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Last October, John Bolloten went through the turnstiles at the grand, 54,000-capacity Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi, Georgia, and took his seat at the front of Sector 17. With the steep stands rising above and around him, he turned to face the crowd and began taking photographs of the men standing behind – mostly bare-chested with shaved heads – roaring in unison as the match got underway. These men were members of Elita, the main ultras group following Dinamo Tbilisi, who had invited Bolloten into the match with them after he reached out on social media.
“They control the sector of the stadium, so if you go to the ticket office you cannot buy a ticket for Sector 17. It’s completely locked off for Elita, and they control all the access,” Bolloten explains of the group’s grip on their club’s home turf. Founded in 2018 as a conglomerate of historic ultras groups and rising to the top of Dinamo Tbilisi’s ultras pyramid, Elita are a right-wing (often far-right), Georgian nationalist association – and for many who don’t fall into line with their views, politics, or even from the wrong nationality, they can be uncompromising.
“Sometimes people may say they want to come in that sector and they will decide whether that’s acceptable, but for people who are outsiders it’s very dangerous to come close to that sector,” says Bolloten. “If you’re Russian, it’s fatal.”
As he began flicking the shutter on his camera, he noticed a commotion in the corner of his eye, as indiscernible shouting in Russian and Georgian came from above. “I wasn’t paying any attention, and then the next minute I looked up and saw two guys come over the fence chasing two Russian guys for about 50 metres through the stands and caught them and beat them up,” he continues. “That was within about two minutes of me being there – that was a very sobering moment.”
The picture he took inside the stadium with the ultras, who requested Bolloten to mask their faces with a black line across their eyes, raising their arms in the air just before the violent episode, is now featured in his new photobook Tbilisi Raw. Spending more time embedded within Elita on that trip, and returning on occasion in the following months, the book is a tense, disquieting look at ultras culture – the fights, their fraternal bond, and their varying extremities of right-wing, nationalist and often white supremacist beliefs laid out in black-and-white spreads.
Ultras are associations of hardcore fanatics of football teams across Europe, emerging in 1960s and 1970s Italy. It’s a diverse subculture, with rituals, practices and beliefs differing across fanbases and even within ultras groups, but in the past decades they have become synonymous with far-right politics – and often violence. After seeing the attack in the stands, Bolloten would quickly find out that violence is part and parcel of being an ultra, especially in Elita. After the match, one of the group’s leaders approached him and asked: “What are you doing now? Do you want to come with us?”
“I have no plans,” Bolloten replied, and proceeded to enter a car with the group. Driving towards the city’s outskirts under the cover of darkness, he asked: “Where are we going?”
“We’re going to attack the ultras from Torpedo,” was the reply.
Pulling up in Varketili, a neighbourhood located at the end of the Tbilisi Metro line, Bolloten was dropped off on the side of the road, where roughly 30 fans of FC Torpedo Kutaisi – Dinamo’s “detested rivals” – were waiting at a bus stop. They were standing unassumingly next to a patch of Astro turf training pitches, with their figures illuminated by the floodlights. “They were very relaxed, they’d won their match,” he recalls. “Then a couple of minutes [later] I saw the guys from Elita marching down the road, and then they just came through the trees and just charged at these guys and attacked.
“It was like being in a movie,” he continues. “I just pulled my camera out and took some pictures over the 90 seconds that these skirmishes took place. It was to be honest the only time ever as a photographer I believe I’ve been invisible, because the whole time I was there I don’t recall one person even looking at me.”
The Elita members quickly bolted and dispersed out into the surrounding urban jungle, leaving John on his own with the bruised Torpedo fans. Without hesitating he pulled up Google Maps on his phone, typed in the address of his apartment and saw the 309 bus that he was instructed to take pull into the stop across the road. Keeping his head down he crossed the road, boarded and made the long journey home, with his pulse still racing when his phone started buzzing.
“I got a WhatsApp about two minutes later from one of the leaders of Elita asking me where I was,” he says. “I said: ‘It’s okay I’m out of there, I’m on my way back to the apartment.’ So actually what happened that evening sealed the trust because I had gone with them without hesitation and handled myself.
“From what I’ve seen, the mentality of Elita – they are a lot more ready for violence at any moment than any of the other supporters of any other club in Georgia,” he adds. “For many ultras groups, these are guys who like fighting. We see violence as a negative thing in society and I am one of those people too, but I do understand that for many men violence is a way of life – it is a part of life.”
While the ultras culture is spread across Europe, the history of Elita specifically is intertwined with the history of Georgia and its capital city. Throughout the middle of the 20th century all the way until 1991, Dinamo Tbilisi played its football at the top of the Soviet Union’s football pyramid – the Soviet Top League – alongside other storied teams including FC Dynamo Kyiv and Spartak Moscow. But following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dinamo would join other Georgian teams in the country’s top league – the Erovnuli Liga – and it was around then that the ultras groups began to gain prominence.
As Russian and Georgian relations diminished, including a 2008 Russian invasion as they sought control of the disputed South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, right-wing nationalism and far-right movements in the country gained traction and prominence. It’s partly why the group targets Russians, and why those two football fans were attacked in the stands.
“People aren’t happy about [the invasion] and The Caucasus is a very unstable region, so everything in relation to the ultras has to be seen in the context of a very unstable region. Family [members] of the ultras have been there in the war, in the army,” Bolloten explains. “Elita is a right-wing, nationalist ultras group – but they’re also made up of people with varying views, so they do contain elements of neo-Nazis, white supremacists.”
He clarifies: “But there are neo-Nazis who are not ultras. They’re not establishing themselves as a Nazi ultras group.”
The vice versa is also true: not all ultras are neo-Nazis. There are a hatful of clubs whose ultras associations sit left-of-centre, including AS Livorno Calcio, Red Star Paris, Marseille and Celtic’s Green Brigade. However, ultras groups across Europe overwhelmingly skew right, and even fascist. While much of their cultures are wrapped up in the history and politics of the local areas, similarities between strong national pride and club fanaticism, as well as the collective spirit of brotherhood, can create fertile ground for far-right beliefs.
In Georgia, this comes along as a tide of such politically-minded groups have been growing increasingly influential in the country, with anti-Russian sentiments, anti-immigration rhetoric and increasingly powerful religious fundamentalism growing louder. While they remain fringe in nature and yet to make a serious dent in electoral politics, the far-right have made their presence felt in the public space – 2,000-plus protesters attacked Tbilisi’s Pride rally recently on July 9, causing clashes with police and forcing the cancellation of the LGBTQ+ celebration.
“Georgian Pride was smashed up,” says Bolloten. “I don’t know if any of the ultras were involved, but there’s large sections of Georgian society who are opposed to that scene.” Regarding Dinamo Tbilisi specifically, alleged racism from their fanbase – including the unfurling of a Nazi banner – have seen them face sanctions from European football’s governing body UEFA on several occasions.
For Bolloten, their views came second to the opportunity to photograph a group who are famously closed off to outsiders. “My job wasn’t to go there to have political discussions – I’m not a racist so I don’t share their politics,” he says. “If anybody levelled a question at me like: ‘Why didn’t you challenge them?’ Well, I would probably be hospitalised, and I’m not going there to put my life in danger.
“I realised I was in a position to have really unparalleled access to a group you can’t get access to. Nobody had ever made a photobook inside an ultras group,” he continues. “My job is to honestly document and take authentic photos in a situation that on paper is extremely dangerous.”