In preparation for my Doctoral studies, I am taking the time to seriously investigate the nooks and crannies of Russian hip hop culture. One of those interesting areas is the role of skateboarding in the gradual development of the culture and the unique positionality it took in both aiding and being aided by the growing rap scene, especially in the early 2000s with the rise of R’n’B and pop rap. In this post, I want to go through my research and summarize the development of skateboarding culture in Russia since its beginnings to the turn of the 21st century, focusing specifically on the influence of rap when it arises. Of course, more research is needed and someday this will inevitably turn into a formal article. But for the sake of time, this post will only include the main points that I think are really important and a synthesis of all the other things I’ve neglected to include. The skateboarding culture of Russia is one that has yet to be connected to Russian rap culture and so the possibilities are truly endless. One thing can be said and that is that skateboarding, while it has gradually developed in a full-on sport, started as a way to engage youth in healthy activities rather than succumbing to violence, criminality, drug use, and alcoholism. Our narrative starts in the 1920s with rollerblades, although really the 1970s.
1920s Soviet Rollerblading
Admittedly, I know very little about this having just stumbled upon it one day but here it is. The roots, somewhat, of the Soviet skateboarding culture can be traced back to the 1920s, a time of great innovation and transformation in post-October Russia. By the looks of it, rollerblading was seen as a Socialist-friendly pass time, although I can assume that by the rise of Stalin the context may have changed. I won’t dwell too much on this topic but will say that the rise of “aggressive rollerblading” grew during the 1980s, the same time that skateboarding and rap was gaining its cultural moment. Out from the shadow of the Stalinist regime, however, the rise of discotheque culture in the 1970s helped to give rise to the phenomena of skateboarding culture, although exact dates as to when the culture began is unknown right now.
The 1970s Birth of Russian Skateboarding Culture
At the time, skateboarding is not really understood and those participating in this strange, imported culture are seen as weird youth, the entire culture considered a “yard circus of freaks.” As the decade goes on, the culture begins to form a more formalized conception, and by the mid-late 1970s with the rise of disco, skateboarding is becoming a thriving cultural reality. By the late 1970s, skateboarding was now a prevalent, sociocultural phenomena but it wasn’t understood as connected in any way to hip hop culture just yet as hip hop in Russia wasn’t yet a thing, although Sofia Rotaru’s 1979 song “My Country” would signal the first sound of “rapping” in the country. Further, the name of “skateboarding” wasn’t even conceived of either, the common name being “rolling boards/scooters” rather than skateboarding. Slowly but surely, most prevalently within the Baltic states of the USSR (i.e., Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania), skateboard culture began to arise. Referred to as “asphalt surfers,” these first wave skateboarders were simply attempting to copy what they saw in the best way they could. In 1978, one of the first models of skateboards were created, the Estonian “Rula,” ushering in the first signs of acculturation.
[For a video of early Soviet skateboarding culture, see Rewolda (2019)]
The 1980s and 1990s: The Two Decades of Growth
Much like Russian rap culture, the 80s and 90s proved to be seminal periods for the burgeoning culture. Having not only established itself within Soviet cultural life but also having begun the process of localization and national infrastructural development via board creation, the ad hoc nature of the culture would soon change dramatically. The 1980s Summer Moscow Olympics were a huge turning point, not just for Russian hip hop culture for the entirety of Russian life itself. Unmitigated access to Western culture, worldviews, thoughts, conceptions about life, and capital of all kinds pushed many to begin experimenting with the cultures that were now flooding the Russian scene. A well known outcome is the rise of Soviet breakdancing, one of the first “official” elements of hip hop culture to develop within the Russian space, while the group Rush Hour would create their famous album, “Rap,” thanks to the help of Olga Opryatnaya and DJ Alexander Astrov. An interesting turn of events that brings skateboarding intimately close to hip hop culture was the valorization of skateboarding as a social good, a healthy pass time for Soviet youth. Skateboarders could earn the ability to travel for competitions and the whole thing itself was seen as a positive outlet for temperamental youth energy which was being channeled into “unhealthy” forms like rock and punk at the time. Around this time, the domestic creation of different boards was fueling the rise of skateboarding culture, the Virage and the RPOM/APOM among the brands available for purchase.
The second-half of the 1980s saw the regionalization of skateboarding culture, much like the early-mid 1990s for rap culture. Touching the main cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, skateboarding permeated the farther regions as well, Saratov becoming one of the most important places, much like Ufa for contemporary Russian trap. It’s referred to as the “Capital of Soviet Skateboarding” for good reason, as in this city was founded the first skateboarding zine called “Skate News,” as well as the skating club “Fantastika Club.” In 1989, a famous report by the American magazine Thrasher was published which documented Moscow skateboarding culture for foreign audiences. This was one of the most historically important points in Russian skateboard history.
The 1990s is a period of extreme growth but one that is intrinsically connected with the creation of a substantive Russian hip hop culture. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, more accurately Perestroika in 1985, the blossoming of Russian youth culture began in earnest. It was 1991, however, when the flood gates were opened and the “first wave” of Russian hip hop truly began in its fullest capacity. By this time, breakdancing was just one element in a larger network of hip hop elements, rapping the most popular form at the time, with graffiti just as popular and DJing taking its place as well. Likewise, notable skateboarders began establishing their recognition, Denis Markhasin and Dima Belyaev two in a huge ecosystem of riders. In 1991, the Saratov “Union Cup,” an annual international competition for skateboarding, would begin, again expanding the reach and popularity of this culture. However, youth-against-youth aggression mired the 1990s as many had no idea what the future held for them, the Western-styled “informals” too much for conservative “normal youth.” Attacks by skinheads and radical nationalists against atypical and Westernized youth were common, the rise of Russian gangsta rap coming out of this highly dangerous period. Russia hadn’t yet gotten its socioeconomic feet.
Our story must end here. Thank you for reading and until next time!
[Cover Photo credits: Skaters at Risk, 2019]