Vladimir Iakovlev, Liubers, the Firm (January 1987)
This article in the sensational journal Ogonek brought this disturbing report of youth violence and crime to national attention. Clashes between toughs and punk, metalheads and hippies, in the argot of the time, were taken by many to be stand-ins for the stand-off of conservative and liberalizing political forces. They were taken by most to represent the decline of the moral fabric of Soviet society.
Original Source: Ogonek, January 1987.
A light autumn rain sprinkled the sleeping city. Flashes of neon light were mirrored on the wet asphalt. I glanced at the clock – the last train to Liubertsy had just set off from the Kazan Station platform. It was at that moment that they appeared at the far end of the boulevard, when waiting would seem to have made no sense. Four of them … Hands clasped sternly behind the back. The characteristic long swaying stride. Unseasonably light jackets and funny-looking, clownishly wide plaid pants that don’t hamper your movements in a fight.
– Hey, man, come here! – they stopped ten meters away.
I got up from the wet bench.
– What’s that pin that you’re wearing?
It was a pin from a rock festival, and I had put it on specially to catch their interest. I didn’t count on anything else. Narrow black ties against white shirts were the last thing I noticed before ducking from a sudden blow …
“Liubers”. This name is somewhat contrived. We know remarkably little about them. And even the police have somewhat fragmentary information. In the evenings, they come from Liubertsy into Moscow and split up in small groups in the city center. How many of them are there? Hard to say. How are they organized? Unknown. Why come to the city? This is probably the only thing we can say with certainty.
AN ENCOUNTER ON NOGIN SQUARE. Three guys in their plaid uniforms. Igor Dmitriev is fifteen, Sergei Smirnov and Dmitrii Liakhov are sixteen years old. All have strong, ripped biceps visible even beneath a jacket.
– Why do you come to Moscow?
– We come to beat up punks, hippies and metalheads and break dancers too …
Three or four years ago, “Liubers” were almost unknown. However, in a short time they’ve accomplished a lot. It took me several days to make the rounds of gathering spots for Moscow informal youth associations: usually it was a cafe or bar, less often the public gardens which quiet old people and mothers with carriages leave in the late afternoon, and their places on benches are taken by guys with multi-colored hair and medallions around their necks. My questions did not vary.
– What do you know about Liubers? – I asked.
The answers didn’t vary much either. The “metalheads”, “punks” and “breakers” excitedly told about skirmishes with “Liubers”. Petty fights took place literally every night. However, the issue wasn’t only the fights. Fights between gangs had happened before. The surprise was something else – “Liubers” fought one against all. Moreover, they always started the fights. They attacked, forcing the “enemy” to defend themselves as best they could. They were looking for conflicts. They looked for them even though they didn’t have the slightest reason. What for?
AN ENCOUNTER ON GOGOL BOULEVARD. There were about fifty people. They came out of the “Kropotkin” metro station and took seats on benches in the dark, waiting for something.
– What are you doing here?
– Waiting for hippies. They have a get-together today. We’ll break it up – answers a young man of seventeen, who identified himself as Boris Taranov.
– What for?
– Hippies, punks and metalheads are a disgrace to the Soviet way of life. We want to clear them out of the capital.
I frankly admit that this was the first time I had heard such an answer, and I did not believe in its sincerity. But when the answer was repeated once, twice, and a third time, I had no cause to doubt.
We are not accustomed to hear such statements from young people. How long had we judged informal youth groups mostly in the negative, how many years had we grappled with the intractable question: how best to deal with them? It’s hard to believe otherwise. But why not believe it, “Liubers” don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t do drugs, as far as we know. They train themselves in gyms that they created with their own hands. Of course, fighting is no way to educate peers who think differently. But these boys don’t understand many things. You can take corrective measures. Or maybe you shouldn’t? “Hippies”, “punks”, “metalheads”, all of those people wearing chains and bracelets and with colored strands of hair to their shoulders, they won’t heed your words. Or maybe they’ll understand them differently? And what is wrong if your peers relate to each other in their own way? You should positively rejoice, rejoice in it!
But for some reason they didn’t want to rejoice. Or even believe it. With a strange facility and uniformity the “Liubers” explained their actions, as if they had once and for all memorized their cliched formulation by heart. The selection of sports that they practiced in their gyms was odd: gymnastics, karate, boxing, sambo. Yes, they had good intentions. But one’s goal isn’t everything.
EYEWITNESS TALES. Evgenii Dmitriev (“hippy”): “They stopped me on Marx Prospect and asked why I had long hair and would I like money for a haircut, and then punched me. And then they began to stop passers-by, to bring them to me and ask if they can look at such an abomination unfazed. Then two of them held me while the third cut all my hair off with scissors. Then they beat me up… ”
Elena Borisova (“punk”): “They came up to me in a park when I was coming home from a disco in the evening. One said:
– Slut, I like you. Will you come with me!
Later, friends told me that it happens a lot. And I was lucky that they didn’t beat me to within an inch of my life. They beat girls up badly because they can’t defend themselves … ”
Boris Sergachev (“Liuber”): “What did we do tonight? Lots of things! Here we just took out a punk. What? No, not too badly. We didn’t even kick him after he fell.
I had heard lots of similar stories. Too many to treat them as unpleasant exceptions to the rule. These stories do not square with good intentions, nor do lofty goals, for example, fit with the fact that “Liubers” attack only when they have a large and absolute numerical superiority. Three on one. Ten on three. One cannot avoid the impression that we are talking about normal, not unintelligent teenagers who had figured out how to pass hooliganism off as exalted ideals. But such an impression was simplistic. Most of the “Liubers” I met really believed that one day they would achieve their goal and purge the city of “punks”, “hippies” and “metalheads”. And some were even making plans for the near future, in their view, when they would “bury the hatchet” with their rehabilitated enemies. And they all without exception believe in the importance and social benefit of their cause. No, “Liubers” weren’t being deceptive when they spoke of good intentions. But if you think about it, how big is the difference between an ordinary bully and a bully, acting on “ideological” principles? There is a limit to the choice of means, beyond which a good cause is debased, turning into vulgar mimicry to prevent society and your own conscience from condemning you.
AN ENCOUNTER IN GORKY PARK. Five of them are in the lobby of the “Seasons” cafe, chatting with girls. Obviously they had just met them at the dance.
– We have few discos in Liubertsy. And they’re bad. Generally evenings are depressing. Here it’s great!
There really are few discos in Liubertsy. Few cinemas and clubs. Evenings in Liubertsy are boring. He had pumped up his biceps out of boredom, learned some “joint locks” and went on to defend their right to a “place under the sun.” Like that? More precisely – if only they could!
Liubertsy is a town of narrow streets, gray five-story buildings and a train station, around which the whole of life somehow turns. A town where people go to bed early and get up early. I understood this as I had barely gotten off the train. But my first impression was destined to vanish quickly.
For a good hour, wandering through the streets, we looked for any basement gym we could find to get acquainted with its inhabitants. Having found one of them — in the town center, near the “Slavyanka” café – they explained that they had been watching us from the very moment we asked for directions from the first guy we ran into.
The inhabitants of the basement, rosy-cheeked, muscular, confident guys were kicking a large punching bag with all their strength and demonstrating a huge arsenal of hand weights and exercise equipment … Тheir actions can hardly be explained as the actions of kids from the outskirts, which is a long familiar story, but not enough to explain this …
Over the past year the city Komsomol committee and the city Department of Internal Affairs have done much to solve the problem that we are studying. A raiding team checked all the city’s cellars and found all the “underground” groups. They closed down some, and the rest were redirected into mainstream organized sports. They appointed a manager for each section. They recruited coaches from sports academies and youth sports leagues. They were just as serious about the cultural program: they opened more discos, and those were better. But there were still no fewer “Liubers” in Moscow. Moreover, it turned out to be quite easy to evade the raids and the attention of the police. After all the control checks, there were almost 500 people on lists of the basement guys. These lists were compared with lists of teenagers who the Moscow police had recently detained. Only three names matched …
– Don’t think that we’re doing nothing, – they told me in the Liubertsy city committee of the Komsomol. – We took control of the basement gyms, but does that mean that the problem is solved? The problem isn’t just in the gyms. You can do karate at home. You can’t control it or forbid it there!
Paradoxically, I came back from Liubertsy, still without a clear answer to the question, who are the “Liubers”? Who are these guys who go every evening into Moscow in the first car of the seven o’clock train? Who is hiding under the nicknames: Hare, Cupboard, Iron, Flabs?
ENCOUNTER ON THE TRAIN. Six of them in their checkered clown pants, white shirts and narrow black tie. About fifteen minutes chatting in the vestibule on various subjects. When the train is coming into Moscow, one of them asks:
– Have you heard our anthem?
And he quoted the first verse:
We were born and raised in Liubertsy.
The center of brute strength.
And we believe our dream will come true:
Liubertsy will become the center of RUSSIA.
Childishness? Quite possibly. But why does a chill run down my spine?
I spent three hours walking nighttime Moscow with one “Liubers”, Igor Seregin.
– We call ourselves the “firm” – he told me.- We split up into groups. Each has its own chief. Getting into the firm is tough. It’s not enough to meet the guys. You need to be in a big fight. You have to prove yourself.
– How’s that? – I ask, and couldn’t help slowing down.
– You have to show that you are smart, polite and nasty – he says in a staccato.
So they’re the “firm,” not just scattered groups of teenagers from the outskirts in clown pants. And is it not the case that having pumped up their muscles out of boredom, out of boredom they then look for someone to test their strength on. They are training specifically to beat people up.
AN ENCOUNTER IN THE “GLORIA” BAR. “Liubers” occupied most of the tables. I sat down at one of them. The guys are very cheerful, but not from drinking. They start off giving honest answers. Then they ask questions themselves:
– Let’s take, say, punks, for example, why should they be like that? Or why breakers? After all, not only don’t we like them. Nobody likes them.
“Liubers” consider themselves normal, what everyone should be like. “Punks” are different. “Hippies” and “metalheads” are different.- That’s quite enough from the “firm’s” point of view, to ask the basic question: why are they like that? Do they have the right to exist? That’s enough to be able to answer with a stern consciousness of their own rightness: no! Down with uncertainty! Not every person can be considered a person. Beat up anyone who thinks otherwise! Because anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong and guilty!
A curious detail: “Liubers” have enough money to go to bars, discos, restaurants, and to take a taxi home if they miss the last train, enough even for expensive gym equipment. No less curious is another detail – the “firm” doesn’t just beat up “hippies”, “punks” and “metalheads”. With uncommon consistency they take away their pins, leather bracelets, key rings – all distinctive signs of belonging to a particular association. These are, in the “Liubers” own words, the distinguishing signs of an “alien way of life.” But given the mass levies, the question inevitably arises: where does it all go? The question is all the more reasonable because a pin with the symbol of a popular rock band is worth ten rubles or more amongst the initiated. And we’re not only talking about pins. What about the riveted denim jackets of “metalheads”? The bright neckerchiefs of sports fans? A record with music “unworthy of Soviet man”? Where does all this go?
AN ENCOUNTER IN GORKY PARK. A rare instance – there are only two of them. When I ask, one shows his day’s loot – eight bright pins.
– What am I going to do with them? – He warily repeats my question.- Well, this. Throw them out!
And he carefully places the pins back in his pocket.
“Liubers” who are older, past twenty years old, don’t wear the overly conspicuous plaid pants, and no longer trade in “junk”. They rob speculators, confiscating their goods. They rob dealers, taking their Vneshposyltorg checks [which buy foreign goods]. Do they also throw that away?
EYEWITNESS TALES. Igor Menshikov: “Two months ago I was robbed by “Liubers”. They took some CDs and a bag of stuff. So I have a friend in Liubertsy. I called him to complain. After a week the discs, and the bag were returned … ”
Oleg Panin: “I was caught once, beaten and my company pin was stolen. Тhree weeks later I happen see this pin on my friend.
– Where did you get it? – I ask.
– I bought it! – He says. – For ten rubles … ”
Add to this the fact that “Liubers” were arrested multiple times for profiteering in the Moscow commission stores. Needless to say, the picture is quite clear. Still other facts call for comment. Is “The Firm” just an organized group of adolescents who are familiar with each other, sharing common views? Maybe so. But really? There is a strange, though thoughtful consistency in the actions of “Liubers”: both the young and older. The types of incidents that happen in Moscow don’t happen in Liubertsy itself. The “Liubers” place their attention only on groups of teenagers who can not, for whatever reasons, seek help from the police authorities. This inevitably makes me think: their actions are not random; are they controlled by a skilled and experienced hand?
No, I will not deceive the reader, I didn’t manage to learn much about the current kings of the “Firm”. Information about them is incomplete, fragmentary. They are said to have criminal pasts. I could not meet with the kings. I did manage to meet with someone who, if you stick with monarchical terms, would be considered a prince. The prince was twenty-seven years old, tall, broad-shouldered and laconic. Vanity wrestled in his soul with caution. Do the guys obey him? Yes, you could say that. How many people could he summon in, say, two hours? One hundred? Two hundred? No, two hundred – more than that.
– Tell me – I asked him – do you really believe that you can re-educate hippies, punks and metalheads?
The prince did’t answer. He just smiled indulgently and immediately lost interest in the conversation. He did not believe it, of course, as an grown up, serious person. The boys needed faith because it gave them a sense of their own rightness. But faith was only a means to an end. In essence, dozens of young “Liubers” go to school every night on the streets of the city, a kind of school of violence, where “the simple truth” becomes very clear and obvious — you can rob a person, can beat him up if you are stronger than him. Beat, rob – with impunity. Let’s for a moment ignore speculators and dealers affected by the “Liubers” actions, according to the ancient principle of “thief stole a club from a thief.” But here’s the question! Why put “hippies”, “punks” and “metalheads” alongside the middlemen and speculators? Sure, we condemn these trends. Yes, we would like them not to take such ugly forms. But all this under no circumstances means that juvenile “hippies” or juvenile “metalheads” are outside the law. Just let “Liubers” try to take ten rubles from passers-by on the street – it would lead to immediate and unequivocal consequences. But if they take the exact same thing away from their peers, or something of even greater value, there will be no unequivocal consequences. “The Firm” guys are commiting something that in the language of the Criminal Code has only one name: robbery. And so? This year in Moscow more than two hundred young people from Liubertsy were detained: for smoking in the wrong place and disturbing the peace, for appearing in public in a state of intoxication. Only a few on suspicion of committing a crime. In most cases those suspicions remained suspicions.
Police are aware of crimes that the “Liubers” are responsible for, but the police are powerless. Why is that? For the simple reason that “hippies” or “punks” or “metalheads” victimized by “Liubers” don’t turn to the police. That, no doubt, is the basic calculation of the kings of the “Firm”. But let’s think: isn’t it we who have created a situation in which certain groups of teens don’t consider themselves entitled to turn to the protection of the law?
No doubt, our experience with informal youth associations has become quite varied. But there hasn’t been anything like these “Liubers”. When dozens of self-righteous, well-trained guys shed the psychological barriers to violence natural to every person, it is not just “a purely youth” problem. Recently, there have been cases when “Liubers” attacked perfectly normal teenagers who did not belong to any associations and they didn’t steal “attributes of an alien way of life”, but just expensive, fashionable things, calling it “the confiscation of surplus goods.” What will be the next step?
… After leaving the basement gym, on the road to the station, I went to a small cafe called “Slavyanka,” which for some reason is considered a young person’s café in Liubertsy. Music blared in the empty bar. Colored lights flashed in time. I could not help listening. The piercing female voice sang a song in English. A song about the “strong guys who know exactly what to do.” And therefore they get their way. Of course, this was just a coincidence. No more…
EDITORIAL. The article, of course, touches on a serious issue. Recently, there was a lot of so-called informal groups of young people. A fruitful, in our view, debate is taking place around them, which is especially important on the eve of the XXth Congress of the Young Communist League. Informalism and formalism, organization and over-organization: how to observe reasonable limits, not pushing young people away, but also not allowing any “fraternities” with dubious ideological underpinnings to develop. Ultimately the solution to this question is one of the most important aspects of working with youth.
Covering the problem of “Liubers” is our joint project with the weekly magazine Sobesednik. Its employees raided Liubertsy with the aim of understanding the problem in detail. Materials from the raid can be read in the next issues of the youth weekly.
Source: Translated by James von Geldern.