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    Deeper Than Oil: Wall on wall battles

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    In the Soviet Union, a popular pastime for some young men (and some women) was “Stenka na Stenku” or “Wall on Wall.” This consisted of the youth of two areas meeting at an arranged point and assembling themselves into two lines, or “walls.” They would then walk towards each other, and the goal was to take out your corresponding number in the opposing “wall” by any means necessary.

     

    In the Soviet Union, a popular pastime for some young men (and some women) was “Stenka na Stenku” or “Wall on Wall.” This consisted of the youth of two areas meeting at an arranged point and assembling themselves into two lines, or “walls.” They would then walk towards each other, and the goal was to take out your corresponding number in the opposing “wall” by any means necessary.

    People were routinely maimed, or even killed. Although cases of Stenka na Stenku still occur in Russia today, the pastime took a dramatic nosedive in popularity in the late 1980s. Mainly due to better television programming and the start of a nascent culture of football hooliganism, I’d guess.

     My mother-in-law, Tamara Nikolayevna, told me that, “In Soviet-era Belarus, in the years after WWII, the guys from my village, Dubovka, would go and fight with the guys from the neighboring village, Savichi. They would carry long poles, and stand in two lines, facing each other, whacking each other with these sticks. People would get crippled; there would be blood everywhere. The women and children from each village would come and cheer on their men. “Come on, give him what for!” we would yell.”

     And, I wondered, did the police get involved, make arrests?

     “No, no,” she replied, laughing. “At that time there was only one policeman for every four villages. What could he do?”

      Eventually, however, the Soviet authorities cracked down on Stenka na Stenku, imposing a ban in the mid-1950s. “They wanted to draft guys into the army, you see, but half of them were suffering from injuries from Stenka na Stenku,” Tamara recalled. “Still, it continued, of course.”

     Stenka na Stenku has its roots in traditional medieval Slavic village games popular on the territories of modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The basic idea has not changed much through the centuries. In fact, if a surviving set of rules is anything to go by, the earlier form of Stenka na Stenku may have even been more organized than the modern version.

    a)    Those combatants who have been knocked down are not to be judged a part of the fight.

    b)    Fighting shall be carried out face-to-face, chest-to-chest. There is to be no entering the battle from the sides.

    c)    There is to be no swapping sides.

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    I witnessed a Stenka na Stenku battle in central Moscow in the early 2000s. My parents were in town for a visit and we went to Patriarch’s Pond for a picnic. We had just settled down to eat cheese sandwiches and some pies we’d scored at a local shop when two groups of men approached the pond from different directions. They all looked as if they were from Russia’s North Caucasus region and they were all dressed up. Like they were going to a wedding, or something. But this was no celebration of nuptials.

    Instead, two of the leaders of each group approached each other, had a muttered conversation and withdrew to their respective lines. The two groups then charged each other. As I munched on my pie, they battered, punched, and kicked each other for a good minute. There was some blood, and one guy had a pretty nasty head injury, as I recall. They then went their separate ways. We finished our sandwiches. I never did find out what had triggered the fighting.

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    Modern-day football hooliganism has also incorporated some aspects of Stenka na Stenku. “Football hooliganism just replaced Stenka na Stenku,” Vadim, the former head of a Moscow football hooligan “firm,” told me. “Up to then, there was no focus to the violence. Football just provided that focal point. The whole scene is just an extension of Stenka na Stenku.”

    “We never go to the hospitals after these fights,” another self-confessed football hooligan, Gosha, told me, “not unless an injury is particularly bad. I mean a broken arm or leg, or something. Even then, we usually go home and wait, then go to the nearest medical center and make up some story about falling over.”

    But, as I said, the heyday of Stenka na Stenku has long gone. And that’s a good thing, I guess.

     

    The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

    From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

    Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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