Youth culture
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March 18, 2011
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Original appeared in Russkii Reporter
Author: Dar'ya Zolotukhina
Images: Yuliya Lisnyak/RR

Subculture as a concept has become outdated. What is left is just the look, an easily changeable shell like a goatee or a leather jacket. Sociologists from Ulyanovsk think that it is time to study youth culture using the concept of solidarity, which they understand as a set of unifying values. They have noted that even when emo symbolism is replaced with Gothic signs, the underlying values do not change. Following the trends in these underlying values, they aim to point out the determining vectors in the development of Russian society for the years to come.

I visit a conference in the brand new building of the Ulyanovsk university on the Sviyaga river. The address is written without a number: UlGU, Sviyaga river bank.

Several tens of sociologists have gathered in the conference room. Youth studies, judging from the participants, are practiced by scholars not older than 30 or perhaps a few years more. There is about one male for every five females.

Instead of the usual sociological fencing with numbers like ‘this survey involved 1000 or 10.000 respondents’, I hear the most modest acknowledgments like ‘we conducted four interviews’ or ‘we surveyed 12 families’. What is happening here. Am I being deceived?

Aleksandr, 23 years, works in construction

Not ‘formal’, not normal, not educated, not fashionable. I don’t need anybody and that’s why I am free!! I don’t even know myself to what subculture I belong.

Qualitative sociology is understanding, not counting

‘A survey, even if it is conducted among 20.000 people, never explains, never gives us information about the context, about the meanings and content. We learn how many punks are living in Russia, but we don’t learn why they became punks, what they fight for, and how they are different from skinheads for example’, explains Elena Omel’chenko. She has short hair, wears jeans and a blouse. Judging from her looks, you would never guess that she is a professor. For three years already Omel’chenko lives in two places. She is head of the faculty of sociology at the St. Petersburg subsidiary. There she also leads the center for youth studies. At the same time she heads the Scientific research center ‘Region’ in her birthplace Ulyanovsk.

Such sociologists are usually called the ‘qualitatives’ to distinguish them from the ‘quantitatives’, who prefer mass surveys. The ‘qualitatives’ build their research on cases, that is on specific stories of specific people. It has occurred that only one interview was needed to complete a research and afterwards nobody did accuse the sociologist of pseudo-science.

‘The foundation of our research is in-depth interviews, but also realize that the decoding of such an interview could require 50 or 70 pages’, says Omel’chenko. ‘Nevertheless, besides the interview we usually also use the method of participant observation. In such way a case is formed’.

Ol’ga, 23 years, ecologist, Radmila, 20 years, photographer, Lyuba, 21 years, studies to become a translator. They are all mad about rockabilly.

‘I do not think that subcultures should be used to tell one person from another person, Lyuba says.

There is no such thing as a former skinhead

Omel’chenko’s students recently studied two youth movements, the ‘fa’ [fascists] and the ‘antifa’ [antifascists]. For the ‘quantitatives’ it is all very simple. The ‘fa’ (whose most striking examples are the nazi-skinheads) are racists, who battle for blood purity, in the strict sense of the word. The ‘antifa’ are their ideological adversaries. All that is required is to count how many there are of the former and how many of the latter. After that the research is done. The ‘qualitatives’, on the other hand, consider such sociology to be too abstract and too general. They think it’s paramount to understand how these people live, how they think, how their world view is formed and what life values they adhere to.

Participant observation requires that the sociologist pretends to be a piece of furniture, that the student or scholar is present during all activities of the subject under study, whether that is a gathering at the edge of the city, a drinking spree in the disco or the employment of new tricks on a square in the city. Do however not think that participant observation is always that easy.

I began to feel that I found my place in the company of skinheads. They trust me and they themselves call me to invite me for meetings and so forth. In reality, however, the ‘field’, isn’t predictable and that what we took for certain yesterday, may turn out to be an illusion today. It is like life itself. Trust may change into distrust, truth into deception and sincerity into hypocrisy. For the first time in my life I was reminded about my ethnicity like it was a deficiency. I came there to study xenophobic sentiments directed against some sort of mythical person, but I never expected that the sentiments would be directed against myself and that I could become part of the group, who are counted as ‘conditionally black’, wrote Al’bina Garifzyanova, a sociologist at ‘Regiona’ and teacher at the Public Relations faculty of the Ulyanovsk State University.

After risky submersions like the one described above scholars also come to record confessions like this one:

Male, 20 years, Nazi-skin: “I reply: there is no hatred in me, not racist, not nationalist. Hatred is an emotion. I am in fact a balanced person. ‘A violent moment’ – the word ‘moment’ is emphasized – is only one aspect of our ideology … The idea [hatred] is very much evolving and does not lead to chaotic violence. It is a very disciplined method of survival in a world of shit, lies and sodomy.”

Research into the lives of ‘skins’ by the scholars of the Region center takes place in the habitual place of their gatherings, the basement. The sociologists managed to be presented at a very interesting event, a clash between the two leaders of the gang. These two old friends quarreled about the code of conduct in the basement. One considered the basement a place for friendly gathering with drinks and music. The other insisted that the contacts among skinheads should be based on a strong discipline and hierarchy.

When after a year the scholars returned to their research material, it was clear that the behavior in the group had changed. It had become more formal. By the way, soon thereafter, this gang fell apart. The specialists, however, do note that the general xenophobic background in the conversations, interviews and correspondence with these youngsters has remained. It turns out that a young person, who has rejected the outward trumpery of the markers of a subculture, still continues to follow a fixed idea.

There is no such thing as a former skinhead. What does it mean, ‘former’ !? When it is in here (pointing at her heart), you cannot leave. .. one of the ‘skin-girls’ says.

Looking from a distance it seems as if the most important thing for a young person is to stand out in the crowd, to wear something extravagant and to attract attention to oneself. Nevertheless mullets and dyed black hair do conceal an internal process; the search for answers to ‘cursed questions’: Every young person searches to his or her best ability for a place in life. He or she shapes a worldview, a personal social program and a hierarchy of values. Along the way these searches change and so do the accompanying looks. The eccentric shells may disappear all together, but the ideas that have taken root in their minds will determine the future path of these persons.

Yuliya, 24 years, journalist. Leonid, 26, artist. Punks

What I like about punks is their creativity, Yuliya explains. It’s the aspect of personal freedom, the rebelliousness, the denial of any sort of authority, of any sort of boss. That feeling of freedom is great.  Among punks you will not be able find two people that look the same.

Solidarity instead of subculture

This phenomenon, the existence of the ideas associated with subcultures, but without the external characteristics of subculture itself, became the focus of a separate project of the Region center. The name of the project ‘New solidarity among youth’ is quite daring and provocative. The involved scholars want to replace the term subculture, which they consider to be outdated, with the more universal concept of solidarity.

‘The concept of subculture divides youngsters along different poles, constructs barriers and establishes strong ties with territory, social groups and nationalities’, explains Elena Omel’chenko. The concept of solidarity on the other hand shows a general core of values, shaping trends in contemporary society. The concept is much more open than ‘subculture’.

Noticing the confusion on my face, she begins to explain enthusiastically.

Let us for example have a look at the solidarity for the support of a patriarchal order. Several religious youth movements subscribe to these values and so do surprisingly skinheads. It is quite funny to observe how these ill-assorted groups joined hands in protest against a gay parade in Moscow. You can also add pensioners to this mix. They were all united by one idea, Omel’chenko makes me me understand.

When it comes to solidarity, subcultural differences aren’t that important. It’s more important to determine an enemy. When we look at these ‘fa’s’ [fascists] and infa’s [antifascists], we should not call them movements, but solidarities. Their opposition to each other is based on antonym pairs like: anarchy versus order, westernizers versus nationalists. At the same time, we can divide these solidarities in subcultural parts.

Today, the borders between many subcultures are eroded and young people move from one group to another. After all, despite the outward appearance, they are united by an idea. For example, among the ‘antifa’ you may finds punks, animal rights protectors and red skinheads (RASH, Red and Anarchist SkinHeads). There are even the so called traditional skinheads (TRAD) who have moved to the SHARP-skins (SkinHeads Against Racial Prejudices).

Imagine yourself two young people. Both have millimetered hair and wear heavy boots and a bomber jacket. They look like identical twins, but when you would talk to them, one would talk about black violence and a white race under threat, while the other would speak about internationalism and the class struggle.

Solidarity is therefore a much more stable concept than subculture. A transition from ‘fa’ to ‘antifa’ is a rarity. A person would not as much have to change his or her outward appearance, but his or her entire system of values.

Katerina, 24 years, and her son Danya, 2,5 years. Hippies

Katya left her home after she gave birth to her son and since then has been ‘hippying’. She likes the free life, when you can travel and not depend on anyone.

The world we make ourselves

On the basis of solidarities we can distinguish basic trends that will shape Russian society in the near future, Elena Omel’chenko says. These are not the ideas that are dictated by the state from above, but those ideas that grow from within, ideas that reflect that what really troubles youngsters. 

Omel’chenko has no doubt that there will be more and more worshippers of fantasy worlds. It is clear that some ideas become more and more topical. These are self-representation, the construction, fantasy, imaginary world, the production of personal goods, which is in essence a new culture: Make everything yourself, your own music, your own films, your own newspapers and so forth. Nowadays, when a youth movement doesn’t have a presentation, no performance or games, such a movement is doomed to fail. And perhaps that’s why all ‘formal’ movements and Nashi in particular are able to capture the hearts of young people.

Male, 17 years old: “Everyone knows that Nashi is a pro-Kremlin organization. Everyone knows that nobody in that organization is really thinking and that they go there exclusively for ‘a free lunch’ [although there is no such thing as a free lunch] I know two guys, who used to go to the Nashi, only to get ‘a free lunch’. The don’t care about politics at all. They don’t really care about anything.”

These values of young people can roughly be divided in two groups: experimentation and creation. Young people experiment with their looks and clothes, for example by dying their hair or dressing in pink and black clothes, as well as with their actions, like roof-climbing, skating over stairs or protesting against the authorities.

Creation should be understood in a broader sense than drawing lessons in an art club or singing in the school choir. It is the original remaking of oneself: photographing yourself in different manners, making your own films – even when made with an amateur camera and with your friends in the leading parts – and recording your own music – even when it’s done with software.

Despite her position as a professor and director, Elena Omel’chenko doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge that she herself feels most sympathy for the fans of anime. She doesn’t object to making the world more colorful than our monotonous reality.

Anime is generally speaking Japanese animation based on the themes of manga comics or books for children and teenagers. Nowadays, however, anime is not longer the prerogative of the Japanese. Young people all over Europe are creating anime characters.

By the way, reading manga is is also quite a creative undertaking. Imagine yourself a comic book in which only the more general outline is charted and in which many actions and phrases are left out. The connection/chords between the actions and the left out cadres you will have to discover yourself. This is what attracts young people to anime. There are no rigid rules, You can paint your own world, your own heroes and with their help live a life that is full of adventures and travels to faraway planets. The result is a culture of dreams that is gladly shared over the internet.

AnubisCeaSer: “If you were an anime hero, what would you look like and how would you live? I would have long – well – very long black hair, up to my knees, big kind red eyes and I would live amidst magical wars and battles.”

Lanchelot: I would be a sniper for rent, a good-for-nothing, not knowing a peaceful life (the soldiers routine to locate the enemy would not allow me to live), without a sense of humor, someone who doesn’t have a goal in life.

Young people do not only draw anime, but also transform themselves into their favorite heroes. They call themselves cosplayers (after the English costumer play). Blue wigs, dresses with ruches, wings, elven ears, teeth and swords. All can be bought or ordered on the internet.

It happens that our young people are adopting foreign ideas. Where is our own culture? I do worry about the japanization of my generation.

This is an ancient controversy among not only journalists, but within the entire Russian academic community, Omel’chenko says. It is often said that all subcultures are but copies of their western equivalents. It is however the shape, the shell that is copied. The context is always local. Nobody will ever simply reproduce a foreign culture without adding to it one’s own meanings. And that is what we try to do, to understand that meaning. That’s always local. The content that is inserted, is connected to the local economic, political and cultural life. Skinheads in Vorkuta are after all somewhat different than their counterparts in – let’s say – St. Petersburg.
There is the outward shell, the style of clothing or the color of the hair, but there is also the inner content, that differs depending on the country, the city or the neighborhood.

Gleb, 18 years, studies in St. Petersburg at the institute for machine building. Rapper.

Gleb has been rapping for 4 years, his friend Anatloy says. His parents are quite relaxed about it. They already got used it. We got a peaceful subculture and do not fool around with drugs.

Broken legs as a value in life

While we talk with Elena Emel’chenko, the conference continues. Lectures are being given, questions are being answered. The young sociologists talk about studying the spaces, where all subcultures live; real, symbolic and virtual.

‘The center is the most alluring part of the city’, the next lecture starts. Sociologist Al’bina Garifzyanova tells us which subcultures can be found where in Ulyanovsk.

After the conference I persuade Al’bina to show my the places where young people hang out. We go to the park, a playground, swings and sandpits. Outside the wind is stormy. It’s wet and foul. Normally, you wouldn’t find me outside in this weather, but going deeper inside the park the sound of metal sounds becomes louder and louder. There in a corner boys steer their bikes and skateboards over railings and half destroyed pieces of what once must have been a fountain. Right across from them, there is the 2 floor building of the Committee for Youth Affairs.

Bikers and skaters have been gathering here since long. Nevertheless it was only last year, when they gave them these pieces, Al’bina points out, standing lonely amidst these concrete blocks and metal railings. The railings are stormed by a lad of about 16 years old in a sweater and jeans that are torn off under his knees. The iron obstacle proves to much for him. The lad flies in one, the bike in the other direction. 

‘Hey, get out!’ screams another lad with a similar bike, instead of asking his companion if he needs help.

When I ask the skaters and bikers if they are not afraid to fall, Al’bina says, they only grin and tell me they have already broken their legs five times and hit their heads a thousand times. I would also like to learn to do tricks on wheels, but I would never try, if there wasn’t a professional nearby. For me my head is more important. For them the physical exercise and the sensation of risk is more important.

Sociologists, proceeding from their methodology, explain to me that this is also a form of solidarity. The key aspect in this case is the core value of risk. Risk in particular is that which unites rollers, skaters and other kids without an instinct for self preservation.

And what’s behind that wall, I ask pointing at a brick wall covered with graffiti. on the right hand side of the square. Is this the place where graffiti artists gather? No, this is an unfinished building, A’lbina says. They all take their pictures here. And it functions as a toilet.

Ilya, 26 years, musician, works at TV-service. Alena, 17 years, Goth, learns in school. Sergey, 22 years, no subculture.

I have many friends from different subcultures; goths, punks, hippies. One of my friends is even black, a rapper. To say in a blunt manner, we’re all cooking in the same pot of kasha.

Everyone has his own gopniks

We walk to the central square of the city, named after Lenin. Facing us stands the light-blue painted building of the city administration. On the other side of the square there is the monument for the chieftain of the world proletariat. In a way the bolsheviks were also a subculture, or as the sociologists taught me a ‘solidarity’. The bolsheviks also gathered in basements and forests. They also had their discussion clubs, their own rituals. But then for seventy and a bit more years, they became the ruling party in the largest state of the world.

From the speakers, somewhere under the roof of the administration building, sounds a long forgotten melody: ‘Rome, forgive me. I have a plane to catch. From Moscow to Paris. From New-York to Moscow’. The administration DJ is clearly not so young anymore that he keeps up with recent musical developments. The skaters and rollers like always hang around the monument, even in the worst of weathers.

Our youngsters love Lenin’s monument, says Al’bina. It’s great for skating over the marble steps. If only Lenin could be removed, that would be even more splendid.

A group of young people passes bye: tracking suits, beer and talking slang.

Do you even have gopniks [a description for petty street criminals] meeting in the center, I ask Al’bina.

You need to be careful using such terminology, she sighs. Skaters for example call the free runners gopniks. I myself understand gopniks as uneducated people, the culturally undeveloped, the absolutely intolerant. The gopniks themselves have a very different meaning. In general, when you’re conducting qualitative sociology, you talk to specific people – Petya or Vasya – and you will understand immediately how these characteristics are all individual. That why many say that we’re some kind of other sociologists, very different from those that write textbooks. Personally, I think that classifications are always utopian. They always lead into a blind alley

Yes, you have said yourself that classifications will bring you nowhere.

Yes, that’s why we are trying to introduce the concept of youth solidarity, which means discovering those key aspects, that do influence their looks, but also have a stable existence in society.

The gopniks for example are also considered to be part of the group that shares the idea of risk. Although in this case there is a different subtext. When rollers and skaters seek risk in various physical exercises, gopniks and skins seek risk in their respective group ideologies, in their code not to cozy up to the authorities and not to recognize authority and at some times not to recognize the law.

Nastya, 17 years, anime fan, studies at a school for managers and works as a nanny.

At the university I try to walk in normal clothes. Some don’t care. Some look at you with suspicion or even aggression. They don’t understand that these are not simply cartoons. Anime exposes the psychology of people, their mutual relations.

Punk, rapper, emo … from now on that is everyone

The skaters are being observed by a few boys in leather jackets and loose worn out jeans. Punks, I tell myself quietly. One of the skating boys walks up to them, puts a black jacket over his sweater and changes from skater into punk.

The square is the place where you can meet representatives of all subcultures, Al’bina continues our excursion. ‘They all talk with each other. That is one of our main conclusions. There are no pure subcultures left. Today the weather is great and we’ll go skating. Tomorrow a rock group will visit the city and we will go to their concert.’

The sociologists think that in the nineties subcultures were more closed, more one sided in their views and positions. The confrontations were also more violent. Today the boundaries are more permeable and that permits us to talk about a new perception of youth culture, through the prism of solidarity.

Only a few aggressive groups are still involved in a violent ideological hostility. Skins for example conflict with punks and antifascists. A fight between emo and anime fans is simply unimaginable. It’s even ridiculous. Of course sometimes the terms need to be cleared up. Bikers and skaters for example share a square. However when a skater would buy a bike tomorrow, no one would interpret that as something out of the ordinary.

It’s considered normal when a person is skinhead for three months, a rapper for two months, punk for half a year and then becomes an emo.

There is also such a trend, that as soon as something becomes fashionable, the vanguard kids loose their interest and begin their search for new forms, Al’bina explains.

For a long time it seemed to be the other way around. ‘We are many’- ‘We are a power’ – ‘Cool!’ But in that process individuality and originality were lost. It smells of pop [popular culture] or glamour. I don’t know how I to explain it better.

Regardless of how they are called, all subcultures to some or more extent experiment with their looks, whether it’s the gothic world of vampires, the militant world of skinheads or the emotional, flesh colored and depressive world of the emo.

Changing your look, dependent on inner feelings, is a trend among the youth. When you are drawn to mysticism, you will probably change into a black cloak, put in fake teeth and go hang out with goths. But when vampires don’t attract you, then you go to the emo’s. From time to time, the reasons leading to a change of image are difficult to define by even the youngsters themselves.

One girl shaved of her hair and took 42 piercings. And that’s only in her face. On her body there are more than a hundred. And when she was asked why she did it, she answered that she thought that her body was looking too human.

The artist in you

Al’bina and I walk towards the huge three floor memorial honoring the 100th birthday of Lenin. In front of the memorial there is a singing fountain, playing Tchaikovsky’s waltz of the flowers. Around, couples in love crowd together. From somewhere behind the memorial we hear hip hop music. There on the stairs of the fire escape some boys are practicing their breakdancing.

Knitted hats, loose jackets until the knees. Jumps, claps and summersaults. A 15 year old boy is performing his act for the tenth time already. From the higher steps his friends are recording their friend’s dancing with a mobile phone. Encouraging applause fills the square.

The pictures and video will be online tonight. Why? To show off, I suggest somewhat maliciously.

Youth culture, isn’t just about image or public presentation, Al’bina says. It’s music, books and of course websites. I am a postgraduate philosophy student, but from to time to time I feel quite uneducated. I am astonished by the detail with which they discuss their music. It’s simply beyond belief. There are so many subtleties. New groups spring up all the time.

More and more kids start creating something by themselves. The sociologists are in a hurry to register this as a trend. Films, music, paintings, these are no longer the prerogative of the cultural elite. Today each youngster can do something for himself or herself at home. ‘We make stupid films as if they were cool!!!’, a group on the social network Vkontakte claims ironically.

I say goodbye to the sociologists and walk through Lenin’s memorial towards my hotel. From the steps, close to the holy of holiest, the wing where Vladimir Ul’yanov was born, an emo girl watches the rappers with a cigarette between her teeth. The latter finish their sunset warm-up concert and the crowd joins them.

Isn’t it strange for an emo to be friends with rappers, I ask one of the lads and then I immediately understand that I just blurted out a stupidity.

What are you talking about? We are one happy group, the rapper spits in the direction of a birch tree, that must have been planted by Kosygin himself 40 years ago. All start walking towards the riverside.

I follow them with my eyes. Clumsy knee length jeans. Flashy clothes, combining shreaking pink and mournful black. It’s not that easy follow all this social trends and values.