Earlier this year we started publishing Sneaker Freaker in Russian, via our office in Moscow. Intrigued by how this part of the world had adopted Western street culture over the past 20 years, we asked our new comrades for their insight. They put together this rad look into how skate shoes got their start in the USSR, at a time when the ‘total-grey’ Soviet look was the bleak day-to-day reality. When Thrasher magazine visited in the ‘80s, leaving behind their decks and gear, it was a tempting start, but it wasn’t until some pastel yellow Visions popped up that skaters could finally rock something with pride. Life was beyond hard for wannabe skate grommets! Imagine a 12 hour train ride just to buy some Airwalk Velocitys? As seen in Issue 19 of Sneaker Freaker.
The history and influence of skateboarding should not be underestimated in the overall context of contemporary Russian sneaker culture. For the past decade, skateboarding’s popularity was constantly growing and today, Circa, DC and Fallen sneakers are all over the place on every second Moscow kid’s feet. However, things were much different just 20 years ago – skate shoes were ultra-rare and almost impossible to obtain. The lucky few owners cherished their footwear more than anything, because for Russians – to put this into a socio-political context – it was more than just footwear, it was a subculture statement. For years the only skate shoes available at that time were yellow or newspaper print Visions which looked absurd to everyday Russians, simply because the total-grey Soviet look was still fully dominant.
The roots of Russian skateboarding can be traced back to the mid-1980s when the first contests were held in a town of Saratov, which was home to the only skatepark in the USSR. Then, in 1987 a group of Americans from Thrasher magazine visited the Soviet Union, after raising funds for their trip doing demos all over the States. Americans made friends with Moscow skaters, showed what could be done on skateboards and left all their equipment and skate-branded stuff when leaving. These were the first and last real decks, shoes and clothes to be seen in USSR. It was so sought after, some of it repeatedly changed hands throughout the years and it was still being used up to 1994.
The first proper skate shoes to officially arrive in Russia were made by Vision. In 1992 they were somehow imported and sold in a former department store for kids known as ‘Detskiy Mir’ (Child’s World) by some dodgy dudes. The price was just 45 rubles, which was next to nothing at that time. It was a model from 1986 in newspaper-print canvas and one yellow suede upper. The suede ones were more durable and for a while, every skater in Moscow was wearing them exclusively. ‘I can remember a funny episode with those Visions’ says old-school Moscow skater Denis Markhasin. ‘A mother walking by a group of skaters all in the same yellow shoes was with her son and was explaining to him: ‘Look how well they can do everything, that is because their footwear is special, with magnets!’
With time, more and more Visions started to filter into Moscow, appearing in the most unexpected places. There was never a long-time place that sold skate shoes, instead skaters were forced to search through sportswear shops and palatki (small, market-type stalls, that were commonplace in Russia during the early 90s). Alexander Goncharenko, one of the best Russian skaters of the 90s, reminisces… ‘Somebody saw Visions on Arbat (today a main tourist street, but during the 90s was a rather seedy place) laid out on the ground with some random clothes and Chinese fakes. I bought a pair of course, called everybody I knew, and an hour later they were all gone!’
At some point during the mid-90s, a sports store in St. Petersburg got one model of Airwalk, the Velocity. Skaters from Moscow would take a 12 hour train journey to St. Petersburg just to purchase them. It would seem that being close to Finland and Baltic countries would be of some advantage to places like St. Petersburg, however that was not the case – back then skateboarding was in deep underground, and skate shops were a rarity even in Europe.
It was considered a great luck to get a second-hand pair from friends or occasionally from visiting foreigners. Branded skate shoes were treasured and their life was prolonged for as long as possible. Rubber pads were attached to laces. Holes from griptape were glued over numerous times. And when soles were getting worn through, shoes were taken in for repair and a new sole was attached. When eventually the shoe was almost falling to pieces, it was kept together with cello-tape and there was no shame in that – everybody knew skate shoes held holy status. When it was impossible to get proper skate footwear, skaters would wear whatever they could get their hands on. Skaters were seen in Soviet Converse copies known as Dva Myacha (Two Balls), unknown Chinese kicks similar to Vans, tennis Wilson and running Nike models. In 1994, after seeing Plan B and H Street videos, it was even a trend to wear non-skate footwear. Adidas Norton and Gazelle, as well as some Pumas were a popular choice. However, the trend was short lived and soon, as Goncharenko remembers: ‘It was considered a bad taste!’
The situation was improving in the second half of the ‘90s. It got easier to leave Russia and those who emigrated or went to study abroad were sending back parcels with all kinds of skate gear, among it Airwalk, Vision and cult-status Vans sneakers.
Vans first appeared in Moscow unofficially in 1996 in a small showroom run by Denis Lenchevskiy. They were purchased and brought in from Poland by Lenchevskiy himself. Vans were always sold without boxes in Moscow, because Lenchevskiy would leave them out, so that more pairs could fit into his bags. An official distribution for Vans started in Russia in 1997. Denis Markhasin got a deal with the distributors and was selling Vans through Diskoxid, a shop popular with the ‘alternative’ crowd at the time. During that period, skateboard footwear was starting to pop up in very unusual places. For instance an Airwalk stall was once found at a trade-show called Miss Sports and Recreation. Skaters who came to the show could not believe their eyes and so did the representatives of the brand, who, truth be told, did not expect to find skateboarding in Russia.
Also in 1997, a company Sport-21 brought Sole-Tech (Emerica, Etnies, later és) to Russia and started to distribute it through sporting goods stores. And two years later, just months apart, the first two skateshops opened their doors in Moscow. One was named Adrenalin, another with the interesting name NonOlympicGames. They were selling already familiar Etnies and Emerica, plus brands new to Russians such as Axion, és and DC. Until that point the only pair of DC Boxer belonged to Andrey Artukhov, who is a famous skateboard photographer nowadays. As the first skateshops appeared, so did a division among Moscow skaters. They formed into two camps: those who shopped at Adrenalin were more fashion oriented, while NonOlympicGames was solely for hardcore skate-punks. ‘It never came to full confrontations, but you could definitely feel the tension’ says Alexandr Goncharenko. In 1999 MTV first aired in Russia and it gave an impulse to urban youth culture. MTV showed that t-shirts with prints, loose jeans, baseball caps and of course, skateboard shoes, were a uniform for youth all over the world. All of a sudden Russian music stars, the fashion conscious crowd and later, just about anybody fled to skate shops to do their shopping. More and more skate shops started to pop up all over the place and suddenly old-school skaters had to accept the fact that once-exclusive and desirable skateboard footwear had become just as common as a hooded sweatshirt and baggy jeans. Thanks to the guys at Sneaker Freaker Russia for this article.