MYPLACE Project Coordinator, Hilary Pilkington, and MariiaTsygankova of HSE, St Petersburg on participant observation and questions of race at a Zenit St Petersburg match.
For more information on the MYPLACE project visit the project’s website: HERE
Mariia Tsygankova works as a journalist in St Petersburg and is writing an MA dissertation on football fandom at the Centre for Youth Studies, HSE. As part of a scoping exercise to establish whether this theme might be developed into a MYPLACE ethnographic case study, Hilary Pilkington accompanied her to watch Zenit play Moscow Dinamo in the quarter final of the Russian Cup at the Petrovskii stadium, St Petersburg on 21st March.
Russia’s football fans have been given a hard time in the European press recently for their racist gestures and chants (see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/17434648). Eyes have been on Russia as the country prepares to hold the Football World Cup in 2018 and Zenit-St Petersburg has been subject to particular scrutiny due to ongoing allegations that the club has an unofficial policy of not hiring players of African descent (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12848838). These allegations, dating back to 2004, were reignited this season following an incident at the Petrovskii stadium when a fan was photographed waving a banana at Roberto Carlos, the captain of the visiting Anzhi (Makhachkala) team.
The Russian Football Union is fully signed up to the Fifa anti-racism programme and Zenit has a clear statement of intent on its website: ‘Zenit FC unites hundreds of footballers and millions of fans from different countries, nationalities and faiths. Tolerance is the only possible principle for the development of football, sport and of our club.’ (http://fc-zenit.ru/main/club/inits/versus/)
In its latest attempt to put the colour black into the Zenit tricolor (the team are known as the SBGs – ‘Light blue-White-Dark-blues’ or Sine-belo-golubie ), the club released the ‘Pushkin rap’ video in November last year. ‘Pushkin rap’ brings together the paintings of well-known alternative artist Nikolai Kopeikin and the music of rap artist MC Noise (see: http://www.adme.ru/social/solnce-russkoj-poezii-v-zenite-ra-great-330255) to challenge fans to imagine the greatest Russian literary figure as a black man in Zenit colours. It is well-known that Pushkin had African heritage but this, typically for Kopeikin, radical humorous depiction of Pushkin, as well as the portrayal of skinheads (skinkhedy in Russian) as ‘svinkhedy’ (literally ‘pig-heads’) was a risky venture, which has not gone down well with all Zenit fans.
The question for Aleksei Blinov, head of ‘fan relations’ for Zenit FC and an avid fan himself since 1979, is whether targeting the club with high-profile anti-racist messages is the most effective way of dealing with the problem. In an interview with the authors (23 March 2012), he suggested that the most productive way of dealing with racism throughout society is to work at grassroots level (through educational programmes) to raise awareness of shared values and traditions across apparent national and religious differences. Indeed Zenit FC is actively engaged in a number of social programmes that aim at bringing socially excluded or marginal groups (the disabled, the socially disadvantaged, the elderly) into the Zenit community. Football, Blinov says, ‘is more than a kind of sport’, it has huge potential to engage, affect and thus influence young people. Blinov is adamant that such power must be used judiciously.
While being amongst the crowd at one match does not constitute reliable evidence, fans with whom we shared a freezing night in Sektor 11 were – mainly – sober (no alcohol is sold in the stadium although clearly some had highly skilled methods of circumventing the frequent, and thorough, searches), good-humoured (despite the half-heartedness of the Zenit players) and above all vocal. There were not much more than 90 seconds in the whole match when the stadium did not resonate with chants and songs to urge the team on. And, when the ‘Oh Peterburg, our city forever…’ rang out from the crowd, the whole stadium rose and fell in a mass pogo that was probably what saved everyone’s toes from the frostbite about to set in.
It cannot be said, on the other hand, that the ‘kick swearing out of football’ idea has caught on yet at Petrovskii. Dinamo fans were bated with chants of varying degrees of obscenity that played on their nickname ‘the filth’ (‘musora’), rooted in the NKVD (secret police) origins of the club, but holding the same dual meaning as in English (police/rubbish). Racism, however, did not feature in any of the chanting or gestures – not around us at least.
This is not really a blog about football… but I suppose some of you will want to know the score? Zenit lost 0:1 – Misimovich from the penalty spot in the 73rd minute (English language match report can be found here: http://en.fc-zenit.ru/main/). So, out of the cup, but still 7 points clear in the championship. For those who are converted, the next match is on Saturday 31st March away to Spartak (Moscow).