It will surprise approximately zero people that Russia took the film Fight Club really fucking seriously. It is a place that has depressing violence hardwired into its DNA, whether that manifests itself in outbreaks of homophobic abuse, army hazings that lead to young men being castrated, or its president attempting to win hearts by striding around topless in the countryside killing things with a rifle.
In 2008, two former members of an underground bare-knuckle club in Moscow came up with the idea of starting their own IRL fight club. They called it the Ronin Family, and for just $900 any high-powered businessmen can enjoy a week of getting beaten up and humilitated in front of total strangers. According to its founders, the Ronin Family's goal is to turn educated urbanites into real men by physically and psychologically torturing them.
Maria Turchenkova, a young Russian freelance photographer, spent a week documenting this bizarre boot camp. I spoke to her about what she saw.
VICE: Hi, Maria. First of all, how did you first hear about the Ronin Family?
Maria Turchenkova: I stumbled upon an ad for it on the internet. It read: "You are not what you have—your job, your car, or your bank account. If you want to change your life, find the warrior inside you and fight your inner enemy—come and join the next course!” So I called the organizers and asked to do a story on them.
Easy breezy. And people have to pay to get access to the club?
Yes, all participants have to pay something like $900 for a week-long course. The trainers, however, were members of a real fight club, which I guess was the main attraction for the less battle-hardened. Any wannabe fighter would then have to present the club with a health certificate and go through an interview to be admitted. What type of exercises do the fighters practice?
The first challenge takes place in the second day of training. It's a psychological one in which they are asked to remember the worst thing they have ever done in their life, something they have never told anyone, and to tell everyone in the group. They in turn were free to ask as many questions of each other as they wanted.
Then it was time for the physical challenge. The exercises were hard, and if anyone stopped midway they were beaten up and forced to start from the beginning. Those who didn't want to continue had to leave the gym and weren't allowed back. If anyone came back, they had to face complete disgrace, and that was the key point of the training, really.
Was there a lot of screaming and crying?
Yes, sure. I even made a video about it. In one of the photos, you can see men holding each other's arms during an exercise. What's that about? And what's up with the knives?
This was basically a team-building exercise. Whenever someone felt weak, his mate had to support him—otherwise everybody fell down and they would all have to start again. After that, it was time for the knives to come out. They were only made of wood, but the task was to act as if they were fighting for their lives, so they hurt each other a lot.
What do you know about the founders of the Ronin Family?
They're two guys—both of them sportsmen, without any real connection to the army. The first one is called "Gary"—Igor Lunyakov—and the second one "Razor"—Anton Rudakov. By the way, everybody in the group invented some warrior nicknames for themselves, like Wolf, Director, Balls, Artist etc. They called their team “New Sparta.” What is the main point of the club?
To find faith in yourself, to get over the fear of being hit. It was obvious that it all relied on psychology. The "fighters" were first humiliated and then made to confront their moral weakness, so that when the time came for physical exhaustion, people managed to defeat their "inner enemy" and finally, believe in themselves. Do you think the organizers saw themselves as some kind of missionaries?
Absolutely. They sincerely wanted to help these guys. Recently, Gary and Razor had an argument about the way the club was managed and had to close it. Gary apparently decided there was no point in all the psychological exercises, while Razor wanted to keep the routine as it was. Initially, however, their ideas were simple: According to Gary and Razor, everybody in modern life complained more than what should be allowed.
What was Gary's new method?
Gary at some point told me that his view of life was that it was a lottery. If a person is strong, he will find the way to open his mind and find himself. There was nothing that could be done about a weak person, according to Gary—training them this way could actually make things worse. To me, this whole obsession with "overcoming our fears" is quite American. It brings to mind notions of the “self-made man,” and that kind of thing.
I don't think it's American. The initial idea might derive from Fight Club, but in more general terms I can see how men in big cities could share these sentiments. Especially those who work for large, faceless corporations or even lost their job during the market crash. The feelings of uselessness, depersonalization and the inabillity to have confidence in your future—these are more universal feelings. At the same time it's as particular to Russia, as to any other place: There might be a lot of companies and hence a lot of possibilities at the moment, but there is no mechanism built to help assimilate people with this global world, with market economy. At the same time, I noticed that all participants were about 30 to 35 years old. So we can add midlife crisis to the list.
I guess we can. Thanks, Maria.
Find more of Maria's work here.
If you like this, you will love this:
"On the first day he was sent to sleep in a park. The next day we hosed him down, dressed him in skirts, and he spent a day forcibly feminized and we slapped him when he wasn’t learning fast enough. In the evening when he came home, three guys threw him on the floor and…. had their way with him, as if he were a woman. The first two were pretty rough but the third was gentle.
"The next day, we taped one eye shut, then in the evening we stitched his lips shut so the words would build up but he wouldn’t get to talk. The day after we took the stitches out, and untaped his eye. Then I whipped him, and sang the Norse runes as I beat him, to get the energy of each rune in his body. Then we put hooks in his flesh and hung him from a tree. But not for nine days, only for about an hour. Haha!"
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