Russia's Skinhead Thug-Literati

They'll read you Pushkin then kick your face in.

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29 June 2011, 7:46am

In a room redolent of dried fish, stale beer and pipe tobacco, men from the depressed outskirts of St. Petersburg, Russia, crowd around a television. They watch intently as an actor dressed in a shirtfront and double-breasted coat beats people over the head with a cane, a scene they’ve viewed dozens of times. The film, released in 1990, is Yuri Mamin’s Bakenbardy (Sideburns). It tells the story of two rival teenage gangs – one fueled by destruction and chaos, the other bodybuilding and self-importance – and a smaller group known as the Pushkin Club. The members of this fictitious organization are devotees of 19th century Russian poet and author Aleksandr Pushkin. Known as “Pushkinists,” their wonky moral compass is supposedly informed by the laureate’s writings. Mamin's film has spawned a real-life subculture of young Russians devoted to Pushkin.

South Park fan, or dead American child fan?

But while Bakenbardy’s Pushkinists dress like 19th century dandies, their real-life counterparts prefer tight white tank tops, bulging muscles, and tattoos. Their style is a mutated appropriation inspired by Lyubery, a nationalist youth movement that began in the Moscow suburb of Lyubertsy during the 70s and gained popularity throughout the next decade before fizzling out. While the Pushkinists may have adopted the Lyubery aesthetic, they are quick to point out their ideology sets them apart.

“The most important thing is what you've got inside, followed by what’s written on you,” says a member who doesn't want to be identified. He and his associates twist their arms and pull up their shirts to show me their near-identical tattoos of Pushkin’s likeness. Aside from stamping his face all over their bodies, they recite his poetry in the middle of everyday conversation and gladly beat the shit out of people who don’t adequately respect the great thinker.

In Bakenbardy, Pushkinists battle the Cappella, a rival gang of young punks who preach lechery and moral degradation. Today’s Pushkinists are similarly repulsed by Western subcultures – from punks to cowboys to fans of gay disco – and are quick to throw the first punch when their values are threatened.

“Tsar Peter the Great opened the window to Europe so he could give them the finger, not follow their lead,” says Pavlik, a pipe-smoking local Pushkinist. “Adoration of the West is conformism.” Pavlik regularly lectures local youth on Russia’s glorious history, with special emphasis on his favorite author. His pedagogical method is simple: Love Pushkin unconditionally or get the shit kicked out of you.

“Some people claim we’re nationalists, but that isn't true,” Pavlik says. “We just think Russians shouldn't like the Germans, the English, or anyone, really. You should value your roots. Skinheads are people who believe in nothing! And hipsters? We'll teach them to really love Russia!”

ALEKSANDRA BORODINOVA

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