Russian football and Racism: Shifting the Paradigm

Domm Norris reports on how the issue of racism in Russian football must be considered in a wider historical context, and the potential for positive change.

'To live anywhere in the world today and be against equality because of race or color is like living in Alaska and being against snow.' William Faulkner

Racism is an ancient form of thinking - often traced back to the Late Antiquity period of around the 5th century - whose historical progression can be easily traced within the Russian Empire (which existed between 1721 and 1917). This is because a number of well-publicised cases against the Empire have been documented. The history of the Russian Empire's perception of the other races which inevitably congregated within the nation as it rapidly expanded shows a lack of interest towards alternative ideas of nationalism as the Russian monarchy sought a national identity for their Empire. The attempted annihilation of Islam from its borders is one example of how the nation attempted to emphasise the growing need for a collective identity.

Such an issue came to a head because thousands of residents of Tatarstan had converted from Islam to Christianity following the fall of their capital Kazan. Over time, a significant number wished to be permitted to return to their Islamic roots. The Russian Empire refused to recognise such conversions and thus many of the Tatars were left 'unofficially' practising the Islamic faith until 1905 when the restrictions were finally lifted.

The story of the Udmurt people during the 1890s is also an example of the Russian Empire's will to force the idea of a collective identity; the Udmurts were put on trial and stood accused of a ritual killing of a Russian citizen. Ivan Smirnov - a Russian 'intellect' - became heavily involved with the case as he was a self-proclaimed expert on the people of the region of Volga. His analysis placed the Udmurt people in a position where they were deemed to be at a lower stage of cultural development compared with Russians. The Udmurts were therefore ordered to undergo a process of complete assimilation into the society of the Great Russian people.

The campaign against the Udmurts was an expression of domination by the Russian Empire; a means of asserting their authority against a group of people who were seen as less socially and economically developed. As historian Robert Gerac states; 'In more general terms, having an empire meant having other peoples at one's disposal to identify as always inferior to the Russians.'

These are merely a couple of examples of how the Russian Empire managed to entrench elements of discrimination within the psyche of the nation. Punishments against Jews and Ukrainians were also extremely prevalent. As the Russian Empire fell during the revolution of 1917 - and the consequent formation of the Soviet Union came to fruition - racism became a somewhat less significant issue. The accumulation of many different races within the Union helped establish a more tolerant society and the government even went as far as to profess the 'equality of all citizens regardless of status, sex, race, religion, and nationality'.

To say that racism was banished during the era of the Soviet Union would be untrue however, as Stalin's 'Great Purge' saw a great number of racially-motivated attacks and a number of genocides against ethnic minorities. In spite of such actions it is logical to suggest that while racism remained entrenched in society it was not promoted anywhere near as extensively within the mainstream of Soviet life.

However the growth of racism within Russian society is an issue that returned in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, consequently infiltrating the sporting world. The economic downturn, the horrendous conflicts in Chechnya and uncontrolled migration all helped to usher in a new wave of radical racial feeling. As the Soviet Union becomes a distant memory and we enter a generation that holds few memories of such a time a new, entirely Russian, identity can be said to be emerging.

Whereas previously the Soviet identity encapsulated a huge variety of ethnic origins, presently Russia does not hold such diversity. It could be argued for instance that there is a diminishing tolerance toward people from the southern areas of the former Soviet Union. The Chechnyan wars have also helped create a sense of animosity towards the Islamic faith and those deemed as being 'non Slav'. Such overwhelming political and social issues have served to thrust racism into the mainstream of Russian life - a position where football precariously perches.

Football has therefore found itself deeply identified with the issues surrounding racism in Russia – a problem exacerbated by hooliganism, which has become an issue that only Russian society can help to eradicate. It is difficult to overcome the historical entrenchment of ideas and beliefs. However, as the World Cup approaches that is just what the Russian Football Union are attempting to do.

For the first time the games' governing body are to attempt to punish football clubs directly for the behaviour of their supporters. The RFU have established that Moscow and St Petersburg are the 'hotbeds' of such racist behaviour - where incidentally the nation's biggest football clubs are located. The RFU is likely to deduct six points from any club whose fans are found guilty of racial abuse during a game. Such a deterrent would aid the process of abolishing racism from the stands - however removing such racism from society itself is a problem that is too large an issue for the RFU to contemplate tackling. However by taking a strong stance against such actions the Russian game can only benefit and in turn move forward.

The historical nature of racism is an issue that cannot simply be wiped clean overnight. The social and political impact of the past is a huge hurdle that no one organisation can overcome. However with the RFU taking a firm stance against racism, perhaps this can be the beginning of a new, more tolerant era of Russian racial relations - with football at the heart of such change.

To read more from Domm, visit his blog, Football Globe, and follow him on Twitter @footballglobe.