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Before, ultra groups based in Ukraine had deep-rooted rivalries. But the events of 2014 pushed them to come together and, since then, they have been united in the face of a common enemy: the Russian neighbor. Decryption with Olga Ruzhelnyk, a researcher specializing in ultra-Ukrainian movements, who has finally returned to Paris after having lived through several days of anguish in Kharkiv.

First of all, how are you?
Now that I have returned to Paris with my mother, things are better. But in Kharkiv, we spent ten days in a cellar, suffering bombardments every two hours. We couldn’t rest or go out. It was psychological torture. With my mother, we ended up going to the station and we spent 36 hours on a train, without the possibility of lying down. My cousin stayed in kyiv, he is in the army and is very motivated to fight.

“The ultras were on the margins of society, they sent back a very bad image. But with Euromaidan and the conflict that followed, they achieved a form of normalization. »

As a researcher specializing in the study of ultra-Ukrainian movements, you will undoubtedly study their involvement in the war against Russia, right?
I will probably push for a post-doctorate, yes, and therefore continue my research on the subject (his thesis, defended in June 2021, is entitled Ultras of Ukrainian football and political reconfigurations around the Maidan: genesis and transformations of a collective political figure in post-Soviet UkraineEd). But there, I don’t have enough hindsight to express myself on current events, come back and ask me the question in a year and a half! The only thing I can say is that today all Ukrainians, ultras or not, are determined to defend their country.

How did the ultras react at the time of Euromaidan, between the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014?
At that time, students demonstrating against Viktor Yanukovych’s decision (close to the Kremlin, the Ukrainian president had chosen to suspend the association agreement between his country and the European Union, editor’s note) were victims of police violence. However, the police are the ultimate enemy of the ultra. The different groups saw it as an injustice and got involved to protect the demonstrators from the police. Then the war broke out in the Donbass. Many ultras then joined the paramilitary units engaged on the front, such as the Azov or Dnipro battalions, while retaining their subculture, their group spirit. Before, these supporters were on the margins of society, they sent back a very bad image. But with Euromaidan and the conflict that followed, they achieved a form of normalization. It remains to be seen whether this will be ephemeral or will last.

“Before Maidan, the ultras belonged to a group, which fought against the rival group or against the police. From 2014, they changed logic. »

We imagine, however, that there must be historical rivalries between groups, different political sensitivities. How to explain that they have been united for eight years?
There has been a “re-hierarchization” of identity. Before Maidan, the ultras belonged to a group, which fought against the rival group or against the police. I specify that in Ukraine, ultra and hooligan mean the same thing. From 2014, they changed logic. Ukrainian identity has become stronger than ultra identity. Take the example of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Metalist Kharkiv. Their groups of supporters had maintained a strong rivalry since the end of the USSR. It was a very violent hatred, really. But in the ranks of the Azov battalion, we found ultras from the Dnipro alongside those from the Metalist. They became fighters together. And without going so far as to take up arms, other rival groups organized joint marches before matches, behind the slogan “For United Ukraine”. It’s as if a truce was signed in 2014. The situation is similar to what happened in Turkey with Istanbul United in 2013. Fans of Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray and Beşiktaş united to take part to a protest movement. This shows that the ultra supporter can, in many countries, change his identity when the objective is political.

What about the attitude of the ultras of the clubs located in the separatist territories of Donbass (Shakhtar Donetsk, Zorya Luhansk), or in Crimea (FK Sevastopol, Tavria Simferopol)? Were they pro-Russian?
Absolutely not. They were extremely pro-Ukrainian, very patriotic, and they still are. Ultras from Shakhtar and Zorya have engaged against the separatist troops. In Crimea, the majority of ultras were classified personae non gratae by the Russian authorities after the annexation. Which means if they go back to the peninsula, they go straight to jail.

Zorya Luhansk supporters traveling to Rome in 2021.

“With the independence of Ukraine, the ultras became anti-Russian, anti-Kremlin and even anti-Moscow. »

Between the lines, we understand that distrust of Russia does not date from the annexation of Crimea.
It even goes back to the days of the Soviet Union. The ultras were anti-communists. With the independence of Ukraine, they became anti-Russian, anti-Kremlin and even anti-Moscow. This is also a fairly common feeling, which can also be found in other former socialist republics, such as the Baltic countries or Georgia. At the end of the USSR, there was an anti-Moscow union, with supporters of Dynamo kyiv, Dnipro, Lviv, Latvians Skonto Riga and Lithuanians Jalgiris Vilnius. When one of these teams faced a club from Moscow, the other ultras of this alliance came to support it.

Were there any bonds of friendship between Ukrainian and Russian ultra groups, despite everything?
There was a connection, yes. Before Euromaidan, the ultras of Chernomorets Odessa and Metalist Kharkiv were friends with a group from Spartak Moscow. But of course, all that has changed. Of course, even within the Russian groups, some supporters are against Vladimir Putin. But they are afraid. Moreover, it was seen recently: they preferred to wait five hours to take a last Big Mac (before the closure of all McDonald’s located in Russia, editor’s note) than to demonstrate against their president.

Dynamo kyiv supporters at the Parc des Princes in 2009.

Interview by Raphaël Brosse

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