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The Kremlin sees 'hooligans' everywhere

Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev, who was profiled for FP's "Things They Carried" feature  has been charged with the crime of "hooliganism" for an incident last year in which he threw a punch at a rival tycoon during a televised debate. The charge, which Lebedev says is politically motivated, could carry a sentence of up to five years in prison. 

Writing in Britain's Independent,  owned, incidentally, by Lebedev's son, Shaun Walker notes that this is the same charge authorities brought against the members of Pussy Riot: 

Lawyers and analysts suggested that similar assaults would normally be judged under laws that provide for fines or very brief incarceration, but Russia's Investigative Committee confirmed that as well as a charge of assault, Mr Lebedev will be charged under Article 213 of the Russian criminal code, which deals with acts of “hooliganism”.[...]

Article 213 was used to sentence the punk trio Pussy Riot to two years' imprisonment last month for their impromptu performance of a song calling on the Virgin Mary to “chase Putin out” in Russia's main cathedral.

To qualify under this article, acts must be motivated by hatred of a particular social group. In Pussy Riot's case, prosecutors argued that the women were motivated by hatred of Orthodox Christians; in Mr Lebedev's case, the official charge states that his actions were motivated by “political hatred”.

The "hooliganism" charge garnered a lot of attention during the Pussy Riot case. (Here's a quick Slate explainer on what exactly it means.) It has also recently been brought against other troublesome figures including leaders of the performance art group Voina, from which Pussy Riot emerged, and angry flood victims who disrupted a public meeting in the southern city of Krymsk this summer. 

Aside from its legal definition, "hooliganism" is also one of the favorite all-purpose terms for troublemakers used by Russian authorities. Vladimir Putin has described U.S. monetary policy as "hooliganism." His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, used the word to describe a Putin-mocking song entered by Georgia in the 2009 Eurovision song contest. Critical journalists have faced the charge as well.

English-language readers  might assume this is a weird translation in the western media, but huliganstvo comes right from the original Russian. The word has been featured in the New York Times' Russia coverage since at least 1905, when the infamous ultra-nationalist "Black Hundreds" were described as uligani. 

In a Nov. 1905 letter, one uptight Times reader complained  that the word was "absurdly inappropriate and lacking in local color when used of Russian rowdies," and sniffed that the paper might as well call them "larrikins," "highbinders," "sand-baggers," "yeggmen," or "pugg-uglies". 

A better-informed leader explained the history: 

The word "Hooligan had its origin in Whitechapel, London, about ten years ago, when the band of the notorious Ralph Hootigan robbed and assaulted the wayfarers of the moteropolis. Hence its general application to-day is obvious. This application attracted Russian writers. They wished to characterize local vagabonds who, fearing neither the Government nor the various revolutionary organizations, preyed, individually or in bands, upon an undisciplined and panic-stricken people. In appropriating "Hooligan," the Russian writers spelled it phonetically, according to their own alphabet and added a noun ending. Thus we have to reconstruct the word in English, "Uligani." Correspondents in Russia naturally employ the original form.  

And over a century later, it's not only the Kremlin's favorite put-down, but a rather serious criminal offense faced by punk rockers and billionaires alike.  

Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images

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