As Russia campaigned to host soccer's World Cup in 2018, it readily admitted its weaknesses bad stadiums, weak infrastructure, a shortage of diehard fans. But one problem went unmentioned until the campaign was over: The violent xenophobia that is permeating the country's soccer culture. On Dec. 11, just nine days after Russia's bid was accepted, thousands of soccer fans took part in a race riot in Moscow, targeting migrants to the city from the North Caucasus. Dozens of people were beaten in the street. Now, if Russia wants to host a successful tournament, it will need to rein in the nationalist groups recruiting among the fans, and so far, it is off to a losing start.
Three nationalist leaders interviewed by TIME say their work with soccer fan clubs has been boosted by the riots, which saw the first mass street action by thousands of skinheads and other right-wing soccer fans. Several smaller rallies have followed, where kids as young as 14 throw Hitler salutes, chanting "Russia for Russians, Moscow for Muscovites," and beating up immigrants they pass on the streets. Several migrants have been stabbed or beaten to death.
Nearly 3,000 youths have been detained by police over the past ten days on suspicion of staging more illegal rallies or plotting racist attacks. Many of them were found on the street bearing knives, clubs, air guns and, most common of all, the trademark scarves of Russia's soccer teams. Simply being seen wearing a soccer scarf is enough today to get one frisked by the platoons of riot police patrolling Moscow.
Vladimir Kvachkov, a retired Russian military intelligence colonel, is one of the nationalist leaders who stands to gain from the clashes. In November, three months after being acquitted on charges of attempted murder of Anatoly Chubais, Russia's former privatization chief, Kvachkov went into politics. A gifted rabble-rouser, he launched a nationalist movement called the People's Liberation Front of Russia whose aim is to "free" the country from Jewish and North Caucasian "occupiers". The tech-savvy nationalists have shown a flair for packaging their message for Russian youth by using YouTube-style videos and Russian rap music.
"When these young people went out onto the streets, they were not just football fans, they were not out there rooting for their team," Kvachkov tells TIME. "They were shouting ... slogans that highlight their national identity. So naturally they turned to us after this... This was just the beginning."
On Dec. 19, Kvachkov met with other nationalist leaders and right-wing soccer fans. And an online video of the meeting showed him making an appeal to Russia's youth: "We Russian nationalists, the initiators of the people's front, we are telling you that the events of Dec. 11 are the beginning of the revolutionary changes in Russia, the first outbursts of the approaching Russian revolution... You are the ones who can participate in it."
The government's efforts to counteract nationalist plans to harness the passions of soccer fans have so far looked half-hearted. Senior officials have bizarrely blamed the riots on "liberals" and "left-wing radicals," the usual targets of government ire. The "Youth of Russia" program, a sort of national guidance counseling organization, did not come up with any "specific proposals" to deal with the problem at its Dec. 20 meeting to discuss its five-year plan.
Russia's soccer fan associations have seemed equally helpless in the face of nationalist influence, even though expressions of racism can get their teams banned from European competitions. During a match last year, some Spartak Moscow fans hung a banner with a swastika and a birthday greeting to Adolf Hitler. The Spartak fan club disowned what they called a "repulsive provocation". But asked about outbursts of racism in the stands, Lena Sekhina, a representative of the Spartak fan club Fratria, told TIME, "I can't watch over each person, how they live and what views they uphold."
Judging by the comments in online fan forums, soccer in Russia has become as it has elsewhere in Europe a magnet for an almost fascist backlash to social changes. What caused it to spill onto Russia's streets was the death of Yegor Svidirov, a Spartak fan murdered in a street brawl on Dec. 6. His suspected killers were from the Caucasus, whose ethnic groups are often reviled as "blacks" in Moscow. All but one of them were released on the night of Sviridov's death after allegedly bribing police. This sparked a wave of mass demonstrations that culminated on Dec. 11 with the riots at the Kremlin walls. "Who if not us will put the blacks in their place," one fan wrote on the Fratria site, calling himself Red-White01, a reference to the Spartak colors. But many fans strongly disagree: The day before, another user had written on the site, "Russians... do I really share blood with these monsters? Nazis should die!"
It's hard to tell which attitude predominates among the fans. Fratria spokeswoman Lekhina says the radical right makes up a tiny minority. But Evgeny Valyaev, a leader of the nationalist group Russky Obraz, told TIME that soccer fans and nationalists have become "completely intertwined", claiming that about 80% of fans back the nationalist cause.
On Tuesday, 10 days after the Moscow riots, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin finally intervened. At a meeting with soccer fan clubs from around the country, he admitted that Russia's immunity to nationalism had "begun to weaken." Russia's strength, he argued, is in its many ethnic groups, "but if we don't understand how to approach that strength, if we run around like crazy with a baseball bat, we will destroy it." He then went across town to lay flowers at the grave of the murdered Spartak fan, Sviridov, most of whose alleged killers have now been re-arrested.
For now, the heavily policed streets have gone quiet. "They've managed to put out the fire on the streets," says Kvachkov. "But it's now simply gone underground, and its still spreading." The past two weeks has seen almost daily instances around the country of soccer fans, some as young as 14, arrested for beating and stabbing immigrants. By the time World Cup comes to Russia, these kids will be young adults, and it will take a powerful government effort to steer them away from the nationalist movement. FIFA, the game's international governing body expressed confidence, following the Dec. 11 riots, that the Russian authorities would make the necessary security arrangements to ensure a successful tournament. But if Russia seems unable to guarantee the safety of the hundreds of thousands of fans from all corners of the globe who typically converge on the world's largest sporting event, FIFA could come under pressure to move the tournament to a less hostile environment. So it's not just the safety of the country's ethnic minorities, but also Russian prestige that's on the line as the government takes on the nationalist challenge.