‘I’m Russian, that means I’m sober’: Riding the ‘new wave’ sweeping St Petersburg’s streets

MYPLACE Project Coordinator, Hilary Pilkington, and Aleksei Zinoviev of HSE, St Petersburg provide notes from the field on the “Russian Run” in St Petersburg.

This was originally posted on the MYPLACE blog. Follow MYPLACE on Twitter hereFor more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website here.

As part of the scoping for ethnographic case studies for MYPLACE, Aleksei Zinoviev has been talking to organisers of the informal youth movement ‘Russian Run’ (Русская пробежка). While in St Petersburg Hilary Pilkington joined him for some participant observation as they hooked up with more than 90 young people (and two police 4×4 escorts) to make a 5km run through the city’s streets.

The ‘Russian Run’ movement (which has branches across Russia: http://rusbeg.ru/) emerged spontaneously following the death of the Moscow Spartak fan, Egor Sviridov, on 6 December 2010; he was shot during  a fight between Spartak fans and a group of recent migrants to Moscow from the North Caucasus. The subsequent release without charge of the main suspect led to a mass demonstration in Manezh Square, Moscow on 11 December which ended in rioting and violence including 4 deaths. Similar demonstrations took place in St Petersburg and other cities across Russia. The nature of the death of Sviridov – reportedly the fans’ opponents were skilled fighters – as well as the failure of the authorities to prosecute anyone for the killing led to a feeling among young Russians that they should unite in support of one another and fight the image of the Russian as ‘lazy drunkard’, according to one of the St Petersburg organisers talking in an earlier interview with Aleksei. It was this desire that brought people out across Russia for the first ‘Russian Run’ on 1st January 2011.

‘Russian Run-St Petersburg’ is an informal (unregistered), grassroots movement of young people. It has no commercial or political sponsors and considers itself to be, first and foremost, an anti-alcohol (or more accurately ‘pro-sobriety’) movement that promotes its message by encouraging young people to take active part in sport. Much of the organisation is conducted via the social networking site ‘vkontakte’ (http://vk.com/rusbeg_spb) including promotion of Its regular Sunday midday ‘runs’. The first of these took place on 1 January 2011 and attracted just 35 people; by 18 September 2011, the movement had gathered 800 runners. Organisers believe this reflects a ‘new wave’ of young people who have woken up to the fact that not smoking, drinking or taking drugs is a better and more correct way of life. This is the historic task of youth today, it would seem, and runners reflect this in their chants, which call on young people to respect the memory of what past generations have done for them in their own action; ‘Your grandfather didn’t fight in order that you could drink’, they shout as they run.

Today (18th March 2012), 93 people took part in the run. They gathered at the metro station Sportivnaia just before midday and completed a 5km circular route stopping only for a bout of collective exercise in front of the Planetarium.

But it’s not about the running. The endless waits at traffic lights, negotiations of  unfathomably wide and deep ‘puddles’ that mark the beginning of the thaw in the city and the need for punctilious observation of traffic and public order regulations (the beady-eyed police stopped at every  junction in hope of spotting a transgression) would make any serious runner head for the hills. No. It is all about the shouting. As the runners set off, the shouters begin, ‘What do Russians choose?’ comes the call, and in chorus the reply, ‘Russians choose sport’.  The chants continue throughout the run, the noise level rising as the most lyrically resonant ‘Sport – sila. Alkogol – mogila’  (‘Sport is strength. Alcohol is death’[1]) takes hold of the crowd. There are three words at the heart of this movement, ‘Russkii – znachit trezvii’ (‘I’m a Russian, that means I’m sober). They are emblazoned on t-shirts and stickers but, more importantly, with every collective step, they become more deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of the runners. As one of the organisers noted in an earlier interview, ‘When you’re running and shouting  ‘Russkii – znachit trezvii’ , you convince yourself that this is exactly what you should be. ‘

Of course there are lots of questions to ask. Why should a grassroots sports and sobriety promotion organisation  single out ‘Russians’ (russkie) rather than citizens of Russia (rossiiane) as its target group? Why adopt the Russian imperial flag alongside the current Russian Federation flag to rally people to its cause? And why, given the movement’s patriotic and pro-healthy living message, should its leader, Maxim Kalinichenko, find himself unpopular with the authorities?[2]

Whether ‘Russian Run’ will succeed in turning this ripple of interest among young people in promoting healthy ways of life into an unstoppable wave, remains to be seen. That it is a genuine bottom-up initiative by young people to respond to what they consider to be one of the country’s most serious problems, however, is without doubt.

[1]  Literally ‘alcohol is the grave’ – ‘death’ here gets slightly closer to the rhyme of the Russian original.

[2] Kalinichenko remains in prison after being arrested following an ‘unsanctioned march’ by the group on Nevskii Prospekt on 10th December 2011.

Russia and democracy: analysis by Mark Harris

«Вместе победим!» ('Together we shall win!'). Russian Legislative elections: 2011. Source: National Post (http://news.nationalpost.com/2011/12/03/russian-vote-monitor-detained-in-moscow-before-election/)

As someone who is half-Russian, counts Russian as her first language, but who has never set foot in Russia (only to Ukraine), I often find myself torn between a ‘Western’ and a ‘Russian’ logic. This is not something I could analyse: for better or worse, sociology does not give you the tools to rationalise your own self; in Marx’ expression, I am unable to see underneath my own feet. I seem to understand both, to some extent, but when they clash (and they quite often do), a cognitive dissonance ensues.

Good analyses of Russian affairs by Western authors are few and far between. This is why I was so impressed by Mark Harris’ brief but excellent analysis of Russian attitude to democracy, in the context of the recent elections in Russia that took place on 4 Dec 2011 and have not finished yet. Harrison’s argument cuts through a usual misunderstanding and a clash in the basic meanings taken for granted by people on both sides of Europe. His analysis also touches on the issue of translation – not only linguistic, but also cultural. In a nutshell: before judging, we need to make sure we are aware what exactly it is that the two sides understand when they use the same term, in this case – democracy and the terminology surrounding it. As Harris argues, and the Russian, Bulgarian, and English sections of my brain all agree, democracy does not necessarily mean the same thing in the different [national, cultural, and political] languages.

Mark Harrison writes about economics, public policy, and international affairs. He is a Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick and a research fellow of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.