This site is our response to everyone who has ever asked us what Russia is like, and for anyone who might have never wondered, but should have. It’s an attempt to put into words Russia as we see it; our go at explaining that big old riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, that in fact, never went away. It’s about understanding the views, opinions and psyche of a nation that hits our headlines daily, without many of us ever really knowing why. And ultimately, it’s about providing a picture of Russia, as seen first-hand by two people, who think that although the journey they’re on to try and understand this country might never end, the process itself is worth sharing.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Meet the Gopniks

A group of young men wearing pointy-toed leather shoes, gold chains and shiny tracksuits with fake brand names – think Abibas not Adidas - squat around a mobile phone that blares out Russian techno, chewing on sunflower seeds, drinking beer and occasionally spitting massive gobs of phlegm to display their manliness. Meet the Gopniks, a so-called youth sub culture (although no one would ever actually describe themselves as a gopnik) of young, not-very-well-off, Russian men.

It is impossible to live in Russia very long without hearing about the gopniki: newspapers, blogs, even my friends, talk constantly about them, but exactly who they are is a bit of a mystery to me. , an online ‘museum’ of gopniks providing a cod-anthropological expose of the group, gives the impression that they are a defined criminal group, whilst another site describes them as 'a post-Soviet subculture educated in the criminal aesthetic and brought up in a working environment.'

And yet my friends' use of the word 'gopnik' is far wider: anyone from the working classes, who seems to be getting a bit lairy or causing a bit of a trouble can be classed as a gopnik. Could it be that gopnik is the Slavic equivalent of the British chav? Is that even possible in Russia, a country which apparently doesn't sh
are Britain's complex system of class snobbery, as epitomised by the much-debated division between chavs and chav-nots?

The exact origins of the term ‘gopnik’ are unclear, although it is generally agreed that it comes from the addition of the suffix –nik to the acronym GOP. However to exactly what GOP refers remains a contentious issue. One version has is that it stands for Gorodskoye Obshchestvo Prizreniya (the City Society of Care), the name for the network of poor houses set up by the Soviets following the October Revolution. Another version translates the acronym as Gorodskoye Obshchezhitiye Proletariata (The City Hall of Proletarian Residence), referring to a large hostel set up in the 1920s in Saint Petersburg in the Hotel Oktyabrskaya, to house the tidal wave of peasants and small-city dwellers that flooded into the capital during the chaotic dislocation of the post-revolution years. According to Petersburg folklore, the once-grand hotel soon became became renowned as a hubbub of criminal activity although historians have never been able to find proof of it’s existence.

In any case, whichever acronym GOP refers to, the term gopnik evolved as a word to describe poor young men, whose backwards ‘provinciality’, criminal behaviour and general loutishness conflicted with Soviet rhetoric, which called for ‘culturedness’ - a value reaching far beyond our western perception of culture, encompassing certain standards of behaviour such as abstinence from alcohol, traditional sexual morals and a smart and clean appearance. Throughout the Soviet years, the term gopnik was invoked as an insult to those on the margins of society, who drank, committed crime or were just generally considered uneducated and uncultured.

The term gopnik survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and throughout the 1990s it evolved to refer to the hard men who reigned throughout this lawless period – the reason why most Russian flats have at least three locks, as gopniki, shaved-headed heavies provided the muscle in business and politics. During the 1990s gopniki had power, if not respect, as they raked in money by any means as many, more educated Russians suffered from the fall out of the Soviet Union and the difficulties of adjusting to the free market.

With the demise of Yeltsin and the implementation of Putin’s iron hand and with no strong cultural yardstick a la Soviet culturedness, it looked as though Gopniki as a social subgroup could be over. Indeed, when a couple of years ago a group of journalists from Exile magazine went on a ‘gopnik’ safari they concluded that the gopnik movement was as good as over: Just as the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex evolved into the rock pigeon, right before our eyes we're witnessing the rapid devolution of the gopnik into something that can only be described as "skinny dude with a bad mullet who tells everyone he's a brand manager but for now he works at a Evroset kiosk where he managed to five-finger enough cash to get himself a used Nissan Almera, which he loves more than anything which ever was, is, or shall be." And so from a feared group of fairly hardcore criminals, the gopniki have become a mocked group of not-very-wealthy Russians. Gopnik has become a cult idea, spawning books, music, the works... Take a look at this clip by Syava, a rapper who parodies ‘Gop Hop’ artists (think Goldie Lookin’ Chain meets the Russian Provinces) a current you tube sensation.

The label ‘gopnik’ is assigned to anyone of low income and low education, who, in the eyes of society, don't have the nouse to sieze the opportunities available to them in society. Today's Russian gopniks are no different to England’s chavs or America’s white trash: they are not a cultural sub group – indeed, they can not even be defined as one group - but a reflection of social snobbery very much alive in Russia today.


Caroline said...

You can't criticise Russians for social snobbery Katie if you won't let me wear my trackies tucked into my socks when we're together, la.

Кынев said...
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Кынев said...

You did it nevertheless!
Amazing investigation )

It's Sergei:)

News from the Eastern Blog said...
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News from the Eastern Blog said...
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Katie said...

Thanks for the inspirational idea, Sergei :) much appreciated!

Caroline - that's for aesthetic reasons, nothing to do with social snobbery. You just look foolish when you do it!

clumsy_lobster said...

Really enjoyed that - thank-you! i found this term a while back and had it in my head as chav. No idea it had such a rich etymology

anastasia said...

little gopnik chavs: