Some of the most recognisable visual images of communist Russia are the monuments and statues of Vladimir Lenin. Lenin was one of the top leaders of the Russian Revolution (October 1917) and after his death, all the way up to the Soviet breakup, Lenin was idolised and memorialised all around the USSR (soviet Russia has around 15,000 Lenin statues and monuments). Pretty much every city and almost every village all around the country has a street and square named after Lenin.
When the USSR collapsed, for most regular Russian people Lenin became a symbol of the misled past, but newborn street cultures made his monuments their home. Central locations, big pedestrian areas around the monuments, good flatground and skate-friendly architecture made of marble and granite blocks were some of the reasons why skaters gravitated towards them and they rapidly became the first go-to spots where skaters would meet and hang out.
Now, 28 years later, Lenin monuments are still central day-to-day spots in many big Russian cities including Moscow and Saint Petersburg, appearing in tons of different local and international skateboarding videos over the years.
In 2019 Vans Russia’s Alexey Krasniy worked on a solo project that focused on these monuments, managing to get clips at 20 different Lenins, spread across 15 different cities. Hopefully this interview will shed some light on this project as well as Alexey’s impressions and thoughts on Lenin’s skateboarding heritage.
Photography by Alexey Lapin
Interview by Kirill Korobkov
Do you remember the first time you went to skate a Lenin monument?
Alexey Krasniy: Yes, the first Lenin that I skated was in Moscow. I think Lenin’s plaza was the second spot of my life. I only skated around Victory Park before that then one day my classmate told me that he had seen skaters by Lenin. Conveniently for us there was a direct bus from our neighbourhood all the way to Lenin so I started going there a lot. Back then it was one of the main spots in Moscow and it still is. This spot will never get old. It’s where I met many of my first skate friends and I remember learning how to 360 flip down curbs and small things there. For ages the bottom level of the plaza had certain lines of good flat we had to take approaching the manual pad and ledges. Even though the spot was already good, it was a bit annoying to skate it like that. Four or five years ago the city renovated the whole plaza and Lenin got some perfect floor made of stone. It was one of those moments when a great spot got even better for skateboarding. I can’t imagine Moscow without this spot.
How often do you normally go there to skate?
I am not a big fan of starting the day there because it’s too easy to get stuck there for the whole day. I like going there for the sunsets. When it’s summer in Moscow I visit Lenin every other day. I think maybe 3-4 times a week. We have a winter break when there is snow all over Moscow and we can’t skate outside so when spring finally comes usually Lenin is the first spot that dries up. So everyone goes there to meet each other for the first street session after winter. It’s another moment at this spot that I especially like.
When I told you about this idea for the project that is based on skating only Lenin’s monuments all over Russia, you seemed to be very down for it straight away. What did you like about this concept?
It sounded challenging and that’s what I liked about it. I knew there would be a lot of travelling and I understood that I would struggle at some Lenins just because I’d have to at least get something. But all in all it sounded like a good idea and a good way to represent skateboarding in Russia, because pretty much every Russian city has a Lenin monument and in many cities it is the place where local skateboarding started.
The first destination for this project was very special. We flew six hours to the city called Ulan-Ude. If we’d flown from Moscow in the opposite direction for the same amount of time we’d be in Greenland. But yeah, we flew east for six hours and it was still Russia. It was also a Buddhist part of Russia. I don’t think too many people outside of Russia realise that there is Buddhism in Russia. That whole place was extraordinary. Can you recall your memories from Ulan-Ude?
First of all we got solid jet lag. Russia is so big that you can get jet lag without leaving the country. The second special thing is that the area we went to is called the Republic of Buryatia. In Russia we have many different nationalities and Buryats are one of the bigger ethnic groups that live around there in Siberia. They are really close to Mongols.
That’s where the interest in Buddhism comes from. In Ulan-Ude Russians and Buryats are mixed. Whilst there we tried the Buryat national dish (buuzy) that reminded us of huge meat dumplings and we also visited some Buddhist temples. It’s unusual to see Buddhist religious architecture mixed with Russian landscapes. The city was built on the hills and has a good potential for downhill skating, but the pavements and all the roads were really rugged, dusty and old.
On the first night after dinner the locals took us on a spot tour around the city. We were already a little bit tired and generally felt sceptical about what they would show us in the middle of Siberian nowhere, but we agreed to go on the ride just to be polite. They sure proved our suspicions wrong… They took us to maybe seven or eight different spots and each of them were actually great in their own way. They weren’t just good ledge spots or nice stairs; we saw metal full pipes, amazing banks and bump combinations, abandoned fountains and a natural transition under an airplane. The next day we even had to take a break from Lenin and skate some other street spots from the night before just because they were that good. Around a couple issues ago Free ran a photo of my backside grab off the metal street ramp under the airplane in the gallery section. That was in Ulan-Ude. And the Lenin there was insane too. The typical Lenin monument has either a full statue of Lenin’s body or just his bust. In Ulan-Ude they built just a huge and surreal looking head and that was it. The plaza around it turned out to be ledge paradise with all kinds of curbs, small stairs and off ledges. It was almost skatepark good. It was a great start to the story.
I am not going to be repetitive and ask about every city we went to, but on that Siberian leg of the project we also visited Novosibirsk. People all around the world know that Russia’s capital and the largest city is Moscow. Saint Petersburg, the second biggest, is quite famous too, but there is absolutely no international fame or even info on Novosibirsk, Russia’s third biggest city. How was that place?
I liked the local skate crew but not the city. It looks like everyone forgot that this city exists and everything is just slowly getting wrecked. I can remember only one well-maintained street in the city centre. The rest of the city looked like it was just ruins of Soviet infrastructure. We tried to cruise around a bit but gave up on this idea very quickly. The cracks and holes in the sidewalks were unbearable. But yeah, the locals were cool. Right when we were there they started working on the very first DIY in their city. I think with the poor condition of infrastructure around the place it was the right step to keep skateboarding in Novosibirsk alive. They took over a little abandoned park behind the opera theatre and started with a small concrete bump and square flatbar. By the end of the season they had a full on little DIY spot with five or six different obstacles. I remember right on the very first day of construction the local skaters already had a conflict with some official types who came with a car. Even though the public park looked like no one cared about it, the authorities repeatedly tried to stop all the DIY works. In the end the skate community was strong enough to protect their dream and fully realise the idea. I liked that. Hope they will be able to keep it going.
What was the hardest thing for you with this project?
I was the only skater on the first trip. That was the Siberian journey we spoke about before. That was pretty hard. Everyone who skates knows how much easier it is to get inspired and get things done when you are with a solid crew. You, Alexey and our filmer Mikas were with me but I am sure you understand what I mean. But that was only one trip. Thinking more generally quite often it was hard to come up with an idea for the trick. I mean most of those monuments are great spots but imagine yourself in position when you are in the city just for one day or even a few hours (we had a few cities where we didn’t even stay overnight) and you need to film a legit trick and shoot a photo. Also most of those monuments are 40-50 years old. Some of them have never been repaired and were imperfect to skate: they had cracks, weird run-ups, some ledges were already ground down by locals and others were too sticky to make them slide. If it was a regular skate trip I could be like: ‘I don’t feel this spot too much; let’s go the next one.’ But with this project I had to try to get at least one trick at every single Lenin we went to. I guess this was the hardest part but that was a cool part about it at the same time.
And what was the best part?
To see the piece coming together was my favourite thing. After every city we’d been to we’d add new clips to the timeline and with every new clip it looked better and better and I felt happier and happier about it. I have to give thanks to our filmer Mikas. Working on such a project was a great experience.
Vladimir Lenin was a very controversial character. Some people say he was a godfather of one of the most powerful countries of the 20th century. Others call him a criminal who initiated repressions and a bloody civil war. How did people react to skateboarding around his monuments in 2019?
Mostly people didn’t care but elderly people were more sensitive about Lenin and skateboarding. I can remember one exception… It was in Novosibirsk, the monument there is massive, and it has a huge pedestal and also sculptures of workers and labour class people. It has many options to skate. It has been the main skate spot in the city for many years but almost this whole time there have been confrontations between skaters and the authorities. There is a small police booth right by the monument. The locals told us to wait until 7pm when police have left their shift. Exactly at 7pm the policemen went away and we expected to start a great session since we still had three more hours of daylight before the sunset. When it’s summer in Russia it gets dark very late. We jumped on the spot but got stopped in ten minutes by very young scouts or I guess I can call them volunteers with red armbands. They had no official police or patrol status but I think it was the call of their hearts to protect Lenin’s monument. There is a strong communist party in Novosibirsk and even the mayor is communist, which isn’t normal for Russia these days. I think they felt like they were changing the city for the better but I’ve already described the condition of that city and honestly they have so many things to fix and problems to solve that skaters at Lenin should be one of the last things the city should care about at this point. When we were in Cheboksary someone called the police because of us; they showed up right when we finished the session and were packing up our gear. They talked to us for maybe 15 minutes, got our filmer’s passport details and let us go. Also in Orenburg we had a gnarly debate. The Lenin there was right by the city hall. As soon as we started skating a security guard showed up to kick us out. Since we had a little crew he couldn’t do much on his own, so we just kept skating. He went back and a few minutes later his boss came over. I think he was the head of the security department at the city hall or some kind of local government. We could see from the distance he was already pissed by the fact he had got bothered because of us. He started yelling straight away but his aggression turned us into tough cookies. His main argument was that he had done military service and when he saw that this didn’t impress us much he just went nuts. In his world, his military background automatically gave him the status of a terminator and he was sure that the truth was always on his side. It looked like we were the first ones in a long time who didn’t obey his rules. We kept yelling at each other for a few more minutes but the dialog wasn’t going anywhere so we just skated away. In the end in his city he definitely had way more power and authority. Who knows where we could have ended up? It could have been risky.
It was your solo project but in some cities there are guest tricks by some of your Vans Russia teammates. Can you give us more info on the rest of the guys who were involved?
Most of the guest tricks were done by Dima Shatalov and Alexey Meleshko. Both of them were able to join our second big trip dedicated to skating Lenins. Dima is a character. He is the only guy on our Russian team who lives far away from Moscow and Saint Petersburg. We barely know what he does for a living. His newest big passion is cryptocurrency. While most people believe in Bitcoins, Dima works with Satoshi coins. It’s a lesser-known cryptocurrency. I am not sure how he organised his whole enterprise but he calls it traffic monitoring. Somehow he integrates ads in applications on Google Play and Google is supposed to pay him for that. He is also good at singing and drinking alcohol. His native city is an epicentre of Russian rap music and he is a friend of all those rap celebrities. As for his personal music taste, he has the wildest collection of the worst Russian music you can find. His playlist is so bad that everyone loves it. It’s very entertaining to be around him. We call the second guy (Alexey Meleshko) Melekha. He works at a tire service. Since we have proper winters all the drivers change their tires twice a year. When it gets cold everyone needs snow tires. Half a year later everyone changes them over to summer tires. Most of his budget comes from those seasonable peaks. He is a legend in the Russian skate scene in my eyes. He has been shredding for many years and he still kills it. A couple years ago he filmed a street part in Berlin that ended up on the Free Skate Mag site. Also Roma Ivanov, Jenya Nikolaev and Denis Yuzefovich didn’t get photos in but they’ll have guest tricks in the edit.
As I said at some Lenins you had only a few hours before there was a train or bus to the next city, but in the city of Miass, the timing at the spot was limited to 15 minutes. Let’s go through that hectic session.
Ok, on that trip we were really on a Lenin run. We camped by the lake nearby the night before. Locals helped us with tents and all the camping gear but they really wanted us to do a demo the next day. There was a skatepark opening in the city nearby the following day. It was a small industrial city that has never seen proper skateboarding before. They’ve just got their first skatepark. Even though we were in a rush to make it to the next city me, Dima and Melekha were like, ‘sure, why not, let’s do a demo for the kids.’ The demo went down well and we all felt really warmed up after it. At that point some of the locals reminded us they had a Lenin in their city too. We checked the time and realised we had less than an hour before the bus to the next city. Also the route was a bit weird so the next bus to the destination we needed was only 24 hours later. We were still so hyped about the demo that we felt like, ‘fuck it. Let’s go to the spot.’ Usually Lenin’s monuments are located as central as possible but for some reason that Lenin turned out to be slightly outside of the city. We called the taxis and they took us to Lenin. When we made it to the spot we had only half an hour before the bus. Also we did all these taxi runs and drives with all of our luggage. When we finally got there we realised we literally only had a few minutes. There was an easy way to slappy grind the ledge across and down and that’s what I did in a couple tries but we all felt like it wasn’t good enough for the clip. The mission wasn’t complete but I also knew that slappy 5-0 or slappy anything else would be way harder and there was no time for that. I took a second to look at the spot one more time and figured out there was a possibility to drop down to a short manual after the slappy 50-50 I had already got. I am not a manual skater but somehow I managed to put it together in a few tries and we got a proper trick. The spirits were really high. We kept one of the taxis for this whole session and half of our crew had already gone to the bus station. They managed to block the bus and we all made it. That day luck was on our side. We started the party on that bus later.
Yes, it was one of those moments that made me really enjoy this project. Can you recall any other crazy or funny situations we went through?
We were on the train on the way to Orenburg. Around seven in the morning, just about an hour before arrival, you got a message that our airBnB booking got cancelled.
Oh, yes, I remember that. We had no time to look for another apartment so I went online and booked for us a random hotel that seemed to have a very good price. In that position I couldn’t be too picky and analyse all the reviews so I booked whatever was available that morning. I also called them and they told me that there was no need to wait ’til midday for check in. We could go there straight from the train. I thought that was very nice of them. Only the name of the hotel was a bit weird: ‘The Golden Mile’. Now tell everyone what happened after…
The place was located in a private housing area. Very quickly we realised that it was a mix of a sauna complex and a brothel. That place had rooms with beds but it was obvious that customers didn’t use those beds to sleep. The girls at the reception couldn’t believe we’d arrived there to stay but not to have sex. Nevertheless we decided to stay there overnight and got one of those funky pink rooms with erotic paintings on the walls, artificial roses, golden coloured sheets and pillows and see-through shower cabins. The words ‘Golden Mile’ have a new meaning for us.
While working on this project we saw many different local scenes in different parts of Russia. What’s the current status of skateboarding in Russia outside of Moscow and Saint Petersburg?
We already talked about Novosibirsk. Their scene is a sign that we have far away scenes that are grown up enough to take care of themselves and keep skateboarding as a long-term activity. I really liked the Krasnoyarsk skaters too. After we were done with Lenin the guys there took us on a proper cruise around the city. We spontaneously pushed around and hit small things along the way. They know how to enjoy skateboarding. Thanks to Markel Andronov and Denis for showing us around. Omsk was nice too, but I can’t say that every city we went to had proper skate scenes. Some big cities barely had skaters who could kickflip on flat. The biggest problem for smaller Russian cities is everything skate-related is in Moscow or Saint Petersburg. Most of the Russian brands, national offices, skate shops, teams and sponsors are in the capital. It’s very hard to progress when there is no industry around you.
You skated 20 different Lenins. How many did you fail to get a trick on?
Out of all the monuments we went to I couldn’t get tricks on only two Lenins. One of them was in Orenburg where we had that conflict and the second one was in Dubna. Dubna is a science city 120 kilometres away from Moscow. It contains the second biggest Lenin in the world. We went there by car. There were almost no spots at it but the size of the monument and it’s monumental look made me try a line with four different drops in it. I spent two hours ‘til it got dark and I couldn’t get it. I wish I did. It was a great Lenin for our collection. We wanted to come back but it got too cold.
Can you tell me a bit about the soundtrack?
It’s a cover version of a popular Soviet song dedicated to the Communist Revolution and Vladimir Lenin. The irony of the soundtrack is that our version was sung by the Siberian punk rock band named Grazhdanskaya Oborona who were very anti-Soviet. They were sarcastic about the Soviet implementation of the Communist idea. To do this cover version was an act of sarcasm in itself. When we were in Omsk we visited the grave of the founder of this band.
We visited many Lenins and we talked a lot about him during the project. What’s your personal attitude towards Vladimir Lenin?
He came with the revolution. It doesn’t matter what idea he had at first he initiated the Russian Civil War and that led to many casualties and some of the darkest pages in the history of our country. He was idolised and idealised by the Soviet regime but he caused many troubles and committed many crimes. I am not ready to close my eyes on the Red Terror he started and invented. This approach isn’t my cup of tea.