This article first appeared in The eXile on June 1, 2007
For months now, our overseas readers have been asking us, “What’s a gopnik?” They have a vague idea of what a gopnik looks like, thanks to our Face Control page: tough Russian dudes with bad skin and blank fuck-if-I-care expressions. They’re the guys who look more comfortable squatting than standing. But more than anything else, they’re the last males on planet earth who can get away with wearing those 20s-style leather gangster caps without looking like drama school fags rehearsing for a musical.
What makes the gopniki so fucking cool to behold is that they exist beyond irony. If the gopniki are anything, they are “authentic.” In an era in which “authenticity” is the most valued and rarest attribute of all (in the minds of middle-class Gen-Y hipsters, at least), the gopniki rank at the top of the White World’s coolness hierarchy.
Proof of their authenticity lies in their incredibly bold tastes: a combination of cheese, menace, and Third World flash so brash that even the avant-est Western hipster couldn’t possibly imagine it, because even if he or she did, it would inevitably come off as kitsch and harmless in their bourgeois hands. Even the fact that gopniki love blasting techno, singing shitty karaoke in cheap cafes with blinking disco lights, or wearing cheap pointy leather shoes to match their 20s Ragtime kepka-tabletka caps, only boosts their cred as the baddest-assed white guys on Planet Earth.
But the story of Russia’s gopniki isn’t a simple celebration of undiscovered authentic-coolness. Rather, it’s a tragedy of literary proportions. Like Faulkner’s Old South, or Tolstoi’s fading landed gentry, the story of Russia’s gopniki is the tragic tale of a dying breed of a once-proud people. Charles Portis wrote that whenever a guidebook refers to a country’s people as being “proud,” it usually means “barely human” in the special lingo of those guidebooks. In the case of the gopniki, they really are barely human, and that’s why they’re so fucking awesome.
Take the word “gopnik”: rarely does a word so seamlessly match the object that it signifies. The “gop” is brutal, dumb, and funny, but not funny like “I’ll laugh in the gopnik’s face” funny. It’s funny in a very private way, safely inside your car, with the doors locked and the windows up, and the foot on the pedal, and the wife and kids screaming not to stop at the red light.
* * *
“You can take my Speedo away when you peel it from my cold, sticky balls.”
How and where did gopnik culture start?
The word “gopnik” wasn’t a clever poet’s invention, but rather it comes, as so many cool Russian words do, from an acronym: Gosudarstvenoe Obshezhitie Proletariata, or “State Dormitory of the Proletariat.” Add the “nik” to the G.O.P., and a species is born.
And born it was, according to legend, in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. According to the best accounts we have, including that of Leningrad’s lead singer Shnur, gopniki were originally peasants and landless riff-raff who came to Petrograd in the 1920s in search of work. They poured out of Petrograd’s train stations, and found residences, if lucky, in newly transformed dormitories, where they transformed themselves into the first local ghetto gangstas in Soviet Russia.
The gopnik species even has an exact origin: Ligovsky Prospekt, dom 10. It was the Oktyabrskaya Hotel, which the Soviets turned into a downtown dormitory for incoming proletarians, but which, in the hands of the gopniki, was transformed into their own collectivized gangsta crib.
Since they were village outsiders, often from broken families, many with histories of petty crime or worse, the gopniki were despised by the Petrograd/Leningrad natives. They became legends as outlaws and toughs who couldn’t be broken by the Soviet system. They had their own code of ethics and lived by their own rules, their own knuckle tats and styles, sort of like the vori v zakoni of the misdemeanor world of hooligans.
Over time, as gopnik fashion, slang, and attitude spread throughout the country’s lower classes, the meaning of the word changed. Rather than referring to the specific phenomenon of village toughs living in the Oktyabrskaya Hotel, “gopnik” referred to any Russian brute with a shaven head, thick leather jacket, ridiculous leather shoes, and the ubiquitouskepka-tabletka. It could also refer to the guy squatting in courtyard in his track suit and tapochki, pounding a bottle of cheap Zhigulovskoe beer and spitting seeds, occasionally snapping at his wife to keep her mouth shut, since her only job is to take their baby on a stroll in the second-hand Turkish baby carriage that he pinched from the front of someone’s izba…
In the 90s, it seemed that the gopniki were poised to inherit, if not the earth, then at least 1/6 of the earth’s land mass. Gopniki ranged across all of Russia’s fabled 11 time zones, from the now-defunct Intourist Hotel lobby just a couple hundreds meters from Red Square, to the kiosk-lined walkway along Vladivostok’s shoreline, and all points in between. Gopniki, or at least Russian men who’d adopted the gopnik look, seemed to be moving into every sphere of life, from “biznes,” where they served as the muscle, to politics, where, as LDPR deputies they formed the core resistance to Westernization. The entire nation had gone gopnik: shaven heads, hardened post-zona expressions, and an uncanny nose for cheesy clothes, no matter how much they cost. Some traded in their leather coats and tracksuit tops for maroon Hugo Boss blazers. They couldn’t resist adding bling to the mix: gold chains, necklaces and bracelets, fancy watches that were so gold and shiny that they crossed back over to looking like cheap Vietnamese knock-offs, even if they were real. Best of all, the 90s was accompanied by the ultimate gopnik soundtrack: nonstop shitty techno music, blaring out of every restaurant, every shawarma stand and kiosk, every Zhiguli or stolen Merc, every hotel room converted into an “ofis.” No matter where you turned in 1990s Russia, you simply could not escape bad techno music.
What no one understood then, and what few understand even today, is that the 1990s wasn’t so much the high-water mark for the Gopnik Nation, as the Beginning of the End.
* * *
Last weekend, we decided to take a Gopniki Safari– to do some field anthropology work in order to bring the world of the gopnik to you, the eXile reader. We asked around for the best place to go gopnik-spotting, and got all sorts of answers from our Russian friends.
“Go to any Russian town.”
“You don’t even have to leave Moscow. Just pick a metro stop outside of the ring line, they’ll come to you.”
The most interesting response came from our own Vika Bruk, who used to write the “Generation Eltiny” column: “Try going to ‘Velikie Luki’ [a provincial dump that literally means 'Great Onions'--Ed.]. That’s where, like, all of my relatives live – my aunt who works at a textile factory, her alcoholic husband, my cousin Maxim who’s a guard, my other cousin Alexei who’s also a guard for a bank, my other cousin Natasha who’s getting divorced from her lazy asshole husband, my uncle Alexander, who sells Chinese shoes at the market, his son Alexander who’s in the army, his other son Edward, I don’t know what he’s doing. So, yeah, there are plenty of gopniki – my entire family.”
The problem was that Great Onions is located in the Pskov province, and we needed somewhere closer.
In the Moscow region, no city has a tougher reputation than Lubertsy, a working-class suburb just south of the MKAD. In the 1990s, Lubertsy was known as Gopnik Central. Violence was as common as tracksuits and chewed-up sunflower seeds. One girl who was born and raised in Lubertsy, and moved to Moscow in the early 1990s, told us, “Every guy I knew there was a gopnik. If you go there, you’ll probably see them everywhere, but I can’t say for sure since I haven’t returned.”
When we asked her if she could perhaps call one of her old childhood friends, she replied, “I can’t. Most of them are dead, either from drugs or some shooting or stabbing. The rest got out and moved away like I did. I don’t know anyone there anymore.”
We took a taxi out to Lubertsy on a late Saturday afternoon. It was hot outside, hotter than normal for this time of year. We figured that while some of the gopniki might be relaxing by a toxic sludge hole (locally termed a “beach” or “lake”), enough should be squatting next to kiosks and in courtyards to satisfy our anthropological requirements.
But then something unexpected happened. We drove slowly through the center of Lubertsy, expecting to find, if not fresh Death Porn corpses, then at the very least stains which spoke of recent death porn happenings. Instead, the town was actually… eh, could someone smack us with a wet fish for what we’re about to say here? It was actually kinda, like, pleasant. In a family-friendly sorta way.
We nit you shot. There were plenty of leafy trees, clean sidewalks, couples and families strolling. We counted at least four sushi restaurants just on one stretch of one main street, along with the usual Rosinter chain restaurants, and hamster-habitat Torgovie Tsentri. Even though there were fewer mega-pricey foreign cars in Lubertsky, nevertheless the town was full of lower-priced foreign car models. Even the Zhigs were clean and washed. We only spotted one souped-up Lada disco wagon with blinking red runway lights along the trim. If America has “Rice Rockets,” then surely this Gopnik Nation must have its “Shawarma Shuttles.” And yet, lo, we only spotted this one lone Shawarma Shuttle in a sea of bourgeois vehicles.
Strolling Lubertsky wasn’t working out. If we wanted to spot some gopniks, we need to think like gopniks. Where would they go? The park! And not just the park, but the place in the park where they have plastic lawn furniture around a kiosk blaring out distorted 90s techno, or what gopniki like to call a “kafe.”
Welp, suffice to say we found the park. And we found the “kafe” with the plastic lawn furniture. We bought our beers. We sat down. And we’ll be damned if we didn’t see a single goddamn gopnik the entire time. In fact, the kafe was altogether civilized: no blaring loud techno, beer served cold, the patrons all keeping out of each other’s business, even a couple of indy goth types in the mix.
At first we started bitching out loud, worried that we didn’t have a story. But then the frustration started to turn to concern. What happened to the gopniki? Did they all leave for a pond for the weekend? Was it too hot for them? Had they left Lubersty for ranker pastures?
We decided to ditch the civilized “kafe” and head into the park: a depressing collection of rusty Soviet-era children’s attractions that all but screamed, “If you want to have a very, very late-term abortion, then place your child on this attraction, stand back, pay five rubles, and let us take care of the rest.”
While strolling through the park, we spotted a group of shirtless guys roughhousing around over by a set of monkey bars. But when we moved into a closer position, we realized that these weren’t gopniki at all: they werekavkatsi, “blackasses”, the very inverse of gopniks.
After several hours of roaming around Lubertsky, we finally decided to give up. If there were no gopniki here, where the fuck would we find them?
That’s when we settled on one of the gnarliest regions in Moscow, “Brateevo,” a district whose very name is synonymous with gopnik. Brateevo is one of those outlying districts whose every square inch of land seems packed with 17-story white paneli, huge awful buildings made from faded white concrete slabs. As you approach Brateevo from the MKAD, there are so many of thesepaneli packed in so tightly and haphazardly that you can’t imagine there’s room to walk between them, that sunlight is blocked, all vegetation stunted.
But alas, looks can be deceiving. Once again, after arming ourselves with beer and heading into the shit, we found ourselves face-to-face with something far worse than teams of squatting gopniki: we found ourselves amidst a sea of totally gopnik-free humanity. Once again, families, baby carriages, nice cars, kids sporting the new pop-indy look, cute girls walking their dogs. In fact, Brateevo had gone so cosmopolitan that even our intentionally loud English speaking, designed to draw attention, didn’t so much as warrant a glance. Even stray dogs ignored us.
There was only one place left to look: a local billiard hall. If the gopniki were anywhere, even a lone gopnik or two, they’d be here.
And, well, you can guess what we didn’t find there.
* * *
If you follow the Russian blog world, you’d think that gopniki are so ubiquitous in Russia that they’re multiplying and threatening to spill over the borders, to take over China. Everywhere sites ridicule, mock, or glorify-by-way-of-ridicule the Russian gopnik.
We should have known, from experience in the West, what it means whenever an “authentic” sub-class gets discovered by cooler people. It means that they’re dead, history, gone. And that is what this article is about: not only to introduce the Gopnik to the world, but also to announce the Gonpik’s tragic death. Because whenever something this hardcore gets cool, it’s always a bad sign.
What happened to them? By most accounts, two things have worked to kill off the Gopnik. First, in the 80s and 90s, the sudden and wide availability of hard drugs and pistols, introduced into a culture as fearless and primitive as theirs, meant that nearly half of the species went extinct within a decade.
The second cause is more environmental. The introduction of Western bourgeois values and cultural tastes, along with Putin’s ushering in a period of apparent stability, growth and sobriety, meant that the gopnik’s 70 year reign as the kings of the rebel world suddenly changed: Russians of all classes quickly grew to despise the peasant-like gopnik aesthetic. Russians were ashamed and disgusted by gopniki more than anything, not realizing until the past year or two, when it was already too late, that gopniki were the great national treasure, the “Russian Idea” in human form, the only ones who kept it real.
Where once Russia’s tough young underclass romanticized gopniki, today they look up to rappers (preferably white).
The new Putin-era patriots no longer need gopniki either, even though gopniki have always been the fiercest Russian patriots. In the Putin era, patriotic kids look more European, dress more European, listen to European-ish and even American-like music. The only remnant of the gopnik gene is that even the most seemingly-Westernized young Russian carries inside of himself or herself classic gopnik attitudes: blind chauvinism, anti-Americanism, hatred of dark-skinned people, and of course, their gopnik behavior on Aeroflot flights, in which even the wealthiest and best-traveled Russian’s recessive gopnik gene kicks in, ordering him or her to wear a track suit, tapochki, and to hit a bottle of Moskovsky Cognac during the flight, singing loud songs and leaning over (and into) their neighbors’ seats.
But 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.”
Nothing is more emblematic of the gopnik’s tragic extinction than the fact that Leningrad’s Shnur, a great fan of Gopnik Couture, is preparing to open a Gopnik museum in his native St. Petersburg. Shnur’s band romanticizes the gopniki to a middle-class audience which has finally come to appreciate them, albeit in a semi-ironic way only made possible by the gopnik’s tragic extinction. Even the original gopnik wellspring, Lugovsky Prospekt Dom 10, is today a 3-star hotel whose cheapest rooms run for $100 a night.
Like Faulkner’s Old South and Tolstoi’s dying landed gentry, we are celebrating and lamenting Russia’s gopniki only now, when it is too late, and they can be little more to us than aesthetic objects, symbols of a bygone era which was far purer than ours, free of the self-conscious irony and highly mediated coolness, and the dull office life that defines the lives of more and more Russians in the Putin era.
* * *
WHAT THE POLITICIANS SAY ABOUT THE GOPNIK: An eXile Survey
* Oleg Lavrov, director of LDPR’s Moscow’s branch: “We think gopniki are Russia’s most powerful political force. People make fun of us and call us the party of the marginaly — of gopniki, thieves, bums and drunks. But see, these are people that no one else represents… we set up booths at train stations and at one point counted one million members. When we nominated Malishkin [former boxer and Zhirinovsky's body guard -- Ed.] as candidate for 2004 presidential elections, people were shocked. Sure he’s no intellectual, but the gopniks will vote for him.”
* Yuri Nabutovsky, coordinator of SPS’s regional operations: “We’re not really interested in the gopnik segment of the population. We are… how do I say… we’re too liberal for them. SPS is looking for people that have their own views on the world… and that is definitely not them. Gopniki do not have the necessary level of intellectual sophistication for us. United Russia is probably better suited for them. And anyway, United Russia is doing the most to attract them.”
* United Russia’s switchboard operator: “We’re doing many things to attract as many different kinds of people as possible. If you want your question answered, please put it in writing.”
* Andrei Samoshin, Fair Russia’s Moscow representative: “We’re not United Russia, we can’t use federal funds for our programs. Our outreach is limited. In fact we’re not really sure how good it is to expand… it’s really not that important to us. We don’t want to have dead souls’ in our party.”
* Irina Palilova, Levada Center’s political analyst/media liaison: “[Giggles] I’d be hard-pressed to answer your question. We don’t classify people based on the gopnik criteria. We classify people based on income, age, etc.”
This article first appeared in The eXile on June 1, 2007. Would you like to know more?
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