When I meet Yuri Yusupov for the first time, he’s sketching the outline of a tattoo onto a friend’s shaved head in his apartment. The friend, Naruto, is lying on the couch, smiling serenely despite the buzz of the tattoo gun. By the time Yusupov is done two hours later, Naruto has a large X inked on the side of his head. The letter X, one of many tattooed on his body, is the symbol for the straight edge movement.
The subculture — a branch of the hardcore punk scene that emerged in the US in the Eighties and that advocates a life free of drugs, including cigarettes and alcohol — may seem anathema in a country where vodka is so readily available, not to mention cheap. But in St Petersburg, a group of young men have embraced the ascetic lifestyle. While eschewing drugs and alcohol is a given, for some adherents the straight edge way of life extends to a vegetarian or vegan diet and refraining from sexual promiscuity.
“I’ve covered so many people in straight edge crosses. It'll be funny once they start drinking again”
Before taking up tattoo art, Yusupov, 25, worked as a bouncer for a security company with a preference for employees that championed clean living. Ironically, he worked the doors at the most popular St Petersburg bars where the clientele were guaranteed to get hammered and crazy on the weekends. “You’ve got to see the enemy in the face,” Yusupov says, only half-jokingly. Now he sticks to tattoos. “I’ve covered so many people in straight edge crosses. It'll be funny once they start drinking again,” says Yusoupov, who embraced the movement more than a decade ago when he was at school.
Given the demands of the restrictive lifestyle, it’s no surprise that most newcomers don’t last beyond a few years. You could say the straight edge scene is too hardcore (pun intended) for Russia, but the reality is less poetic. The rigours of sobriety aside, the high dropout rate can be attributed to the dearth of subcultures in the country, a legacy of the Soviet era when self-expression was proscribed.
But staying substance-free is not the sole objective of the straight edge culture. Other ideals include being open-minded, non-judgemental and living conscientiously. Despite this, the movement is frequently associated with violence and nationalistic attitudes. If you google “Straight edge St Petersburg”, the list of hits that appears on the first page fall into three broad categories: ever-so-slightly-but-not-specifically-nationalistic, no-holds-barred nationalism and wow-swastika-on-the-front-page nationalism. “If you hate, you’re not straight edge,” says Yusupov. “Period.”
Yuri Yusupov tattooing Naruto in his flat
Although the number of people who take up the straight edge lifestyle is limited, there continues to be a trickle of interest from teenagers who find out about the scene by surfing the internet and listening to hardcore punk bands. As in the US, the St Petersburg straight edge movement grew out of the hardcore punk scene, which took off after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the US, it was a particular song — Straight Edge by Minor Threat — that catalysed the scene. Ian MacKay, the lead singer of the now legendary band, crammed the entire straight edge philosophy into the first verse of the song: I’m a person like you / But I’ve got better things to do / Than sit around and fuck my head / Hang out with the living dead / Snort white shit up my nose / Pass out at the shows / I don’t even think about speed / That’s something I just don’t need.
In Russia, the straight edge scene emerged around a decade later in the early Noughties. However, its early popularity was cut short by a tragic event. In 2005, Timur Kacharava, a 20-year-old philosophy student and guitarist from local hardcore band Sandinista! was stabbed to death outside a bookstore in central St Petersburg. A staunch anti-fascist, Kacharava was killed by members of a far right nationalist group whom he had rowed with earlier that day at a Food Not Bombs action. Instead of uniting members of the straight edge scene, the tragedy led to its decline.
“It’s okay for my co-workers to get drunk and have sex with prostitutes. But suddenly I’m a weirdo when I refuse to drink or eat meat?”
It’s difficult to estimate the size of the scene in St Petersburg today. Well-known European and US straight edge bands such as First Blood command audiences of around 300 people, usually young men aged between 15 and 28. Fairly modest for a city around five million inhabitants. For Yusupov, having a passion for hardcore punk is crucial to being part of the scene. Political and ideological views are secondary, he says. “There are around ten guys that are in nearly all of the bands on the scene,” says Maxim Sly, the guitarist from Nosebleed, one of the most active hardcore groups. “They start one band and kill the previous project.” I meet the band’s three members in a vegan cafe on a gloomy Saturday after a rehearsal. The three are in their twenties and instantly recognisable as members of a hardcore band, complete with straight edge X tattoos, Fred Perry shirts and parkas.
Nosebleed, one of Russia's most active hardcore bands
Even though they all have different day jobs, they consider the music they make and the wider straight edge movement as giving them a greater purpose in life — and ensuring their sanity. “I live the whole week with the thought of band practice on Saturday,” says Sasha Headstomp, the lead singer. “And we don’t even make enough money to cover what we spend on rehearsals and travelling to play gigs.” When talking about their past, each has a tale of substance abuse lurking in the background. They nevertheless insist that going straight edge is not a way of “forcing sobriety”.
“Keeping away from drugs and alcohol is not a goal,” says Sly. “It’s just something we do; a way of life. It has to be natural and easy. If it becomes difficult, you should probably just stop fighting yourself and go and have a beer.” Likewise, veganism is almost as difficult a lifestyle choice in Russia as abstaining from alcohol. So are they ever teased for their dietary preferences? “It’s okay for my co-workers to get drunk and have sex with prostitutes. But suddenly I’m a weirdo when I refuse to drink or eat meat?” says Sasha, tucking into a dish of scrambled tofu.
The band members are a tight group. They even have their own lingo with some words adopted from football fans. Kuzmich, a name derived from a common Russian surname is one example — they use it to refer to ordinary folk that go to work, then drink and go home before repeating the cycle the next day. Although seemingly snobby, they insist that it is used to describe those who go through life without questioning authority or tradition. Even within the scene, there are differences and disagreements. “There are a lot of arguments,” says Sasha. “There are disagreements on what the hell straight edge even means. But then after all the disagreements, everybody still goes to the same gigs and moshes together.”