For my first week in Moscow, I’m staying at a flat in Kotelniki, a new suburb right out at the end of the purple metro line to the south-eastern extents. Given that I tend not to be in this part of the city, I thought I’d take advantage of the opportunity today to go explore Lyubertsy, a blue-collar township now engulfed by the metropolis, as I hadn’t yet seen it.
On one level, this is hardly surprising as Lyubertsy is hardly known for its picturesque charms and cultural glories. Quite the opposite, it is an industrial/post-industrial — the former Ukhtomsky agricultural equipment factory deserves a photo essay in its own right, to follow — and bedroom suburb, a mix of decaying khrushchyovka blocks and some newer but equally undistinguished apartment blocks and formula shopping and office blocks.
On the other hand, it has played a pretty significant role relating to two of my pet subjects, the (Soviet) Afghan War and organised crime, so it is fitting that I get there in the end.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Lyubertsy was notorious for the youth phenomenon of the same name, young working class men who worked out together and formed gangs which consciously set themselves against the counter-culture emerging especially in the centre of Moscow. They would head into town on marauding raids to find and beat up long-haired ‘khippis’ and other such degenerates. Not surprisingly, many also graduated into organised crime, and for a while they were amongst the shock troops of the slavic underworld in Moscow, always ready to tangle with the Caucasian gangs in particular. Since then, the neighbourhood has changed, and the Lyubertsy gangs are no more (even if some of their values of patriotic thuggishness have emerged in new forms, from the Cossacks to other street movements), but this is still perhaps its main claim to fame.
The town’s blue-collar character and macho youth culture conspired to ensure that a disproportionate number of its young men ended up conscripted and served in Afghanistan. The sad corollary, of course, is a disproportion of casualties.
This is now engraven on the urban landscape, from street names such as Ulitsa Voinov-Internationalistov (Street of Soldier-Internationalists, as the troops sent to Afghanistan were known), to the impressive war memorial in said street, a Mi-24 ‘Hind’ gunship, one of the iconic weapons of that war, on a pedestal.