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Youth Communities of Dagestan

Street workout and anime scenes in Makhachkala

Having studied youth communities in Makhachkala, HSE sociologists are using the examples of street workout and anime fans to discuss growing up and socialisation in Dagestan today. The article was published in Cultural Studies.

Growing up in today's world is a highly individualised experience with limited dependence on class-, employment- or ethnicity-based solidarities. Young people grow up by constructing their preferred lifestyles and joining communities of their choice based on individual cultural preferences. In the early 2000s in Russia, a distinction between 'normal' and 'advanced' youth played a key role in shaping such communities demarcated by their members’ attitudes towards Western culture and related choices of behaviour and appearance.

Today, according to sociologists, youth cultural spaces in Russian cities are more fragmented, while the formation of group identity is more complicated than before, arguably due to the increased role of IT and digital media in everyday life. Other factors that have shaped youth cultures include increased government pressure on young people, and an officially-declared return to conservative values, as well as geopolitical and ideological confrontation with the West.

'Scene' is a term used by sociologists to describe the life of youth communities in today's urban context.

A scene is a local social environment instrumental in shaping various urban identities and solidarities based on self-expression values and on shared lifestyles and cultural sensibilities.

The study authors used the examples of workout and anime fans – two very different urban scenes in Makhachkala – to illustrate how youth identities are shaped and reproduced in the periphery of the globalised world.

Urban Context

Like many other Russian cities, Makhachkala was hit by deindustrialisation and the economic turmoil caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Unemployment rates soared, and society was increasingly polarised due to inequality of income. Many residents, mainly intellectual workers, moved away from the region, while people from Dagestan's rural areas migrated to its capital city of Makhachkala.

Dagestan's capital has always been considered one of the most ethnically diverse communities in Russia, inhabited by more than 30 ethnic groups such as Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins, Laks, Russians, and others. Religion plays an important role in the city and the broader region. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dagestan has become a centre of re-Islamification, marked by a rapid growth of Islamic institutions and the de-secularisation of everyday life. With communist ideology losing its dominant position, religion has regained its status of an officially approved and even required component of 'normal' life.

Adding to Dagestan’s and its residents' ethnic and religious ‘otherness’, they are often perceived as aggressive and dangerous elsewhere in Russia, and as a result, young Dagestanis traveling outside of their Republic often face discrimination in finding employment, renting accommodation and dealing with the authorities.

Most (70%) of those who stay in Dagestan after graduation remain financially dependent on their parents due to high unemployment levels. The aforementioned challenges have been found to influence young Dagestanis' ways of socialisation. 

A survey of 800 high school and university students in Makhachkala revealed the city's most popular youth scenes, which included those of football fans (25.9% of respondents), street workout fans (20.1%), 'active Muslims' (18.5%), boardgame fans (18.3%), cyclists (15.7%), and lowriders (fans of lowered cars, 7.2%). Only 6.6% of respondents identified themselves as anime fans, but the scene's communicative involvement is much higher, with 28.9% of all respondents having friends among anime fans and 35.7% knowing about this scene in Makhachkala but not being part of it.

Street Workout Fans

This scene brings together young men aged between 14 and 25, mainly from urban families who have moved to the city, with low incomes and limited cultural capital. Since many members of this scene are high school or university students, their number varies by season from 60-100 in summer to 15-20 in winter. The young men get together in open-air sports grounds to practice push-ups, pull-ups and horizontal and parallel bar exercises. Many older and more experienced participants offer to train others for free.

Most city residents approve of street workouts as a way of allowing young men to develop physical strength and mental stamina as well as expressing their masculinity in aggression-free ways. In addition to that, workout fans sometimes travel to rural areas, giving talks on healthy lifestyle choices and conducting master classes, as well as producing videos of their workouts and posting them on social media.

Many workout fans perceive this activity as a relief from their condition of marginality, and those aged 21–25 and financially dependent on their parents see it as a substitute for a professional occupation and a source of self-respect and social recognition – an important consideration in Dagestan where honour and dignity are emphasised as key aspects of male self-determination.

In the future, street workout fans hope to access financial support for their scene from the local authorities, as it would enable them to develop as professionals in their occupation.

Anime Fans

Most participants in this scene are female school students or undergraduates learning creative professions and sharing a fascination with Japanese animation. The scene was formed by anime lovers who had met via social media or by attending the annual festival of Japanese and Korean culture which used to be held in Makhachkala until recently and served as a platform for creative pursuits. Fans attending the festival wore home-made costumes to cosplay their favourite anime characters and performed related scenes and soundtracks. Between and after the festivals, fans have continued to communicate virtually.

Generally, anime fans are peaceful, promote gender equality and acceptance of migrants, and reject xenophobia. According to a survey in four Russian cities, the anime scene is the most tolerant of all youth communities in the country. However, few people in Makhachkala share the anime fans' enthusiasm and values.

Instead, local residents tend to believe that anime is a form of deviant behaviour prompted by foreign influence. Dying one's hair a bright colour and wearing a different style of clothes from the norm is strongly discouraged in Dagestan.

Recently, conservative sentiments have been particularly strong, forcing anime fans to make a tough choice between trying to defend their activity as legitimate and harmless, with anime and cosplay being part of the global popular culture, on one hand, and avoiding being bullied by street thugs and shunned by conservative-minded people, on the other. Indeed, street gangs have violently attacked some anime scene participants. 

Equally important are family attitudes, as few anime fans are supported at home. Some parents consider their children's passion to be caused by poor discipline and ban them from watching anime, dyeing their hair, and participating in festivals. There is a common belief that anime is somehow associated with the LGBT community, which is a particular taboo in Dagestan. Some other parents, however, approve of their children's hobby and find anime no more dangerous than other types of comics or movies. Such parents accept the anime scene as a space where young people can grow up and develop professional skills in areas such as design, painting, illustration and music.

Tired of the struggle and discouraged by family and society disapproval, some anime fans leave the scene or try to hide their involvement with it, while some others make plans to move elsewhere in Russia (often to St. Petersburg). Parental choices for their children and social attitudes are powerful factors in the lives of Dagestani youth. At the age of 19-21, girls are generally pressured into marriage, forcing many anime fans to leave the scene for a new stage in their life.

*The study was implemented as part of the 'Fields of positive interethnic interactions and youth cultural scenes in Russian cities' project supported by the Russian Science Foundation.


Study authors:
Elena Omelchenko, Director, Centre for Youth Studies, HSE Campus in St. Petersburg
Alina Mayboroda, Junior Research Fellow, Centre for Youth Studies, HSE Campus in St. Petersburg
Svyatoslav Poliakov, Junior Research Fellow, Centre for Youth Studies, HSE Campus in St. Petersburg
Author: Alena Tarasova, February 27, 2019