The ‘sham subculture’ sparking panic in the Kremlin

The Daily Retina

Their two countries may be at war, but Russian and Ukrainian police have a common and apparently formidable enemy. That is, judging by their efforts to infiltrate groups of 13- to 17-year-old kids sporting long black hair and hoodies emblazoned with a picture of a spider on the back.

The so-called PMC Ryodan – a fan club dedicated to the Japanese anime series Hunter x Hunter, featuring a criminal gang – may be many things, but a private military company it is not. On 22 February these fans gathered at a Moscow mall and were confronted by a rival group who picked a fight with them, offended by their weird clothes.

There are conflicting reports about what sparked the fight: according to one account, one of the fans was assaulted by a skinhead who told him it was time to kill all the ‘nefory’ – or ‘neformaly’, nonconformists. According to another, two groups got into a skirmish over mall chairs. The video went viral, police got involved, and suddenly Russian cities were back to the days when football hooligans sought out ‘neformaly’ and beat them up for sport.

Why some of these kids started calling themselves PMC, or private military company – given that all evidence points to the fact that they are usually the victims, not aggressors, in these mall brawls – remains unclear. The consensus is that the abbreviation was used in jest and then spread like wildfire over Telegram channels and group chats. The fact that Ryodan fought back against their attackers and won also played a role.

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But by that time, authorities didn’t bother with the nuance. Given that youngsters in black clothes and long hair were getting involved in violent fights, it was time to arrest them, no matter who was actually starting the fights. By March, a moral panic was born: Russia’s Duma convened to discuss the issue, pointing the finger at ‘unfriendly countries’ trying to destabilise Russia and the Kremlin calling the fan group a harmful ‘sham subculture’.

A group of kids has come to be regarded as a tool of mutual destabilisation by both Russia and Ukraine

Had Russian authorities deliberately tried to fuel the flames of this ‘subculture’, they could have done no better than focus federal scrutiny on groups of youngsters in black hoodies. In Moscow, this was yet another vestige of the Soviet Union reborn: a government that sees the main threat to itself as long-haired hippies and people wearing thread bracelets. Back in the 80s, these ‘neformaly’ were pitted against the ‘gopniki’ – poor, working-class thugs.

Even stranger was that Ukrainian law enforcement exhibited the same Soviet-style reaction. Kyiv police posted a statement denouncing the subculture as coming from Russia, releasing videos with teenagers admitting unknowing involvement in what they came to conclude was a Russian plot to ‘destabilize’ Ukraine. And just like in Russia, police began summoning hundreds of young people and warning their parents.

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So a group of kids, provoking skinheads by their sheer existence, has come to be regarded as a tool of mutual destabilisation by both Russia and Ukraine. What gives?

In a way, the answer lies with the conflict dynamics of the groups themselves. Just like the ‘neformaly’ and ‘gopniki’, both came to define themselves in opposition to the other. Some in Ukraine, which has been fighting off Russia’s unprecedentedly brutal invasion for over a year now, will understandably see a Russian threat lurking behind every spider. That so much of Russian society does the same is a product of its own aggressive war-time propaganda.

But what is interesting here is the readiness with which the Russian youngsters themselves began applying the PMC moniker. They seemed to have done so as a joke, simply to reflect the bizarre news culture and war that they are constantly bombarded with, and yet muzzled from even talking about due to Russia’s repressive laws.

Thanks to the efforts of its ex-convict founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the real PMC Wagner has been flaunting its bizarre competition for glory with the regular Russian army for months now. It remains formally unrecognised by Russian law, but news of its exploits are blasted across state channels and social media. And yet just this week, the State Duma approved another bill criminalising criticism or discrediting the Russian volunteers – including PMC Wagner – that are fighting in Ukraine.

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This is the bizarre, surreal reality that Russian young people now live in, and one wonders how they process it. ‘No one talks about the war,’ a Russian teen told me. ‘Most are against it, but people try to not to take anything too seriously.’ And so, sublimated beyond recognition lest one ends up saying something illegal, the government and disastrous war it is waging has become the butt of a joke.

Source: World – The Spectator Australia