Lifestyle & Belief

How Russia can tell you're a hooligan


A Greenpeace activist behind makeshift prison bars, Oct. 31, 2013, in Paris.


Pierre Andrieu

Think of it a bit like "disturbing the peace."

Russia's vague "hooliganism" law covers a wide range of common-law misdemeanors — things like vagrancy and stalking, foul language and, oh, nailing your balls to the ground.

Malynne Sternstein, associate professor of Slavic Studies at the University of Chicago, told GlobalPost that "hooliganism" is defined in the penal codes of the Soviet republics as "any deliberate behavior that violates public order and expresses explicit disrespect toward society."

Translation: If Russia perceives you as defiant in the face of authority, you are most likely a hooligan. 

But Sternstein says there's a bit more to it than that.

"Hooliganism" is akin to "art activism," she says. Both contain an element of performance.

"Hooliganism," is "any act perpetrated against the state and on the very face of the state," she said. 

The state is the canvas. Hooliganism for me is always 'performative,' done publicly ...

It may seem antiquated — "hooliganism" first emerged in Russia at the start of the 20th century — but the fact is that "hooliganism" charges are showing up more and more these days. 

Here are a few of Russia's high-profile "hooligans" over the years:

1) Vasiliy Khmelevskiy 

Greenpeace activist behind makeshift prison bars in Paris, Oct. 31, 2013. (Pierre Andrieu/AFP/Getty Images)

The Belarussian Olympic athlete, who competed mainly in the hammer throw for the Soviet Union, lit on fire, reportedly as a joke, a costumed person during a New Year's celebration in 1979. He was convicted of "hooliganism" and served five years.

2) Mathias Rust

19-year-old West German private pilot Mathias Rust in a Moscow court, Sept. 4, 1987. (Sylvia Kaufman/AFP/Getty Images)

The German pilot flew his single-engine propeller aircraft across 500 miles of Soviet territory in 1987. He then illegally landed in Moscow's Red Square, where he proceeded to sign autographs until he was arrested by Soviet police. Among other things, he was sentenced to four years on charges of "malicious hooliganism."

3) Pussy Riot

"Pussy Riot" member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in the defendant's cage in a court in Zubova Polyana, Republic of Mordovia, April 26, 2013. (Maksim Blinov/AFP/Getty Images)

In February 2012, just weeks before Russia's presidential election, five members of the all-female punk band took the spotlight in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, chanting before the iconostases, "Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, chase Putin out." In August, three of the five were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," and sentenced to two years apiece. Following an appeal, one member had her sentence suspended. The other two sentences are now being upheld.

4) Greenpeace activists

Supporters of Greenpeace in Mexico City protest the detention of 30 activists, Nov. 16, 2013. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

In September 2013, a group of environmental activists tried to board a Russian oil rig from their ship, the Arctic Sunrise. They intended to hang a sign on the oil rig in protest of what they said was a high risk to the environment offshore in the Arctic. The Arctic Sunrise was seized by the Russian Coastguard and all 30 people on board were detained and investigated for "piracy" — a charge that was later changed to "aggravated hooliganism."

5) Petr Pavlensky

Petr Pavlensky. (Taken from his Facebook page)

The Russian performance artist was charged with "ideologically motivated" hooliganism, according to the Guardian, for nailing his scrotum to the cobblestones in Moscow's Red Square this month. Pavlensky, who faces up to five years in jail, said his actions were in protest of Russia's descent into a "police state" and the public's apathy about that fact. The above picture was taken when Pavlensky sewed his mouth shut after Pussy Riot band members received their jail sentences.