Normalnye patsany (Russia)

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Normalnye patsany 🇷🇺
Russia map.png
Location: Russia
Definition: Members of urban street gangs
Keywords: Russia FSU Urban Gang
Clusters: Solidarity Normative ambivalence Conformity Lock-in effect Modern and youth solidarities
Author: Svetlana Stephenson
Affiliation: School of Social Sciences, London Metropolitan University, UK
Website: Profile page at LMU

By Svetlana Stephenson, School of Social Sciences, London Metropolitan University, UK

Normalnye patsany are members of street groups that can be found in many Russian urban areas, particularly in the peripheries of big cities, as well as in small and medium-sized towns (Golovin and Lurie 2008[1]). Street groups and street cultures, in which children and young people, mainly boys, spend time outside adult control—playing together, fighting with their peers from other areas and engaging in petty crime—are a feature of urban life in many countries around the world (Thrasher 1927[2]; Whyte 1943[3]; Kintrea 2011[4]; Pearson 2011[5]). In Russia, members of these groups are commonly known as gopniks, a derogatory name similar in its connotations to English ‘chavs,’ that is, low- and working-class young men, presumed to have bad taste, vulgar manners and aggressive dispositions towards the outside world (Hayward and Majid 2006[6]; Nayak 2006[7]; Jones 2011[8]). Their clothes (often cheap tracksuits), their use of slang (borrowing heavily from criminal culture), and their general demeanour (including, for example, their manner of walking the streets in groups or ‘aggressively’ occupying street corners) are seen as signifying their social and cultural inferiority. The gopniks’ parochial stubbornness seems to represent resistance to late modernity, and to an increasingly individualised, diverse and consumer-orientated way of life.

Research conducted with patsany, however, shows that they see themselves as ‘normal lads,’ and the core reputational group in the territory. They have strong local identities and see themselves as, far from delinquents, the backbone of the local community (Pilkington 2002; Stephenson 2012[9]). While members of the groups may engage in episodic acts of delinquency and crime (theft, shoplifting, joyriding), their key practices are those of local sociability and territorial defence. They spend their time out of school on the streets, policing their turf. The cultural imperative to be in control of the local territory is expressed through an obsessive search for the ‘Other,’ typically members of ethnic minority groups, or the so called neformaly (members of youth subcultures, for example punks or goths), young people from other territories and, increasingly, young men from exclusive residential developments built on the territory of the patsany.

While violence constitutes one of the key practices of the normalnye patsany, they place a high emphasis on collective rules of ‘honourable’ conduct (Gromov and Stephenson 2008[10]). Seeing themselves as members of a territorial elite (Collins 2008 [11]), they follow honour rules that limit violence or channel it into ritualised forms. For example, it is not considered proper for youths to fight with women or children, for ten youths to attack one, or to start a fight with non-street local young men, the so-called botaniki (‘botanists’) who cannot be seen as equals. If, however, a non-street young man looks or talks in a wrong way, or does anything that can be construed as a lack of respect to a patsan, it is permissible physically to ‘punish’ him and take away whatever the patsa wants (usually a mobile-phone, a watch or money).

A key cultural practice of the patsany is the strelka (arranged combat)—a ritual whereby members of different territorial groups meet to stage a fight under specific conditions and limitations. Strelki are used by different street groups to test their strength, settle disputes or confirm territorial boundaries. These fights tend to take place in neutral areas or (in a trope reminiscent of medieval culture) on a bridge over a river separating two areas, or in winter on the frozen river itself (Golovin and Lurie 2005[12]). These practices can be traced to the traditions of village fights which were a feature of most European peasant societies (Tilly 1974[13]; Ploux 2007[14]), often coinciding with weddings and other celebratory events. In Europe and in Russia they were used to test the strength of adversaries and reinforced the solidarity of the male peer groups (Kabanov 1928; Bernshtam 1988; Shchepanskaia 2001; Morozov and Sleptsova 2004). The relatively late urbanisation of Russia may account for the longevity of these practices.

The patsany agree in advance on the approximate number of fighters and whether weapons (such as chains, clubs or knuckledusters, but never guns or knives) may be used. They make formations with the strongest at the front. Sometimes a fight is started by the group leader challenging the enemy leader to a battle. If a group is defeated, the reputation of the territory suffers. This is why fights can lead to an escalation of violence. If the youngsters lose, older comrades may try to repair the territorial reputation by fighting themselves. Alternatively, they may tell the youngest to arrange another revenge fight. There may be lengthy cycles of arranged fights, in which neighbourhood groups build alliances to help each other out. The favours done by one group to another are returned, and it is not uncommon to offer ‘payment’ for extra fighters (usually a couple of crates of beer). Respectable adult figures in the local community (often ex-criminals--established experts in the use of violence—or former members of the street group) may help the youngsters to mobilise additional fighters.

Normalnye patsany are often heavily influenced by criminal culture (Kosterina 2008). Some groups collect money to send to inmates in prisons and penal colonies. A small minority of so-called initsiativshchiki (initiative-takers) actively seek to join criminal groups, liaising with former convicts and members of organised-crime groups in their areas, and building their criminal reputations through small-scale racketeering, burglary and other forms of acquisitive crime. These patsany seek to become real’nye patsany (real lads), members of criminal gangs. But usually normalnye patsany aspire to mainstream careers, seeing their street pursuits as a necessary stage for a boy to learn how to be a real man through street camaraderie and violence. Their practices of territorial violence are not entirely oppositional to the mainstream culture. In their assertion of dominant masculinity, they reflect and amplify the norms that are prevalent in wider Russian society and are celebrated in mass culture and political behaviour (Stephenson 2015[15]).

In recent years the street as a key place of male socialisation and a locus of territorial control has begun to lose its significance. This may be attributed to a growing privatisation of public space and the relocation of leisure activities into the space of the home. Street groups still exist in social and spatial periphery, making their members even more vulnerable to cultural stigmatisation by the urban middle-classes.


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  2. Thrasher, F. 1927. The Gang. A study of 1,313 gangs in Chicago. Chicago: University Press.
  3. Whyte, W. 1943. Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  4. Kintrea, K., Bannister, J., Pickering, J. 2011. '"It's just an area - everybody represents it": exploring young people's territorial behaviour in British cities' in B. Goldson (ed), Youth in crisis? 'Gangs', territoriality and violence. London and New York: Routledge: 55-71
  5. Pearson, G. 2011. 'Perpetual novelty: youth, modernity and historical amnesia' in B. Goldson (ed), Youth in crisis? 'Gangs,' territoriality and violence. London and New York: Routledge: 20-37
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  8. Jones, O. 2011. Chavs : the demonization of the working class. London: Verso
  9. Stephenson, S. 2012. 'The violent practices of youth territorial groups in Moscow,' Europe-Asia Studies, 64(1): 69-90
  10. Gromov, D. and Stephenson, S. 2008. 'Patsanskie pravila: normirovanie povedeniia v ulichnikh gruppirovkakh,' in M. Martynova and N. Lebedeva (eds), Molodie moskvichi. Krosskulturnoe issledovanie. Moscow: RUDN: 427-56
  11. Collins, R. 2008. Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  12. Golovin, V. and Lurie, M. 2005. 'Boi na mostu, ili s kem voyuyut podrostki,' in I. Ermachenko and L. Repina (eds), Mir i voina: kulturnye konteksty sotsialnoi agressii. Moscow: IVI RAN: 127-34
  13. Tilly, C. 1974. 'Rural collective action in modern Europe,' CRSO working paper, University of Michigan, April (96)
  14. Ploux, F. 2007. 'La violence des jeunes dans les campagnes du Sud-Ouest au XIXème siècle : ethos agonistique et masculinité,' Revue d’histoire de l’enfance «irrégulière» , 9: 79-89
  15. Stephenson, S. 2015. Gangs of Russia : from the streets to the corridors of power. Ithaca: Cornell University Press