Sneakers That Defined Russia's 1990s Rave Scene

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It was December 25, 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev walked from his post as president of the Soviet Union. The hammer and sickle lowered over the Kremlin for the last time, and Boris Yeltsin took his place in the newly independent Russian state.

Noise reverberated from behind the iron curtain.

Kids from across Moscow and Saint Petersburg took control of abandoned buildings, plugging their DIY raves into the surge of musical influence coming from the West. Clubs like Tunnel, Slaughterhouse and Ptych articulated a new artistic freedom, and offered a place to navigate the existential traumas springing from Soviet dissolution. The floodgates to the West opened, leading to the spillover of imitation adidas, authentic Air Max, and US terrace culture into Russia's local rave scene.

Here are the sneakers that helped forge the new Russian identity.

'The one who wears adidas will sell the Motherland tomorrow'
Shoes That Defined Soviet Russia
Soviet advertising

The seeds of Russia's sneaker obsession were sown in 1980.

Moscow hosted the Olympic Games and the sportswear for the Soviet team was designed by adidas. However, the Kremlin had certain conditions: the iconic Three Stripes logo could not be shown (as it would be seen to encourage German manufacturing). The logo was rebuilt to resemble an ‘M’ on Soviet athletes' sneakers — deemed an acceptable reference to the host state, Moscow.

adidas was one of the first global brands to become recognisable behind the Iron Curtain. Under the USSR, it was only possible to buy adidas sneakers via the black market, an under-the-table process that was limited to those with money. The brand not only became associated with money and status (Russians often wore adi to theatres and restaurants), but also with capitalist defectors.

Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskiy remembers the first time he saw adidas sneakers.

‘When I was at school, I used to wear adidas tracksuits. I remember being in the discotheque at summer camp when The Prodigy album The Fat of The Land was out. There were a few girls who would dance every night and they did the dance from the 'Firestarter' video.'

'One of the girls was wearing brand new adidas shoes and it was an iconic moment in my life.'
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Moscow Olympics, 1980

Then came the 90s.

Counterfeit sneakers flooded the market from China, Turkey and the Caucasus. By midway through the decade, there were more fake sneaker brands produced in Eastern Europe than OG in the West. As adidas was worn by those who could afford it, those that couldn’t wore fakes (sometimes spelt abibas). The Russian mafia would hire ex-wrestlers and weightlifters to provide muscle, and imported authentic adidas from the West to flex on the local neighbourhood. Wannabe gangsters, known as Gopniks (etymologically linked to ‘street crime’), copped fakes.

As the 1990s progressed, Russian subcultures pledged allegiance to their Western counterparts. The Skinheads in Russia wore adidas Sambas, Saint Petersburg punks wore Vans, and the hip-hop crowd gravitated towards the Nike Air Max 90, Air Max 1 or Air Max 95.

For the Russians involved in the fledgling rave scene, the rise of these brands coincided with a search for a new authenticity — a new Russian identity. Those that flocked to iconic clubs like Witchout and Skotoboinya (Russian for ‘Slaughterhouse’) often wore adidas tracksuits and sneakers, symbolic of the generation’s fondness for the Three Stripes, but also representing a kind of mocking acceptance of its criminal undertones.

Igor Shulinksy owned a club integral to Moscow’s rave scene, Ptych.

'Moscow was very dark, like a small German town, and we wanted to brighten everything up, ignite a fire ...'
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Raves across modern-day Ukraine. Sean Schermerhorn and Yana Mihaylenko
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Gosha Rubchinskiy
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Igor Bystriy
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Gosha Rubchinskiy

Denis Oding was the founder of Russia’s first rave club, Tunnel. He describes seeing the West for the first time:

‘In 1988 in Stockholm, I went to the club called Mars located in a former subway station. The place was full of transvestites. Everyone was happy. I watched all night how the DJ played records and decided we must have this in St Petersburg.’

By early 90s, there was movement in Saint Petersburg. Kids were taking control of buildings not owned by the state, the market, or the collective Soviet gaze. Apartments like the ones located at Fontanka River No. 145 became hot spots for self-styled raves. Western house music was studied, dividing walls were destroyed, and electricity was installed. Soon, these abandoned buildings became fully fledged rave caves. The clubs were packed full of fashion from the terraces, with running and tennis sneakers prioritised over the kind of vintage basketball silhouettes flexed in the US sneaker scene during the mid 90s.

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Gosha Rubchinskiy
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Ravers at Fontanka 145. Photos via Alexei Khaas archive
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Gosha Rubchinskiy

By the next century, all this had changed.

Stores like Frontline and Seven Boardshop were among the first to stock Nike SB, and were pivotal in shifting the lens to incorporate mainstream appeal. The internet began to catalogue American sneaker culture within an eternal digital vortex. US terrace culture, hip-hop and street art helped shape Russia’s contemporary sneaker scene (in 2016, Moscow hosted their first Sneaker Con event).

In Moscow, the younger generation begun to gravitate towards the classics (it’s common to see Air Max 95s and TNs on the street, alongside Vans Old Skools and Chuck Taylors).

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Gosha Rubchinskiy SS18

In 2018, Gosha Rubchinskiy rented DK Svyazi, a former Soviet youth club that hosted one of the first raves after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Gosha used the space to launch his SS18 collection — a catalogue reminiscing over Saint Petersburg’s rave culture of the 1990s.

The runway was full of models wearing technicoloured adidas sneakers, looking like they'd just left the football field to have their pupils dilated by the kind of rave warehouses knocking about across Saint Petersburg. The result was a stylistic mashup typical of Russia’s rave scene in the 90s, but the collection also identified a certain keystone integral to the Russian psyche over the previous century — a brand that continued to ring in the ears like tinnitus long after all the clubs had closed: adidas.

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