When Russia won the right to host the 2018 World Cup back in December 2010, one of the first potential issues raised was that of racism. For many foreign observers, the Russia Federation is an isolationist country inhabited by an entirely white, Slavic population with little tolerance for anything or anyone they deem to be strange, foreign, or clearly different to their expected norm.
Of course, such generalisations are far wide of the mark. Since tsarist times, Russia has been an empire, union or nation with huge ethnic diversity – with a landmass stretching from the Germanic port city of Kaliningrad in the West to the island of Sakhalin, once the subject of great border disputes with Japan, in the East, there is little wonder that modern Russia’s population from homogeneous, especially when the large numbers of migrants from the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia are taken into account.
Conversely, it cannot be said that Russia is a leading light when it comes to racial tolerance and ethnic harmony. There is particular hypocrisy regarding those of North Caucasian appearance – they are regarded as immigrants despite the fact that the region has been under Russian or Soviet control for many years, and that the Moscow government has been particularly keen for this to remain the case, as can be seen in the two wars in Chechnya and the continued battle against insurgency and independence in Dagestan and Ingushetia in recent years.
How far racism can be attributed to Russia as a whole, and how much fault is to be placed at the door of the individual, is something which is difficult if not impossible to judge. However, it is worth mentioning that there are certain towns and cities within Russia that have developed a particular reputation for intolerance, and tellingly the two most often mentioned are Moscow and St Petersburg. Of course with these two cities more regularly falling under the gaze of the Western media than Perm or Ekaterinburg, for example, this much is to be expected, but even within the relatively small sphere of football there is sufficient cause for concern.
The most high profile incident of recent times occurred in last week’s Premier League match between Lokomotiv and Anzhi, the latter’s star January signing and new centre back, Congolese international Chris Samba, was the intended target of a banana thrown from the crowd, with rumours suggesting that the offending fruit may have come from a VIP section of the Moscow crowd. In response, Samba expressed his sadness at the incident taking place before children, but was keen to emphasise that he was not branding all Russian fans as racist, instead upset with the actions of the individual in question.
Whilst Samba’s restraint is admirable, a fact stated publiced by the head of the All-Russian Supporters’ Union, to limit racism in Russia to a single act is perhaps a little too far in the other direction. The previous Monday, First Division side Torpedo Moscow were fined and instructed to play their next home game behind closed doors after Alania’s Ivorian full back Dacosta Goore was subjected to racist chanting and pelted with snowballs. This is not the first time Torpedo have been sanctioned this season – Khimki’s Wattara Boligibia was the victim of similar verbal abuse back in September, with a smaller punishment dealt out by the authorities. Even for a second offence within the same season, Torpedo have been fined just over £1,000, a paltry sum for a club with a dubious record.
Although it is not just the lower leagues which attract racist elements, it would appear that Moscow in particular is a something of a centre of football-based racism. Whilst this is understandable given the greater number of clubs in the capital, it does not the excuse the incidents – Spartak’s star brazilian striker Welliton was greeted with a racist banner by his own fans on his debut in 2007, former CSKA talisman Vagner Love often spoke about the issue to the international press, whilst one-time Lokomotiv defender Andre Bikey felt so unsafe in the city that he resorted to carrying a gun with him on a daily basis. Similarly, naturalised Cameroonian full back Jerry-Christian Tchuisse was withdrawn from the Russian national squad in 2000 due to pressure from right-wing groups, and Roberto Carlos has twice been the victim of banana-throwing since signing for Anzhi, in St Petersburg and Samara. Recent events suggest the problem is far from solved.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to progress is the simple refusal to accept blame for the incident. Whilst supporters’ groups have been open in their disappointment at recent incidents, responses from higher authorities have been disappointing at past. Lokomotiv chairwoman Olga Smorodskaya refused to acknowledge the incident, and it is not the first time the club has tried to escape a situation – in 2010, when a banner emblazoned with a banana appeared at the ground thanking West Brom for purchasing Nigerian forward Peter Odemwingie, club director Alexei Sokorin explained the situation by claiming that ‘to get a banana’ is an idiomatic phrase meaning ‘to fail a test,’ something which is unverified anywhere else.
Sokorin now plays a pivotal role in Russia’s 2018 World Cup organisation, perhaps an indication of how seriously the Russian Football Union are taking the issue. However, as long as the fines remain minimal, the responses ambiguous and the priority low, it appears unlikely that Russian football and society in general will have changed sufficiently in time for 2018. Whether the latest incidents provide a catalyst for the authorities to clamp down and act on fan racism remains to be seen.