'I was relieved – maybe now I could let my guard down from Scottish levels of vigilance. Soon though, many of my Russian friends and acquaintances were assuring me that Russia’s ghastly gopniks were worse.'Alena Repkina
Whenever I am asked the horrendous question “What is Russia like then?” I experience an internal shudder and a sigh (how can I answer that in one line?). Then I suppose I serve up the standard line: “Russia is like Europe. They have the same shit we have here. Just there are little differences.” It’s my standard Pulp Fiction line. My years living and working in Russia actually opened my eyes, stage by stage, as to how Russia differs from a “regular European country,” whatever that is.
I remember well talking with an elderly man outside a food store one spring afternoon about why I had chosen St. Petersburg over Moscow as my new home. “What use is it for you to stay here? They have all the money in Moscow! Is it because they call Piter the cultural capital of Russia?” he asked sharply, going on before I could begin to stutter any reply.
“Well let me tell you something. It used to be a real cultural oasis here. Great poets, playwrights and authors. It was a cut above the rest. But then revolution, terror and the great siege. After the war most of the educated population had been killed one way or another,” he said.
“Then, in their place, came all kind of backward bumpkins from the countryside to replenish Leningrad. And they are still here today and that includes their hapless descendants with their oafish manners and pig heads. We call those from the last generation gopniki. You’d better watch out for their kind!”
As was often the case in Russia, a banal bit of chit-chat had unexpectedly revealed something genuinely fascinating (at least for me). And I had heard that mysterious word again. Gopniks! A mysterious sub-group in Russian society. As a foreigner studying the Russian language I had already tried to translate this term; for those from Britain the word “chav” might be best, while the American version would be something akin to “white trash.”
Of course all of these are just rough equivalents. Gopnik is pretty much untranslatable, as for the Russian mind it immediately conjures up the home-grown image of a rough and nasty, sunflower-seed chewing scumbag spewing expletives. In other words, just an all-round walking embodiment of low culture, shocking manners and human degeneracy in general.
Hailing as I do from Scotland, where violence, heavy drinking and foul language are almost accepted as par for the course (according to the national stereotype), I was immediately curious as to how the Russian gopnik would compare to our version of the species. In my home country I had developed a sophisticated “fight or flight” approach to any groups of unknown males in my proximity on the streets after 5 p.m. The question “Hey pal, have you got any smokes?” from across the street was, back in those days, something that got me ready for any kind of trouble to explode.
In Russia though, I had yet to be troubled. When I had seen Russians in arguments or any kind of fights on the street I had been surprised to find the level of violent, male psychopathic activity to be lower than in Scotland. This was somewhat hard to grasp, given the levels of drunkenness and disorder on the St. Petersburg streets at night.
I was relieved – maybe now I could let my guard down from Scottish levels of vigilance. Soon though, many of my Russian friends and acquaintances were assuring me that Russia’s ghastly gopniks were worse and told me of the horrible things they do to people; how to recognize and avoid them. However, my first encounter with gopniks would offer further evidence to support the maxim “experience is the teacher of all things.”
As was the custom during St. Petersburg’s White Nights (and to be honest the practice during most of my stay in the Northern Capital), a group of friends and I still found ourselves on the streets at 6 a.m. and, with most bars and clubs closing, we were about to buy some more booze and party a bit longer in a small park. The three of us were all foreigners and as we entered a small side street we suddenly found ourselves facing three other men.
There was nothing you could immediately put your finger on to describe what was wrong with them – not all poorly-dressed young men with greasy hair in Russia can be classified as gopniks after all. It was something about their demeanor… that and the amateurish tattoos, gold front teeth, dusty tracksuits and that the first sentence we heard was: “Who the f--- are these c----, hey give us one of your smokes man!”
At this point, I felt it was going to be tough to avoid a beating or a “let me look at your phone” mugging scenario. With the fear rising and adrenaline flowing, who would make the first move, would we run for our lives like filthy cowards and be chased down like dogs? Or take our lead from the Red Army at Stalingrad? Not one step backward comrades!
Amazingly, these gopniks, whose faces had seemed so full of bile, soon warmed to us after they found out we spoke decent Russian, and none of us were from America (my American friend lied as always – “Yankee go home!”). Very quickly, we found we had another problem – how to get rid of them. They demanded we pick up some beers and sit with them. I can’t deny I wasn’t concerned about the possibility of some grim kind of vileness being planned. But I was amazed how easily it all went. They just wanted to chat and hang out – and tell us about the last time they beat some Americans senseless. We nodded eagerly.
Given the amounts of alcohol involved it is surprising I can remember anything. But one thing I do remember is how impressed they were I could swear in Russian – I became a bit of a performing monkey and remember finding it hard to find a way out of our unplanned rendezvous. Following one gopnik’s profane monologues on how annoying “bitch girlfriends” are, I came up with my escape story – I had to call my “bitch” of a Russian girlfriend (which I didn’t have at the time) and either go home or get it in the ear.
After my long fabricated explanation of what it was like to have a Russian girlfriend, they let me go home (I claimed my balls would be cut off otherwise and this seemed a predicament they were familiar with). With backslaps and “farewell brother” and mobile phone numbers exchanged, we had escaped an hour later with the only losses being 300 rubles’ worth [around $9 at the time – RBTH] of Oxota ("Hunter") beer we spent on our “spontaneous-compulsory” drinking session. I think I remember feeling “that was really easy! I can be the king of the gopniks if I stay here!” What a terrifying thought.
Reading this, you might wonder if I need my head examined, but allow me to offer some perspective. In Scotland, random and unprovoked attacks from small groups of young men are not rare; I myself had taken a kicking or two and seen close friends seriously injured. Back home there was no way out by using your tongue – that would just make your situation worse. But here in Russia, I could actually talk my way out! I was like some kind of celebrity!
And so it continued. On my nights out in St. Petersburg I no longer feared the gopniks; I learned their language and became proficient in the materny yazyk – Russian swearing, which is almost an obscene dialect of its own. It got so far that I even acquired the nickname “Shotlandsky Gopnik” in the corner shops and dive bars of Dumskaya Street. What had I become?
So what could all this tell me about Russia and life in general? I suppose that both in the UK and Russia there is a tendency to create bogeymen – the gopniks and the chavs are widely represented as the lowest kind of trash and relentlessly demonized or lampooned in the media and popular culture. Russia’s gopniks helped me remember an important principle – judge a man by his actions not according to prejudice.
Don’t worry, I’m not planning to create any “Save the Gopniks” Facebook page; but I have to say my experience showed how living abroad can help make you more open-minded; by experiencing the Russian “gopnik” phenomenon I could unpack a lot of thoughts about how I saw my home country’s social problems. On my return to Scotland I could feel liberated from a lot of my inner negativity when thinking about our Scottish “gopniks.” And so I offer my lonely toast to all the gopniks I have known in Russia – well done lads, you’re not as bad as the ones in Scotland!
Gopniks of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our teeth!
Matthew Blackburn is studying for a PhD in Russian Studies. He taught English and worked as a translator while studying Russian in St. Petersburg from 2006-2010, and returned to carry out PhD fieldwork in 2014-2015.
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