Russian series on Perestroika-era youth gangs breaks popularity records, defying attempts to ban it

Screenshot from the original page of the article in the Russian Post. Used with permission.

This article by Sofia Sorochinskaya was first published in RussiaPost on DATE. An edited version is republished by Global Voices with permission.

In November 2023, Russian streaming services premiered the series “Slovo Patsana. Krov’ na asphalte” (The Boy’s Word: Blood on the Asphalt). Within just a month, it was breaking popularity records in Russia, surpassing the previous leader, the South Korean drama Squid Game.

The series tells the story of youth street gangs in late 1980s Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, drawing inspiration from real-life events and based on a book by a former gang member. At that time, criminal groups, mostly made up of minors, fought to control turf, resulting in a high number of murders and unprecedented levels of crime. Historians refer to it as the “Kazan phenomenon.”

The main character in the series is Andrei, a 14-year-old who lives with his mom and little sister, is a good student at school and plays the piano. He gets bullied by other teenagers and looks for protection. Andrei meets Marat, a member of a gang in Kazan, and goes on to join the gang, getting involved in fights and robberies.

The gangs live by a unique set of rules. The phrase “slovo patsana” — meaning a chap’s word — means an unbreakable promise or vow. If someone makes a promise, he must keep his word. The members of the gang take part in mass brawls as they vie for control over parts of Kazan, often resulting in murders. One episode mentions that almost all the real-life prototypes of the main characters either received long prison sentences or were killed.

Some government officials claimed that Slovo Patsana promoted violence and called for a ban. Irina Volynets, the Tatarstan region’s children’s rights commissioner, wrote that the series “romanticizes banditry and justifies the alarming phenomenon known as the ‘Kazan phenomenon,’ forming false perceptions about the criminal world in the eyes of youth.”

Meanwhile, Duma Deputy Nina Ostanina has requested an inquiry to determine if the murder of a 15-year-old teenager in the Russian city of Irkutsk was inspired by the series. There is a scene similar to the incident in Slovo Patsana.

But the series’ tremendous popularity has defied any attempts to censor it.

After watching the series, Tatarstan teenagers created chats named after the former Kazan gangs and posted a video where they were imitating the fights from the 1990s with snowballs.

Yandex [a Russian search engine very popular in the country] data shows that in one month Russians searched ‘Slovo Patsana’ more than ‘war in Ukraine’ for the entire year of 2023. [It should be noted that data from Yandex may not be trusted when it is connected to the war in Ukraine: Yandex is under the control of the Russian state now, and everything connected to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is heavily censored.]

Read more:  The limits of compromise: how Yandex is falling apart

According to VTsIOM, the state-owned pollster, over 80 percent of Russians are aware of the series, with eight out of 10 who watched the series (82 percent) against its being banned.

The Tatar-language song “Piyala” by the hip-hop duo Aigel, which is featured in the series soundtrack, topped Shazam’s worldwide chart.

The soundtrack was not in the credits, even though it appeared in almost every episode, most likely because Aigel has spoken out against the war in Ukraine and left Russia. The series has also generated interest in the Tatar language. Following the show’s release, a petition on called for Tatar to be added to Duolingo.

Read more: Tatar language activist who identifies as queer: ‘Under the influence of the modern Russian state, Central Asian politicians are trying to implement similar anti-gay policies’

Interestingly, “Slovo Patsana” became very popular in Ukraine. Spanish newspaper El Pais wrote that it had “rocked Ukrainian society” and reported that “it was the most viewed series on the internet in Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture released a statement equating the series with hostile propaganda on behalf of the enemy. The statement read:

In the Ukrainian online space, especially among teenagers, a Russian-produced series that directly promotes violence, crime and an aesthetic characteristic of the aggressor country is spreading. It contains hostile propaganda, the dissemination of which in Ukraine during wartime is considered unacceptable.

According to BBC Russia, many in Ukraine are outraged that “at the height of the war with Russia… young people could watch a Russia-made series” and are “demanding that Ukraine’s Security Service ban the series.” But such a ban would be pointless, as Ukrainians watch Russian productions mostly through already-illegal pirated streaming platforms.

Russian journalist Mikhail Shevchuk called “Slovo Patsana” one of the most significant cultural phenomena in many years. In his view, the story has a strong political backdrop and can be deemed “anti-Soviet.” Shevchuk said that those accusing “Slovo Patsana” of romanticizing violence were simply “seeing themselves in the mirror.” HE said:

In these days when the country’s leadership is persistently trying to restore the empire and seriously indoctrinate schoolchildren for that purpose, someone has taken the initiative to show those same schoolchildren what the empire actually looked like from the inside.

He added that the series clearly demonstrated that “by the end of its existence, the USSR itself had become genuinely anti-Soviet.”

According to Shevchuk, “Slovo Patsana ruthlessly narrates the disintegration of the social fabric of the USSR — the state could no longer protect or feed the people, and the people ceased to respect the state.”

Yuri Saprykin, a subtle culture critic, praised the series, dubbing it truly “grassroots,” owing to the fact that it was not aired on television and gained popularity because people from various social backgrounds and ages recommended it to one another.

It is watched by children, by adults who remember those times and by adults who do not remember them. It is watched by… intellectuals and just your regular series audience. It somehow captivates everyone… that almost never happens.

“Slovo Patsana” “is universal, as it speaks about simple things everyone understands, such as friendship, betrayal, revenge and justice,” Saprykin writes. He adds: “it is too bad that it cannot be marketed on Netflix to see whether it would have international success. I think it would be highly successful, just as Spanish and Israeli series that have lately become global hits.”

Indeed, it was really hard to miss “Slovo Patsana,” especially online. The hashtag #словопацана (“slovo patsana”) has hit 11.3 billion views on TikTok. Social media is also buzzing with videos from parties where people are dancing to the 1980s hits featured in the series, rediscovering the dances from that era.

Slang from that time is also making a comeback. For example, the term “chushpan,” meaning “an outsider,” someone not involved in the gangs, has become popular again. After watching the series, a family from Kazan even named their newborn son Chushpan.

Lots of families watched “Slovo Patsana” together. Parents could reminisce about their youth with their kids, and teens shared these stories online. Some videos show how hooked on the show parents became.

Saprykin believes that “Slovo Patsana” will go down in history as a cultural phenomenon. He said he can imagine anniversary screenings of the series in cinemas 20 years from now.

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