Subject essay: James von Geldern
The seemingly endless expansion of Moscow created a periphery of soulless, identical apartment boxes, many of them housing alienated young people who no longer understood how they fit into Soviet society. Different corners of the metropolis developed different identities. If the southwest quadrant, built around Moscow State University and housing members of the Academy of Sciences, became the tonier side of town, the southeast quadrant housed large parts of the working class population. The suburb of Liubertsy had boomed in the 1930s when rural dwellers flooded into Moscow to work on the great construction projects; and it was here that the young toughs called Liubers, the grandsons of the migrants, developed their stance of defiance and resentment. Their pumped-up bodies fought in the age-old battle over the Russian soul between western cultural imports and native traditions, and they deemed themselves warriors against alien ways. Yet they used a symbolic idiom no less imported, this one from western films starring their hero, Sylvester Stallone.
“We don’t just beat up anyone, as some people say, only those who we don’t like … break dancers, soccer fans, heavy metal fans, new wave, and so on … We’re just lads from Liubertsy.” This brief excerpt from a letter sent to Komsomol Pravda in 1986 sums up a way of life and the cultural wars taking place in Gorbachev’s Russia. The streets of central Moscow saw frequent clashes between the Liubertsy and young people fascinated with western pop culture, whose fantastic costumes – chains and studs, punk hairstyles, heavy metal leathers – intrigued and mortified tradition-minded Russians. Liubers saw themselves as defenders of the Russian public body against the invasion of alien ways. Their solution was to cruise the streets of central Moscow in packs, beating up the invaders and driving them away from the center. They trained themselves for the task in home gyms built in the basements of their apartment buildings, which served both as places to pump iron and to nurse their wounded souls. Easy to dismiss, the Liubers did in fact understand very well the battle going on over the cultural soul of their nation. The young people they despised were using seemingly innocuous modes of expression – clothing, hair, body art – to attack the cultural edifice erected by the Soviet state. The Liubers’ only miscalculation perhaps was the thought that they could forcibly repel ideas that by 1986 had penetrated every last corner of Soviet Russia, not just the center of the capital. They misunderstood as well the cultural geography of their land. If they thought that they defended the center, the core of Russian cultural identity, it was they who traveled to Moscow on the long train from the suburbs; and the youths they beat up, many of whom were the children of the Soviet elite, were on home territory in the center.