Perhaps falling in line with the current political climate, the fashion world has taken an interest in Russian teenagers. Pale-skinned, bald-headed young people draped in ’90s sportswear have become an overwhelming presence on modern runways. It’s been described as "post-Soviet" by the fashion press, and it’s become a powerful phenomenon across the globe. Designers like Gosha Rubchinskiy of Moscow and Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia from Georgia have captivated American audiences with their sincere portrayals of Russian youth culture. Like the teens in America, Russia’s youth are deep in a phase of nostalgia for the ’90s, a period when a flood of Western products emblazoned with big logos first became available in the former Soviet states. Rubchinskiy, who was a well-regarded photographer before capturing any fashion fame, described the period to the German fashion magazine 032c, saying, “With all the poverty and disorder, there was a feeling of something big and positive coming. Everybody lived with perestroika, and then the atomic explosion of Western culture.”
The most striking aspect of this “post-Soviet” fascination, of course, is that it is a reflection of Western culture. The nostalgic sportswear emulated by Russian designers is inspired by brands like Adidas and Fila, which were widely popular in the US and around the Western world at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union. This creates a sometimes jarring interplay of visuals. When Vetements unveiled its Juicy Couture-inspired jumpsuits, for example, many noted how the brand was effectively whitewashing a style pioneered by women of color, and worse, selling it at an extraordinary profit.
It was this conflict of perspectives that fascinated visual artist Saheer Umar. The New York-native paired up with the artist Asya Gorbacheva from Moscow to create Internet Powerlifting Federation, or IPF, a video project that follows the lives of several young men in New York through documentary-style vignettes. The videos, which are posted daily to IPF’s Instagram, are VHS-affected clips of young skateboarders in New York City that seem anthropological. They present the same unvarnished look at their subjects, in this case a diverse crew of New York teens, in a style that photographers like Rubchinskiy are known for. The twist? Each of IPF’s videos are subtitled in Russian Cyrillic, which, more than adding a currently trending aesthetic, serves to target the videos’ audience of Russian youth. Over coffee on New York’s Lower East Side, Umar explained that his goal was to present the youth culture of New York as truthfully as possible and serve it, without pretext, to a completely foreign audience, in effect flipping the “post-Soviet” phenomenon on its head.
The name Internet Powerlifting Federation is a play on the online bodybuilding forums where young men congregate to discuss everything from women to politics. It’s a fitting homage: In the short videos posted to the group’s Instagram, the subjects tell personal stories involving everything from heartache to police brutality. IPF is made up of black and Latino skaters who live in public housing as well as white, middle-class skaters. And instead of finding some sort of feel-good harmony, Umar sought to depict the kids as authentically as possible, illustrating the full breadth of the ways their differences collide and intertwine. Kentaro, a half-white, half-Asian skater, says he doesn’t trust the news when they talk about police brutality while Khalil, a black skater, tells a harrowing tale of being beat up by the cops. There’s a convergence of thought between the two as Kentaro eventually tells a story of getting picked up by the police while skating and the cops only taking in his black friends.
Umar and Gorbacheva, both in their 30s, came upon their subjects by chance. After asking around in different creative circles in New York, the pair ended up meeting a few skaters who introduced them to more until the group of young skaters that make up IPF was assembled. The idea of the project was to be a fly on the wall, interfering with the skaters as little as possible in order to capture them as they are.
If Kids was illuminating the gulf between the way teenagers and adults live, IPF is illuminating the similarities.
One of the young men featured, 21-year-old Matthew Roman, told me in an email that he was approached by a mutual friend on Instagram who thought he should be featured. Roman, a Lower East Side native, sees IPF as an attempt to portray youth culture as it truly exists instead of a commodifiable identity. “I think skateboarding’s portrayal in media is usually really single-minded. Just like selling skateboarding and this very similar skate aesthetic,” he wrote. “I think this project gives NYC youth skate culture a voice that shows what these people’s lives are like beyond just an aesthetic.”
The contemporary obsession with youth, beyond the fashion world’s fixation on Russian teens, betrays a certain optimism for what young people bring to the world thanks to the internet. The idea that “the teens” will save humanity because they embody the liberal ideas that purportedly lead to progress has been repeated everywhere from Kanye West’s MTV rants to Urban Outfitters, whose latest campaign features a who’s who of influential young people labeled the “Class of 2017.” Despite these high-minded ideas, the prevailing representation of these arbiters of our enlightened future still tend to be white. When Vogue launched its universally loathed “Skate Week” last summer, one of the many, many critiques from skateboarders was how little these dreamy white guys looked like real skateboarders. This trend wasn’t lost on Umar, who hoped to offer up a more realistic portrayal of young skateboarders, both diverse and nuanced.
“I don’t see black kids or Hispanic kids who get made into these sort of heroes. I’ve seen white heroes on film forever,” Umar said. “And it’s not so much that I’m trying to just make a black hero story, but I’m interested in seeing real, complex stories.”
Umar lived in Moscow for several years, where he met Gorbacheva. The two connected over a desire to expand the scope of their creative work, which at the time was consumed by DJ’ing. The earliest iterations of the project were built more like music videos, with brief snippets of brooding vignettes soundtracked to some deep house tracks courtesy of the duo. When the pair eventually made their move to New York, they noticed how the aesthetic of Russia’s skateboarding and clubbing communities — influenced by the scene in New York — was being served back to Americans in a peculiar way. “Lower class Russian culture is in a lot of ways the last place of white rebellion,” Gorbacheva said. “So the way this particular vision of American street culture gets filtered through a Russian lens and served back to the US, we thought it was a very interesting thing to look deeper into.”
In the portrayals of Russian skate culture that came to dominate the fashion world, and to a lesser extent the skate world, Umar and Gorbacheva saw an untold story. “All of the skaters in Russia are white, for one thing,” Gorbacheva said. “And it’s very interesting to see the fashion designers from Russia gain prominence in the US by serving what is basically American streetwear culture filtered through a Russian lens. It all comes out very white.”
IPF isn’t just about representation, though. “It’s not a sort of social justice thing for me as much as it’s just like, ‘Motherfucker, don’t lie to me,’” Umar explained. It’s an ethos that extends to how the subjects are presented. The brief narratives constructed on the IPF Instagram page manage to convey the complexity of the character’s personality in a way that is often lost in modern representations of youth. In one video, a Brooklyn teen named Dayshaun describes sneaking into a rave. Over the course of the 60-second clip we learn not only about his experience at the party but also about his predilection toward shyness, how he scares easily, and how much he loves to dance, each trait revealing itself subtly.
It’s not unlike the work of Larry Clark with Kids — and the numerous portrayals of New York’s downtown youth that came after — except IPF taps into this endlessly mysterious subject and manages to illuminate something new. The kids of Internet Powerlifting aren’t presented as one-dimensional the way that so many teenagers are in contemporary culture. They aren’t hell-bent on debauchery, they’re as confused about social media as everyone else, and they are profoundly unsure about the future. If Kids was illuminating the gulf between the way teenagers and adults live, IPF is illuminating the similarities.
Umar, who grew up skateboarding in the ’90s era that Kids fearlessly captured, noticed how little things had changed for the boys who found refuge in the activity. He told me that one of IPF’s biggest goals was to present a portrait of masculinity that didn’t shy away from vulnerability. “That’s the part that connects it all,” Umar said. “Dudes specifically are always putting on a front, and I think for us it was making a space for exploring that, and really to make something that was just like, ‘It’s okay if you’re crying dude,’ you know?”
It’s that emotionality that Umar and Gorbacheva hope will make IPF resonate with a broader audience. They have plans to release an accompanying short film, inspired by the narratives of the young men profiled, as well as an EP of music, full of the foreboding deep house tracks that soundtracked many of IPF’s early videos. Through all of this, an urgency still resonates. A project like this can easily flounder into the abyss of online “experiments,” but the immediately striking nature of Internet Powerlifting Federation feels different. “We don’t know if anyone is going to give a fuck about any of this,” Umar said, “but for us it felt important to put it out there anyway.”