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Monday, July 21, 2008

In neo-Soviet Russia, not even the EMOs are Safe

The Moscow Times reports:

In a basement studio in northern Moscow, singer Valentin Ayedonitsky screeches about his broken heart, his asymmetrical bangs flapping with every beat. "Things have become so lonely, nothing interests me anymore / Daylight, but light is lacking, around there is only dark night." Dressed in tight jeans, a hooded sweatshirt and skull-adorned Vans, Ayedonitsky, 22, looks more Brooklyn than Moscow. But he and his band, MAIO, are part of the country's burgeoning emo scene — a subculture coming under increasing government scrutiny.

Teens sporting emo couture — black bangs, eyebrow piercings, pinned shoulder bags — have become a ubiquitous sight on the Moscow metro and at popular youth hangouts like Pushkin Square and the All-Russia Exhibition Center. But State Duma deputies, Public Chamber members and social conservatives have hammered out legislation aimed at heading off the spread of emo culture, which they describe as a "dangerous teen trend." The Duma last month held a parliamentary hearing on a raft of proposed amendments contained in a document called "Government Strategy in the Sphere of Spiritual and Ethical Education," a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times. Among other measures, the proposed legislation calls for heavy regulation of emo web sites and for banning young people dressed like emos from entering schools and government buildings.

Sitting at a table with scattered cans of Red Bull and packs of Marlboro Lights, MAIO drummer Dmitry Gilevich, 21, was indignant over the bill. "Expressing psychological emotions is not forbidden by law," Gilevich said. "I believe every individual has that right." At the heart of the emo backlash is widespread ignorance of culture, Gilevich said. "People think it's an aggressive subculture for youth who cut their veins every day," he said. "First and foremost, emo is not a culture of the soul, but of music."

MAIO bassist Alexander Kulikov, 22, said emo music has a therapeutic effect on teens. He discovered the emo band Aiden when he was 17 years old and credits their lyrics for helping him persevere. "Those bands really helped me survive my difficult, neurotic age," Kulikov said. Ayedonitsky loves the energy of the music. "It's not just that you like it and want to listen to it. It gives you goose bumps. You want to scream, to run," he said. "You want to push the pedal, get up and dance in the traffic jams," added guitarist Dmitry Sergeyenko, 23.

Like many youth trends in Russia, emo culture is a Western import. Born out of 1980s "emotional hard-core" rock in Washington D.C. (and undergoing a rebirth in 2000), emo culture arrived in Moscow in 2003 after droves of young Russians began downloading foreign music on the Internet. Hard-core rock about love infiltrated the independent music scene as bands like The Used and Finch were on heavy rotation at Funkysouls.com. "These groups showed up in our country years after they were popular in the United States, and teens caught this wave," said Pavel Shumilov, 21, co-founder of the web site Emokids.ru. "Since then, the emo underground music scene has faded into a mainstream style."

Created in 2005, Emokids.ru has 6,000 registered members in its forum and gets more than 500 original hits per day, Shumilov said. With Keds borrowed from the skaters, piercings from punks and a love of all things black from goths, emo style in Russia has become at once indefinable and everywhere. The lawmakers who drafted the proposed legislation, however, have spelled out their own definition. Emos, according to the bill, are from 12 to 16 years old and wear black and pink clothing. They have black hair with long bangs that "cover half the face," black fingernails, black belts peppered with studs and pins, and ear and eyebrow piercings, the bill says.

The "negative ideology" of emo culture may push young people toward depression and social withdrawal, and the movement carries a significant risk of suicide, especially for young girls, according to the bill. Dasha Larionova, 21, who listens to MAIO and My Chemical Romance and has an affection for emo fashion, believes that the association between emo culture and suicide is just a stereotype. "There are way too many emo teens to have one general characteristic," Larionova said. "The government doesn't know what they're talking about."

The bill also outlines what it calls a "spiritual and ethical crisis" facing Russian youth, including the high rate of alcohol abuse, teen abortions and "negative youth movements." Emo ideology encourages and justifies drug use and sexual relations among minors, according to the bill, which also lumps emos and goths together with skinheads. "The point of the bill is so that by 2020, Moscow will have someone to rule its government," said Alexander Grishunin, an adviser to Public Chamber member Yevgeny Yuryev, one of the bill's three coordinators. "This is the first step in the public discourse." The bill's sponsors hope that it will be passed into law by the end of the year.

This is not the first time emo kids have been targeted as a danger to society. In November, the Novgorod regional education department issued a letter to all schools in the region with a description of emo culture, saying the "dream of every [emo] is to die in a warm bath from the blood of cutting their wrists." The branch distributed the letter at the behest of the regional branch of the Federal Security Service, according to the bill's footnotes. One school in Chelyabinsk has banned emo attire, saying it violates the Constitution because it promotes "violence," the news agency Novy Region reported.

Igor Ponkin, one of the bill's authors and a member of the Interior Ministry's public oversight council, described emo culture as a "social danger" that demands measures such as dress codes in schools, Internet regulation and state-sponsored after-school activities. Ponkin said emo kids exchange photographs showing off their slashed wrists. "This type of behavior is a crucial part of emo ideology," he said. "Of course there are emo teens who just listen to their music. But our actions are not directed at them but rather at those who also hurt themselves, commit suicide and promote those acts," Ponkin added.

Not all psychologists agree with Ponkin's analysis, however. "Suicide is not a symptom of emo culture. I work with other teens too, and every group has emotionally troubled kids," said psychologist Inna Cherkova, who has worked with local teenagers, including emo kids, for 15 years. Many subcultures can, in fact, help children mature into adults, psychologist Alyona Filippova said. "Many kids seek those with the same perspective and problems and, through this, they can enter general society," Filippova said. She said, however, that those who cling to subcultures do have a higher risk of psychological problems.

But the emo movement may fade into obscurity before the proposed bill ever becomes law. The anti-emo backlash is almost as prevalent as the culture itself. Many bands who were formally identified as emo are quick to distance themselves from their "earlier" emo period. Sergei Vel, the lead vocalist in rock band Radio Cambodia, which is heavily featured on Emokids.ru, says he no longer listens to emo music. "Even those who play emo music will not admit that it's emo, because it's not in style anymore," Vel said. "It used to be honest and real. Now it all faded and merged into the mainstream. I can identify with emo culture, but not the kind that is now being offered in Russia."

Andrei Shmorgun, 28, said he loves the emotional quality of emo music, but that in Russia, "this style is not accepted as it should be." "They ruined the stereotype of emo and turned it into some kind of suicidal trend," said Shmorgun, a member of the metal band Arda. Kulikov, the bassist for MAIO, said it was natural that emo culture is spawning enemies. "The more popular the wave, the more antagonists will rise — in any music," Kulikov said. "If someone is saying something negative, he probably has no idea what we or our music are about."

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