My mother will probably kill me for this, but here goes… I have decided to grow a beard.
In the past I have dabbled in facial hair, but mostly because I was simply too lazy to bother shaving for a while, and I did once grow a quite brilliant (even if I say so myself…) handlebar moustache for Movember. That experiment ended swiftly, as in two years I managed to raise the grand sum of 10 pounds, but this time is different. As I leaned against the parapet of the promenade by the River Tura in my home town of Tyumen last week on a quite sublime summer evening, with the breeze gliding past my cheeks, I realised the time was right.
It’s not just that it keeps the face a little bit warmer, but in my humble opinion the beard has grown a new life in modern Russia. Let’s be honest for a moment – 20 years ago, the thought formula probably went something like this: Russian man + beard = tough, grizzled & unsophisticated. Nowadays there are so many variations on beards that they can represent anything from historical grandeur to sharp fashion, but take my word for it, there is no deep-lying reason behind mine, and certainly not fashion. If you don’t believe me, have a look at my track record of hairstyles.
No, this beard is being grown for one simple reason: I like it. I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to follow a trend with disastrous consequences before; as someone once said, to be old and wise, you must first be young and foolish. I’m not quite sure at what stage of that scale I lie right now, but I am at least aware enough to know my limitations. While living in Italy as a 21-year-old student, I thought it would be a great idea to grow my hair as long as possible, ostensibly because I thought “that’s what Italians do”. I apologise to everyone who had to suffer the monstrosity of my flowing locks for most of that year; it must have been truly terrifying.
The attitude towards male grooming in this country has altered dramatically to the extent where there are now more male-only hair salons than female or unisex ones. Vaguely presentable is not enough any more. Opposite my old workplace there is a faux-red brick building that holds one such establishment, “Trendy London”, which to be fair does a booming trade from the name alone. Wedding parties have even decamped outside the doors to take pictures such is the originality and cool surrounding it. I resisted the pressure to attend these types of places on a number of grounds, chief of which was that it pains me to pay 1,000 roubles for something I could do myself at home, but after a cunning move by my wife I had no choice but to cave in.
My New Year present, you see, was a certificate to “Like Bros” (like Trendy London, the sign is written in English as is the fashion). In fairness, it wasn’t as pretentious as I had dreaded, and my stylist – I still cringe using that word – even spoke excellent English. OK, I admit it; it was very reasonable value. Given that I take my daughters to a daily fashion parade, I mean take them to kindergarten every morning, I realise I have to keep up standards. You would not believe the height of the heels or skirt hems that the tottering mothers wear to drop their kids off; I’m not talking work suits, but full on nightclub-worthy attire. It’s mental, but in fact is just an extension of the obsession with appearance in Russia today.
In fact I am in a distinct minority as a husband who appears at Kindergarten. The ones who do turn up are either in very odd-fitting jeans and those ghastly dated bluetooth earpieces for their phone that were about as popular as MiniDisc players (remember those??), or in their work suits with about as much time for being there as Nigel Farage has for foreigners. A gruff, short “Stras-jay” is grunted, no more, between the male species of parents, as most aim to get out of there at the first opportunity. Male fashion? No time for that nonsense here.
Outside the kindergarten gates, however, it’s a totally different story. When my good friend Johnny revealed he even has his beard trimmed professionally every so often at Trendy London, my initial reaction was to groan, but then after a while I thought: why not? His wardrobe used to be filled with tracksuits and simple t shirts, but now his skinny jeans and hipster sunglasses would not look out of place on the boulevards of Paris or Milan. Or Moscow.
The young professionals of Modern Russia aspire to more than life in their own town, or even country, but aim for loftier ambitions. 15 years ago, there were a very small handful of Italian restaurants in Tyumen; now you can take courses in Indian Kathak dancing, enjoy Thai massages or listen to authentic live samba music. If you had to pinpoint what exactly the Modern Russian character is, it would be something vastly removed from the stereotypes that still bandy themselves around casual conversation in the West. One thing is certain; the younger generation is deeply in touch with global trends, or at least wants to be seen to be so.
Anti-Cafes and Warehouse Cinemas
From ‘anti-cafes’ to warehouse cinemas, there is a whole range of hipster locations for hipsters to admire each other’s hipster style springing up at a dizzying rate. One cafe charges you by the hour, not by what you eat or drink, and in principle you can consume as much as you like as you play boardgames or just chat. Instagram has spawned a whole army of accounts that will be represented at any evening at such places, which everyone knows. This has the odd effect off people desperately trying to enjoy a ‘deconstructed’ atmosphere while simultaneously trying to preen themselves to the nth degree.
Another place, Fabric Loft, for me sums up the best and worst of this whole hipster craze. It is a three-storey warehouse with all manner of paint-splattered woodwork tools and half-mended doors hanging loose as you clamber between them to make your way upstairs. You pay what you like to watch as eclectic a mix of films, all in original language, and sit on a random but comfortable assortment of stools, benches and futons, but then are more often than subjected to a snooty talk about the deep meaning of the Korean art-house monstrosity about to come on.
Perhaps I am being a little bit harsh; if people enjoy the discussion about films with others of a similar persuasion, who am I to judge them for doing so? The same people might mock me for watching four back-to-back football matches on TV, even if I can’t imagine why they would. What I object to is the swelling number of those who flock to these places because they want to be seen to be doing so, not because they genuinely have a passion for art house culture.
If you do come to Russia any time soon, don’t expect to see bears walking down the High Street and men weilding Kalashnikov rifles and swigging vodka – they’re more likely to be rocking Ray Bans and Cuban heels.