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  • Varia Sinichkina

A Boy’s Word: Revisiting the Violence in 1980’s USSR




“One time, I had a gun held to my head in demand of money by someone I thought was my friend. It turns out he was part of a gang, and I had no idea,” my father once told me. Many of the stories that were passed down to me through tales from my parents revolved around life in the USSR, where street gangs were a large factor. My uncle belonged to a gang and would often come home with a broken nose or huge bruises, blaming it on boxing in front of his mother. So, when “A Boy’s Word: Blood on the Asphalt” was released in November of 2023, it took former USSR countries by storm. 


This brand new TV series, directed by Zhora Kryzhovnikov, took viewers back to Russia in the 1980s. The series follows the story of the Kazan Phenomenon, a thriving gang culture in the capital of the republic of Tatarstan. In this era, the USSR was about to collapse; however, the series does not go into such politics. Rather, it stays close to the boys of the street gangs, their day-to-day survival, and their desire for respect. Upon watching the series, we are faced with tragedy and grim scenes, boys as young as 12 fighting for their territory; their dreams and desires for a better life ripped apart by murder, rape, suicide, madness - but above all, by themselves. 


My dad had often told me about what it was like to grow up among such poverty and corruption - if you were not part of a youth street gang, you would get robbed and attacked. He once had to pay off a member of a gang in his area, a boy younger than him, to be protected from other rival gangs that often pestered him for money. “A Boy’s Word” portrays this flawlessly: a 14-year-old boy is brutally beaten to death by a gang, another is stripped of his shoes and coat mid-winter. For those that grew up in the end of the 20th century in the Soviet Union, and now exist in the post-Soviet era, the story and environment is more than familiar - it is home. Everyone came in contact with these gangs one way or another, either by being in them or being assaulted by them.


The rise of these youth gangs began in Kazan but quickly spread to all other cities of Russia, where even major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg were populated by aggressive youth, to the extent that even police could not deal with them. In order to join, newcomers were hit hard in the face. If able to resist or defend themselves, they were accepted into the “kontora,” the Russian name for these gangs. For the boys, these gangs were an escape from the hardships of daily life, a distraction from their careless parents and a changing world. It was a way for them to have purpose, feel strong and brave, be part of a family. To see something on screen that resembled all of the stories I grew up with was captivating.


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Art by Jos Bronner

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