Two years ago, the violent reputation of Ukraine's soccer hooligans prompted calls in Europe for a Euro-2012 boycott.
Now, the "ultras" -- as hard-core soccer fans, including many violent hooligans, are commonly known in Eastern Europe -- have found political redemption by safeguarding Ukraine's Euromaidan protesters as they face off against police and the so-called "titushky," the pro-government thugs who many allege are hired muscle.
Opposition leader Oleh Tyahnybok, the head of the nationalist Svoboda party, publicly praised the role of the ultras in a late-night speech on January 25 following the opposition's rejection of a partnership deal with President Viktor Yanukovych.
"Glory to Ukraine! And I'll continue the theme of the soccer fans," Tyahnybok said. "Let us applaud the heroic soccer fans of Dnipro Cherkasy, Karpaty Lviv, and Vorskla Poltava! This is where solidarity starts. This is where patriotism starts!"
Spreading The Word
It was a surprising transformation for a sector of society better known for drinking and brawling than political passions.
The change began on January 21 -- one day before the debut of what critics describe as Ukraine's "dictatorship laws" allowing the forceful dispersal of unauthorized protests -- when the Dynamo Kyiv ultras announced they had formed special defense units to protect Maidan demonstrators.
Ultras formed self-defense groups to protect pro-democracy demonstrators from police and pro-government thugs known as "titushky" (pictured).
"We appeal to all those who have yet to join the defense of Kyiv from these bastard sellouts," the group announced on vKontakte in a lengthy call to battle
that reserved special ire for the titushky.
"We're heading out, not so we get brought into Europe, not for Yulia, Vitalik, Arseniy, or Oleh," the statement continues, referring to Ukraine's opposition quartet of jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and Oleh Tyahnybok. "Not against Russia and Russians!!! We're heading out -- FOR KYIVANS, FOR OUR CITY, FOR OUR COUNTRY, FOR OUR HONOR!"
Since then, ultra groups throughout Ukraine have issued similar statements and entered the fray. This has happened not only in reliably pro-Maidan cities like Lviv but also in the south and east, where support for Russia, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and the ruling Party of Regions is traditionally high.
Ultras have reportedly turned out in large numbers in even the easternmost regions of Luhansk, Kharkiv, and Donetsk, as well as in Crimea and Odesa in the south. In Dnipropetrovsk on January 26, hundreds of Dnipro ultras backed an unexpectedly large crowd of pro-Maidan demonstrators as they attempted to storm the regional administration building.
A YouTube video
appears to show at least one ultra being carried from the site with profusely bleeding wounds. (The same video shows a different man with a gaping, circular wound in his neck left by a rubber bullet.)
The sudden support of the ultras -- made up of working-class young men traditionally seen as Yanukovych's base -- is considered such a sea change that they've even earned their own icon on maps charting Euromaidan's progress.
As of January 27, ultra support for Euromaidan activities had been registered in 17 cities.
In many regions, however, the ultras may be motivated less by Maidan sympathies than by antipathy for the titushky, whose ranks are filled by approximately the same demographic.
Tavria ultras in the Crimean city of Simferopol have indicated they do not support EU integration but are infuriated by attacks on Ukrainian citizens, which they attribute to "gang rule and lawlessness established by the police in order to protect powerful criminals."
"Urge everyone not to sell out their country for 300 hryvnya [$35]," Illychivets ultras wrote in the southeastern coastal city of Mariupol, alluding to the reported earnings of the "titushky."