Moscow, Russia – When Murat Mizov heard he was getting a ticket for the opening game of the World Cup between Russia and Saudi Arabia, he was ecstatic.
The day of the match, Zaur Apshev, an MP from the local parliament in Kabardino-Balkaria, a small Russian republic in the North Caucasus, called him to say he had an extra ticket for him.
He wanted Mizov, the head of the ultras movement of Spartak Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria’s main football club, to be there with him to represent the republic. The only requirement was that he bring flags from home.
“I had them all! I had the Russian flag with Nalchik written on it, the Kabardin/Circassian flag, the Balkar flag, the Kabardino-Balkaria flag,” Mizov says. When he got to Luzhniki Stadium, he lined them up along the railing of the lower stand to the left of the Saudi goal line.
It was in front of a jubilant Mizov and his flags that the Russian team celebrated their first two goals in the match.
Unlikein Russia, Mizov was not barred from attending World Cup matches by the Russian authorities. And, unlike many of them, he does not fit the profile of the racist ethno-nationalist Russian ultra international media warned about ahead of the sporting event.
In fact, he has spent more than 20 years promoting comradery and acceptance in football stands.
The ultras movement he founded in 1997 in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, embraced diversity and anti-racism and eventually became a rallying point for many anti-fascist football fans.
When Mizov was still in middle school, he would watch, enthralled, the rare footage of English Premier League matches that would make it onto Soviet TV.
“I liked the crowds of fans, how they sang, how they did their choreography – this really excited me, though no one else found it interesting,” he said.
By the time he got into university, Mizov was already playing for a local football team and dreaming of having an ultras club like the English ones he had heard about. He found like-minded fellow students and in 1997 together they created the “Red-White Djigits” – red-white for Spartak Nalchik’s colours and dzhigits (a Turkic word meaning a man skilful in horseback riding and weapon-wielding) for who they were – men of the Caucasus. Soon after, Mizov and his friends started to draw their first banners and design their logo and first fan gear to use at Spartak Nalchik’s matches in the lower divisions.
At that time, just 150km east of Kabardino-Balkaria, the grossly unpopular war in Chechnya had just ended, afterforced into mandatory conscription and tens of thousands of civilians. Two years later, the Second Chechen War would start, unleashing a deadly uprising in the North Caucasus and triggering a string of attacks across Russia.
Meanwhile, in Russia’s bigger cities in the north, the ultras movement was growing and evolving rapidly. Neo-fascist and neo-Nazi elements had already seeped into its organisations, with swastikas on banners and Nazi salutes by fans a regular sight during matches. Violent clashes started erupting in stadiums across the country with Russian police struggling to control them.
The toxic combination of two successive wars, economic crisis, organised crime and the unabated rise of the far right would solidify anti-Caucasian and anti-Muslim sentiments at football stands and among the general population.
By the mid-2000s the far right in Russia would be at its peak, reigning over stadiums and streets across the country, with the number of violent hate crimes increasing dramatically.almost a third of those murdered by racist and neo-Nazi groups were from the North Caucasus.
It was around that time that Spartak Nalchik made it into Russia’s top division, the Premier League, and Mizov’s growing ultras group hit the road to support their team at away games. From Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan, the Red-White Djigits were exposed to hate and constant threats of violence.
“All of Russia hates our fans […] because for them we are ‘hachi’, ‘churki’, we are from the Caucasus,” says Rustam Kalibatov, who runs the Moscow chapter of the Red-White Djigits. “This I cannot understand – the country that defeated fascism has more fascists than Germany.”
“Hachi” and “churki” are derogatory Russian words used to describe people from the Caucasus. According to Kalibatov, this growing hatred against Caucasians coupled with historical grievances over Russian occupation and forced displacement fed ethnic nationalism in the North Caucasus, too.
“They constantly see on TV, on the internet that they don’t like Caucasians so they get automatically turned against the [ethnic] Russians because they hate them,” he says. The rise of local nationalism reflected on football too, affecting the ultras cultures of Dagestan’s FC Anzhi and Chechnya’s FC Akhmat, he says.
In Kabardino-Balkaria, however, things panned out differently. The Red-White Djigits embraced diversity, welcoming men and women of all ethnic groups in the republic – Kabardins (a Circassian tribe that faced ethnic cleansing in the 19th century), Balkars (a Turkic ethnic group which suffered forced deportations by the Stalinist regime), Koreans, ethnic Russians, and others.
Mizov himself is of mixed background – his father a Kabardin, and his mother a Balkar. He says the rise of racism and far-right ideas he saw bothered him from early on.
“I found it strange that Russia before didn’t have leftist fans. So I decided to propagate antifascism, internationalism, so there is more positivity, less aggression in fandom,” says Mizov, who defines his own political views as “leftist and internationalist”.
The Red-White Djigits started using Che Guevara as their symbol and adopting Antifa ideas, which reflected in their banners and slogans. As they travelled around the country to attend matches, various Antifa groups started getting in touch and showing up at games to support Spartak Nalchik. By then the Antifa movement in Russia had grown substantially.
In response to theh rise of the far right in stadiums, a number of other Antifa ultras movements had appeared, supporting mostly lower division teams like Zvezda Irkutsk and Karelia Petrozavodsk.
At the peak of Spartak Nalchik’s football success, hundreds of fans would travel together to away games; Moscow matches would see thousands join the Red-White Djigits. Mizov even established an ultras firm called R.W.D., which drew hardcore fans willing to fight other groups.
By the mid-2000s, under pressure from the police, fights between ultras had to be taken out of Russian stadiums and transformed into an internally organised matter, whereby firms (set up along the model of English hooligan firms) would call each other and arrange to meet at meadows outside the big cities to have a brawl.
No one would call the R.W.D. however.
“It didn’t work out for us to fight with anyone. They were afraid of us. They thought that we in the Caucasus are all wild, [that] we wouldn’t just fight, but we’d stab with daggers,” says Mizov. “For them, the image of the Caucasian is someone who is aggressive and doesn’t like [ethnic] Russians.”
On the few occasions that the Red-White Djigits were attacked, they were largely outnumbered. Two years ago, Mizov was severely beaten and lost four of his teeth after a few dozen hooligans attacked him and a small group of Spartak Nalchik ultras at an away game in Rostov region.
Mizov says when Spartak Nalchik players heard about the incident, they raised money to pay for the dental work he needed.
The Antifa movement never managed to establish a foothold in the stadiums of major football clubs. One by one, the Antifa ultras clubs of lower division teams also disappeared, leaving Red-White Djigits as the last one standing. Antifa fans and smaller anonymous groups continue to show up at Russian stadiums but none have managed to establish a lasting visible presence.
According to one Antifa football fan of Lokomotiv Moskva, this is because the far right is too strong.
“Given the dominance of the far right in stadiums in Russia, it is difficult to push in anything new,” says Leonid, who asked that his real name not be mentioned. “[The problem is] that those who tried to form Antifa groups were not real football fans.”
Many Antifa activists would support a football team just so that they could challenge far-right groups or start fights with them, he says.
Leonid himself is part of a group called Lokomotiv Moscow Action (LMA), which has attracted two dozen Lokomotiv fans, many with leftist and Antifa views, who have decided to keep politics out of the stadium. LMA is the ideological successor of another ultras group called REACTIVE which existed for about eight years before disbanding after a conflict with a major far-right fan group in 2012.
Leonid and his fellow LMA members still hide their identities out of fear of being attacked by other ultras, but he says far-right politics at the Lokomotiv stadiums and elsewhere have been weakened.
This trend started with the All-Russian Union of Football Supporters, the official organisation that represented Russian ultras, following the violent clashes between Russian and English fans during Euro 2016 and the security campaign against ultras in the run-up to Russia 2018 have also contributed to that decline.on the far-right movement after parts of it decided to support the Ukrainian Maidan. The decimation of the
Despite warnings by international media that violence was to be expected at the World Cup, there have not been any major incidents. According to Mizov, not even the usual nationalistic chants could be heard at Russia matches.
“With this World Cup, people see that they can enjoy the positive aspects [of the game] and that aggression is not needed,” he says.
In recent years, the Red-White Djigits have not fared well. After Spartak Nalchik lost their funding in 2012, the team dropped out of the Premier League and has been playing in lower divisions since.
As a result, many fans lost interest, and the Red-White Djigits shrank into a small group.
“In the end, this pushed away the ‘one-day fans’ and the core remained. So we now have 50-70 people, who share the same ideas as me,” says Mizov.
After 20 years of loyal fandom, he remains just as dedicated to his team and, despite the hardship, he says he will not give up.
Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter:@mkpetkova