, the June 9 attackers were vicious.
It is hard to say what made the riots so brutal. The amount of alcohol consumed by youths watching an outdoor broadcast of a World Cup match? But Moscow had seen drunken mobs before. Every year, Paratrooper Day and Navy Day see a drinking frenzy all over the city, and the drunken soldiers and sailors routinely devastate a kiosk or two before crawling back home to their angry wives and girlfriends. Yet, they have never crossed the borderline between debauchery and rioting.
Was it the fact that the Russians had been defeated by a relatively weak foreign rival? But that had happened before in sports, to say nothing of Russia’s painful military defeat by tiny, rebellious Chechnya. Aversion to foreigners? But the majority of the people beaten up and cars destroyed were Russian.
Most of the attackers were young working-class males. To be young and and working class in today’s Moscow means to live in an impoverished neighborhood devastated by the worst of two worlds — Soviet communism and Russian capitalism.
Soviet civilization supplied the people with obsessive drinking habits and a taste for domestic violence and machismo. It also taught them to distrust upward social mobility and education. Having tamed — or maybe a better word would be “lobotomized” — the working class, the Soviet regime tolerated the unruliness of the suburbs as long as the violence did not spill over into the downtown. Now it finally has.
The fathers of the June 9 rioters in all likelihood were Spartak fans. Mob psychology presumably hasn’t changed since then but Russia has. Russian cities, Moscow included, used to have a fairly uniform architectural and social fabric. Downtown Moscow was just as colorless and dull as any working-class slum. A rampage amid the newsstands selling Pravda and Collective Farm Woman magazine made no sense. The stores on Tverskaya Street, devastated June 9, used to sell horrible pasta. Who would have been interested in hitting them? According to the report, the June 9 rioters uprooted parking meters. The fact that there used to be no parking meters in the Soviet Union makes this a metaphor for the country’s immense social changes.
In monetary terms, the Spartak fans of the 1970s were doing just as well or just as bad as the rest of Muscovites. In 2002, their sons are doing much worse than the people who had parked their cars on Tverskaya Street. Ten years ago there was no need for parking meters in Moscow as there were relatively few cars. Now the city is choking with traffic because of the money wild capitalism has delivered to the newly rich. City space is no longer public and parking meters represent a new Russian law: Money rules. The stores hit June 9 included Tiffany and Ecco, which are absolutely off limits for the rank-and-file. In 2002, Tverskaya Street is a lush advertisement for Russian capitalism — and this is probably why it was struck.
The fact that the riots were provoked by a foreign team’s victory is bad news as well. Putin was unable to improve the living standards of the people in the slums but he did his best to enhance their national self-esteem. For nearly three years Russians have been exposed to nationalistic propaganda; on June 9 the fruits of this effort were harvested. In this sense, the soccer riots are a classic case of unintended consequences. It is unlikely that Putin anticipated a bacchanalia under the Kremlin walls when he started boosting the Russian national ego.
Many Muscovites were terrified by the outburst of violence. Many recalled the phrase coined by Alexander Pushkin, the founder of Russian literature, 200 years ago: “God forbid we see a quintessential Russian riot, senseless and merciless.” For two decades analysts have been warning about a possible emergence of Russian fascism, and though the June 9 rioting was a far cry from that, it still had three things in common with fascism: Hatred of foreigners, egalitarianism and unbridled aggression.
For Putin, the riots pose a tough problem. On one hand, they were born out of patriotism and the quest for social justice, which are both part of his program. On the other, they challenge his concept of law and order and stability. But on the more practical side, what can he do now? Jail the rioters? Cancel outdoor broadcasts of all sport events? Preach nonviolence and tolerance? Or just park a police car at every meter?
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