The first days of war: The football fighter who took up arms
When Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, 35-year-old Anton immediately knew his days of street-fighting would be replaced with armed combat. “This war started from all directions,” he says. “Within the first three days I was already thinking that Kyiv could be invaded. There was hell with everything… helicopters flying over the Dnipro [river] and [you] think to yourself ‘what the fuck?’.”
Anton, like many other Ukrainians, volunteered to fight the Russians. But unlike most other Ukrainians, he already had experience of combat – just on a very different level. Before the war he was the de facto leader of Hoods Hoods Klan (HHK), the anti-fascist hooligan ‘firm’ of the now-defunct Ukrainian football team Arsenal Kyiv.
Football firms are often derided and reviled for their violence, but in Ukraine they have played a vital role in the war and in the revolution that preceded it. With long experience fighting the police, ultras – highly organised and deeply passionate football fans who obsessively follow their team – were on the frontlines during the Maidan protests of 2013-2014. Then ultras were seen as “protectors” of the activists whose demonstrations eventually forced pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych from power. Anton himself fought in 2014 in the east of Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea and propped up the separatist areas in the Donbas region. That war never really ended, leading to Russia’s full invasion of the country eight years later.
The vast majority of Ukrainian firms hold far-right, ultra nationalist views. It has been estimated that 70 percent of the Azov battalion, a volunteer militia later incorporated into the regular Ukrainian army and which has a strong far-right constituency, came from Ukraine’s hooligan firms. Anton’s group was a rarity in Ukraine for its staunchly anti-fascist and anti-racist position. These opposing groups formed a truce in the face of common enemies; first Yanukovych, then Vladimir Putin. “We see things a little bit differently [than other Ukrainian football firms],” Anton tells me as we drive to their base outside Kyiv where he is being trained after volunteering for combat. The name HHK derives from a chant they would use when they fought against far-right groups. They would put the hoods on their jackets up – to conceal their identities – and chant: “Hoods, hoods, hoods!”
When news of the invasion broke, Anton and around a dozen of his friends in the HHK in Kyiv quickly joined the fight. HHK essentially became a militia, as did dozens of other ultra and hooligan firms, utilising the fact that they were often highly organised, trained in combat sports and part of a network capable of supplying equipment to the front lines.
HHK joined the Resistance Committee, a lesser-known battalion of Ukrainian anarchist and anti-authoritarian militants. To obtain weapons and legitimate status as fighters, they all signed up to Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces, an official state-backed fighting group set up to support the military – essentially a paramilitary umbrella for the popular resistance. It contains a diverse range of different ideologies, including ultras who are bitterly opposed to one another politically and have spent many years fighting each other. “We don’t have arguments now because we have one enemy, one big problem, a war on our land,” Anton says. “Let us resolve this and everything else will be decided later.”
Russia has often highlighted the fact that far right hooligans make up the core membership of the Azov battalion in state media broadcasts. Kremlin claims of widespread neo-Nazism, however, sit oddly against the fact that in the last presidential elections in Ukraine, in 2019, the country elected a Jewish president with 73 per cent of the vote. During parliamentary elections a few months later the far-right parties formed a coalition in a bid to get into power, and received less than three percent of the vote. I ask Anton what he thinks about the propaganda in Russia that labels Ukrainians and their leaders as neo-Nazis. “It’s too funny to be true,” he says. “Now everyone can see what the new swastika looks like [meaning Russia’s ‘Z’ war symbol], what the new Hitler looks like. [Russia] can give this information to their people, but no one [believes] it here in Ukraine.”
When Russian forces arrived at the gates of Kyiv, Anton and the HHK helped evacuate civilians. One car was nearly hit by artillery fire as they rushed people out. When Russia retreated to the east in April, the HHK was assigned guard duty at an outpost waiting for the order to deploy to the Donbas.
I travel to the outpost in the bed of Anton’s truck with half a dozen HHK fighters, all armed with rifles and wearing a mishmash of military fatigues and bucket hats with shades. You can tell they have a deep friendship forged in both football and war. In their normal lives, outside of political sports violence, they follow a philosophy they call “kaifarik”. It’s a Ukrainian slang term that basically translates to “enjoy your life”. They have this word emblazoned on their unit patches with an image of a “let’s rock” hand sign, a world away from the macabre skull and knife emblems seen in other units.
“[I miss] my normal life,” Anton tells me. “I don’t want to be worried that some of my friends might be shelled while they sleep. [People are] dying each day because of the shelling … It’s a nightmare.” He’s not sure whether he’ll ever go back to fist fights against other hooligan firms. “Maybe after this I won’t be interested in this hooligan stuff. This [the war] could change my mind.”
The fighters of the HHK have now been given the go-ahead to go into battle in the east of the country. Russian forces there have turned the region into a bloodbath, where they are indiscriminately shelling cities, towns and villages. HHK will face their biggest fight yet. I ask Anton whether he is worried he might die out there. “I don’t plan this,” he says, laughing. “I’m lucky.” JH
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