EVE Online: The Bears and the Rat
We talk with members of the Russian Red Alliance, and uncover a culture of regular revolution, Cold War paranoia, and bears.
In September of 2006, a historic meeting between officials of EVE Online's player-run corporations took place. Red Alliance, the notorious Russian organization, reached out to offer a partnership with the equally-infamous GoonSwarm. For the first time, the traditionally straightforward Russians were using the olive branch, actively seeking a major ally through diplomatic means--and Westerners at that.
Of course, it's not surprising that the American leadership of GoonSwarm rejected the initial offer. Separated by both practical and cultural divisions, the two organizations had never before spoken--and in a throwback to the Cold War, it would take some convincing before the Americans could trust an alliance known for being even more ruthless than they.
It was scary... But we had a spirit like all other Russian--never surrender.
Across the table, thousands of miles away, the feeling was somewhat mutual. "I did not especially trust in them as strong allies," said Russian director Mactep, recalling his first impressions.
Adding to the problem, language issues cropped up immediately. "It was like speaking to angry aliens from the planet of Murder or something," recounted Mittani, who participated in the talks while on vacation in Alaska--a state separated from Russia by only three miles. "Russian is an extremely unusual language to listen to if you're not used to it. Mactep has a very deep voice and sounds like a gangster... He would speak in a bunch of Russian and [his lieutenant] Nync would 'speak for' him. It was wild."
Along with their time-zone differences--which would allow them to exploit weaknesses in their enemies around the clock--both factions stood to gain much from the merger. Red Alliance director UAxDeath, who engineered the deal, was confident from the beginning: "We both knew what we needed."
In a sales pitch to the GoonSwarm leadership, Mittani concluded that the Red Alliance was a logical match--and that it was better to be with them, than potentially against them: "What really scares me about the Reds is that they don't follow the normal rules of alliances. Usually if you defeat an alliance they shatter. The Reds have lost all their territory and still come back with disciplined, vicious, and effective assaults against innumerable foes, and they've been in nonstop combat for almost three full years now. It's just insane."
Though the conversation flowed unevenly, and the proceedings slowed due to unnecessary middlemen, the voice-chat utility Ventrilo eventually helped the Americans and Russians to cross the vast cultural boundary, like an online River Elbe. By the end of the first round of talks, the two sides had formed a seemingly-solid pact.
But for the grizzled veterans of RA, alliances have come and gone. Behind the scenes, the story of the Red Alliance is peppered with racial animosity and shocking battles. The story of the Red Alliance is about learning to make new friends, while at the same time learning to put your enemies through the meat-grinder.
The story of the Red Alliance really begins with its destruction.
The Real Red Alliance
On September 8, 1941, the German army laid siege to the Russian city of Leningrad, known today as Saint Petersburg. Over the next three years, around one million Russian soldiers and civilians would be killed by shelling, bombing, gunfire, and starvation.
In January 1944, before a single Allied soldier had touched the beaches of Normandy, the Germans were finally expelled from Leningrad by a surge of Russian troops. The Siege of Leningrad would end at a total of 872 days. It remains the longest siege of a single city in history.
Though it suffered devastating losses over the course of the war, Russia persevered in the end, and would become a global superpower. This resurgence in the face of destruction is par for the course when it comes to Russian history, whether the nation's indefatigable people are under attack by Hitler, Napoleon, or a fleet of enemy spaceships--which is exactly what Russian pilots faced in August of 2006.
_PAGE_BREAK_ While the struggles of computer warriors can't possibly compare to the real-life tragedy of actual combat, the indomitable Russian spirit is quietly exhibited by the members of Red Alliance. Bottled up in their homeworld of C-J6MT by an overwhelming enemy force, a handful of space stations became the rallying point for Red Alliance defenses, turning the system into a digital Leningrad over one long month.
Known as the "Siege of C-J6," Red Alliance leaders were ready for the worst. This wasn't the first time the Russians had been to the brink, but with a coalition of close to 10,000 players knocking on their front door--a coalition spearheaded by future GoonSwarm enemies Lotka Volterra--it was looking like it might be their last. "Nobody thought we would win," says UAxDeath. "I had only hope."
In reality, the war had begun years ago. One of the oldest surviving groups in EVE, Red Alliance has always been known as a fearsome, cold-blooded outfit. Possessing modest numbers, but a will to use any means necessary to win--including tactics deemed dishonorable by much of the EVE community--RA soon became one of the most hated organizations in the game.
If you took Phoenix, Arizona, surrounded it with a wall and millions of sandbags, and had angry neighbors shooting things at you from outside that wall--that's my Iraq.
"RA gets very offended about attacks on their ethnicity... Even today, RA leaders will be able to tell you which LV individual pilots smack-talked them in local and made racist jokes. They'll drop anything to go kill them or hurt them in-game."
Sure enough, with no prompting, UAxDeath recalled the harassment in a separate interview: "Russian dogs. Feed our children. I still have those screenshots."
With this bad blood in mind, the two space navies readied for a showdown. The battle-lines were pathetically mismatched from the beginning: the Southern Coalition fronted over 300 ships, including 60 siege-deployable dreadnought-class capital ships and 30 fighter-carriers. In response, Red Alliance could only scrape together around 50 ships, total. More than a mismatch, the forthcoming assault was shaping up to be a massacre.
On a Friday morning, the combined Coalition fleet calmly jumped into C-J6. After enemy dreadnoughts quickly put one Red Alliance station into its reinforced mode, the rag-tag Red Alliance gang entered the fray, and began the fight for its life.
Red, the Blood of Angry Men
The story of the Red Alliance actually begins with its annihilation.
"For three years, RA never stopped for a minute, the wars," says UAxDeath. In its infancy--long before the siege of C-J6--the corporation was a purely aggressive being, and frequently went without the numbers to back up their vicious bark. "Those days RA had only 20-40 max in gangs. Each of [our] enemies was doubling or tripling that."
There are many wildly dedicated EVE players, but few measure up to the code that Red Alliance members adhere to. Almost always outnumbered, the Russians have grown used to holding on to whatever edge they can in order to survive. "There's been a countless number of alarm clock ops where they all wake up at 4am Moscow time to blow up hostile towers, no matter what," says The Mittani. Known as simple pirates to some, Red Alliance is always on the lookout for a good fight.
"It was only a matter of time before they saw us so much that they thought we might be easy pickings and shot one of us," player Joycalyn tells me. A one-time member of the Free Space Alliance, an RA target in a past war, Joycalyn gained so much respect for the Russians during combat that he soon became a member--even though he is an American. Since those early days, the corporation has often played host to English-speaking wings or corporations, in addition to other international corporations. "To join an RA corp is difficult. Getting standings from RA, also difficult. But if you'll fight with us then all is very easy."
But zeal can only go so far, and eventually RA's resolve lost out to pure numbers. Betrayed by former allies, Red Alliance's enemies spread through its territories like a cancer, robbing the Russians of their sovereign systems.
After a crushing defeat at Wicked Creek, which saw nine RA dreadnoughts lost to overwhelming enemy fire, the old Red Alliance began to fade away. Though possessing many subsidiary corporations at the time, the separate corporations were plagued by general apathy. Looking out for their own interests, the disappointed members left for greener pastures, choosing to jump ship rather than resist the incursion. Following the mass exodus, the once-mighty RA was reduced to a very lonely triumvirate, with little to rule over.
"Alliance channel was only three guys--me, Rasatan, and Mactep," recalls UAxDeath. "Tell you the truth, it was scary--when you want to kill your enemy and you have nothing.
"But we had a spirit like all other Russian--never surrender."
_PAGE_BREAK_ Rather than giving in and joining other corporations, the remaining three members turned their small gang into a test-bed for PVP tactics. "All three of us were loading up our [second or third] accounts and PVPing," UAxDeath tells me. "Instead of three guys, the enemy saw us as six or seven. And we would play tricks on them. In local when gang was assembling, we [invited our enemies to] our gang and warped them from their station to ours. All of them were killed.
The worst I have heard is a guy lives in a village in Siberia, and a bear ate his dog.
Slowly but surely, Red Alliance was reformed, and much like a broken bone, it set stronger than before. The ranks were bolstered once again. Territories were retaken. It was a Russian revolution, and the war machine was finally back on track--until Lotka Volterra entered the picture.
The Rat in Baghdad
The founding of RedSwarm began with a Rat.
Before the American and Russian leaders would ever say a word to each other, GoonSwarm intelligence agents were pursuing other alliance prospects--namely their eventual enemies, Lotka Volterra. While Lotka Volterra was busy fighting the Russians in C-J6, GIA agent Vile Rat looked on from within the ranks--and he took notes.
"I did surveys of all the systems down there to find out what kinds of resources were available and who owned them," Vile Rat tells me. "I measured LV's response time to RA incursions and reported on the quality of both the LV fighters and the RA remnants. It was a bizarre time because while RA had been beaten by a large coalition of forces, of which LV was the lead element, RA simply refused to die."
In an international twist, Vile Rat is telling me this from Baghdad. As an employee of an American "government agency," he was recently stationed in Iraq, for the second time.
"Fun place. Would you like to fly out for an interview?" When I turn him down, he seems rather dejected. "Are you sure? The food is quite good... You'd be surprised. We eat the best cuisine provided by the good people at Halliburton... I recommend everybody spend some time here. The beaches are fantastic. I've heard rumors they are about to open a Disneyland, but I'm not holding my breath."
Vile now plays out his role as a GIA director from inside the international zone, the heavily-fortified area in central Baghdad formerly known as the "Green Zone." He scrapes together two hours of playtime a day, if he's lucky. And the lag wouldn't be so bad, if the connection wasn't shared between other international employees.
"There are a lot of bad guys out there who don't want us here, and they aren't shy about letting us know," he tells me of his chaotic living situation. "As most people who spend the majority of their time in the international zone can tell you, it's not really Iraq. I live in a small piece of America slapped right smack dab into the middle of a warzone. If you took Phoenix, Arizona, surrounded it with a wall and millions of sandbags, and had angry neighbors shooting things at you from outside that wall--that's my Iraq."
For the Baghdad veteran, EVE is an escape from reality. Deep inside one of the most volatile cities in the world, Vile detailed his role in the formation of the RedSwarm alliance--namely, his favorable impressions of the Russians in the face of impossible odds.
So what is the success to Red Alliance's survival? "On one hand you had a group that had all the power in the world, but just not enough willpower to enforce their will upon their enemies. On the other side you had a group that had little power left at all, but enough drive to take on the universe alone."
From Russia with Love
The Siege of C-J6 mostly ended before it began.
On the second day of the C-J6 siege, all was quiet on the southern front--the classic calm before the storm. The decisive battle would take place on Sunday. At 17:48 EVE time, over 40 coalition capital ships attacked a Russian station, supported by a large battleship fleet. Shortly thereafter, Red Alliance made its last stand. In mere hours, they would likely be wiped from the map, and once more left without a single system to their name.
_PAGE_BREAK_ In actuality, the battle may have already been decided during the pitched melee of the first day. During the opening hours of combat, RA fleet commander UAxDeath had made a desperate attack on the dreadnought of his rival, the Coalition enemy commander ChowDown. With only 30 battleships, the Russians sallied forth like futuristic Cossacks, destroying ChowDown's flagship and effectively shaming the entire enemy force. As UAxDeath described it: "I made a moral attack on the enemy."
The siege continued, but from that point on, it was more of a skirmish than a serious attempt at capitulation. From UAxDeath's perspective, C-J6 was a grueling, yet rewarding time: "One month. No work. No sleep. Only game. But after few days, we definitely understood that we had a chance to win."
Like many Red Alliance members, UAxDeath's first language is Russian. "It's hard to explain everything in a couple words, especially when English is not my first language," he says to me in frustration. Unlike most of his comrades, however, UAxDeath lives in New York City. The majority of Russian-speaking Red Alliance members live in Russia--the Motherland.
And although they play half a world apart, the impression I gathered from both Americans and Russians is that of surprising similarity. "Holidays are slightly different," says the American RA member Joycalyn, emphasizing how much they have in common. "We both celebrate V-E Day. But the vodka stereotypes are true."
Did he have any preconceptions before getting to know the Russians? "I really was not sure if they were as lucky as I am to live as comfortably, but they seem to. The worst I have heard is a guy lives in a village in Siberia, and a bear ate his dog. Lucky for my dog we are not in Siberia."
"As long as you're not making racist jokes about them in local your average Russian space-nerd is just like a US space-nerd," says The Mittani, who regularly meets UAxDeath for drinks. "He just has about two years of non-stop PVP experience succeeding when outnumbered 10-1 under his belt."
During World War II, Russia's heroism came hand in hand with its own black marks. The nation of Estonia was forcefully annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, and after a short period of Nazi control, fell back into Soviet hands by the end of the war. Russian troops would not leave the country until 1994. "We were occupied by them for 60 very bloody years, during which they committed enough crimes against our nation and people to write a 1,000 page book on," says Estonian GoonSwarm commander Hiid.
Even given the animosity between the two peoples, Hiid has no problems getting his spaceship on with the Russians. "Sure, I've thought about it, but then I understand the people I have worked with, they are just that: people. They are not a country, they are not history, they are not ideologies. They are simply people, my friends."
One of the few tangible differences between the Russians and Western players can be seen in the their off-duty recreation. While a GoonSwarm out-of-game meeting might include ordinary capitalist entertainment, according to Mactep, the Russians take a slightly different approach: "Sometimes we have common meetings for all RA members who live in Moscow. From time to time we organize corp meetings, to drink vodka and to kill a few bears."
Decreasing the bear population one at a time, the Russians have formed a strong bond over the years. As the new RedSwarm Federation moves forward--with help from French corporation TCF, and other squads from around the globe--the multinational force is positioned to become a universal superpower.
Which is all the more strange, given the challenges in overcoming their differences. Burned by backstabbing in the past, the suggestion of an alliance by the Russians was a rare gesture from the start. "RA has an instinctive paranoia that dwarfs that of any other alliance in the game," explains Mittani, highlighting how unique the opportunity was. "They see traps everywhere, often when there are no traps; after a while you tune it out and decide it's just them 'Being Russian.'"
In the end, it boils down to a simple truth: the two have more in common than not. "They were being treated by LV just like the rest of the galaxy treated Goons," adds Mittani. "Persecuted for their out of game identity, persecuted for their ruthless behavior in-game... you have to be ruthless when you're fighting against odds like RA and GS were. We are a coalition of pariahs."
UAxDeath eloquently summed up their relationship: "Once Mittani said to me, 'We would be afraid of only one enemy: You.' Nobody else could be with RA. Nobody."