Piter People play geek-a-boo: Russian con culture

When there’s no Sally, there are Alices (Photo credit: Pavel Bely)

There are not many places in St Petersburg for a proper cosplayer party. However, on 29 October St Petersburg became a spooky haven for those with Hallows’ Eve needs.

“Excuse me, press, sorry,” my regular phrase for yet another freezing Saturday afternoon. I’m trying to make my way through dozens of skeletons, vampires, Harley Quinns and zombified everyone-you-can-imagine. Whatever had been going on in hell, it seemed like all the devils were here at Lenexpo to celebrate Halloween at a
geeky convention called Starcon.

Dressing up is a part of the game when it comes to Halloween. But there’s a difference between covering yourself in toilet paper for the mummy look and embracing a character’s nature and image – which is what cosplayers do.

Before we talk about cosplayers and all their oddity, let’s back up one step to their broader community of geeks.

Geek by choice, human by day

The need for rest is universal. (Photo credit: Darya Dudina)
The need for rest is universal (Photo credit: Darya Dudina)

Oxford Dictionary defines ‘geek’ as a knowledgeable and obsessive enthusiast. Cosplayers are, essentially, knowledgeable and obsessive geeks with acting and/or craftsmanship skills. Sometimes they are actually the first ones to introduce their characters to the public, way before the original film/game/graphic novel is released. I know a guy who has a full service coat of a Star Wars movie character. The said movie is only out this winter.

In real life the cosplay crowd are lawyers, housewives, bartenders, managers, businessmen; some are craftsmen and makeup artists – which comes in handy with a hobby like that.

The common denominator for all these people is the desire to transform. Sometimes it’s driven by what you’d expect: vanity, a wish to escape the daily routine, a challenge of creating and conveying a certain image. For others it’s an alternative way to yield into their childhood passions and dreams.

Frankly speaking, there is also just a normal human need to generally have fun.

“Hey, what’s your real name actually?,” I ask.

“Do you really need to know?” answers Deadpool, the so-called merc with a mouth. Apart from the actual response to my question, I get a more subtle message from his tone: I don’t want to be pulled back into the real world yet.

I push the envelope. “Why Deadpool though? In fact, why cosplaying at all, you just said it was exasperating, expensive … ”

“What do you mean by ‘why’? I get to do what I want and act like I want with no consequences! And I hug a lot of people, that’s the only motivation that should be,” he tells me as three teenage girls hold him in a tight embrace.

I get a goodbye hug as well.

He’s not wrong about this inducement. As I’m wandering around Lenexpo, I see people ecstatic to greet each other. The geek scene in St Petersburg resembles that of old pals reliving the memories of homecoming. Whether they pose for a picture or take one, drink coffee in the corner or run from one stand to another to complete quests, their faces say: “These are all my friends and damn we love being weirdos together!”

Schisms of geek lifestyle

Geek parenting (Photo credit: Ekaterina Bochkareva)

It’s not just about the conventions. These people regularly attend panel discussions on comic art or video games, go to anti-cafes for tabletop sessions, or just randomly gather somewhere for a drink or two. There are also a lot of parents with children in the pavilion, and mostly all the families are dressed up. I almost bump into a woman teaching her daughter how to walk. As little as the girl is, she already has a costume.

“I’m sorry, what’s this cutie’s character?” I ask. The mother gives me a smile of pride before answering: “Lenore, the cute little dead girl.”

“Is it okay, bringing an infant here?” I ask. “I mean, with the noise, the scary folks around?”

“Well, it’s about time for her to get into what her parents like,” the mother answers simply.

Being a geek in Russia is not easy. You don’t find a Hot Topic or a DIY-cosplay-depot here. Even those who have more or less simple costumes say that it takes at least a day to just find the appropriate fabric.

Non-cosplayers are into it as well. Regular enthusiasts show a lot of consumerism-driven dedication at conventions, as this is pretty much their only chance to get their hands on Batman tees, Boba Fett masks, the Rings of Power and so on without any online shopping.

Despite cosplay not being the most timely nor cheapest hobby, especially in an economically flawed country, they still come up with very impressive incarnations.

As it goes, a costume obligates one to perform correspondingly –– to become the character. At some point I spot a Joker laughing hysterically at the misspelling on the ‘Pet Sematary’ sign. Before that there was a guy wearing a circa 30 kilo armor with an LED-lit sword that was almost the size of me (and I’m 168 cm tall). There are obviously no undertones in impersonating.

Fellowship of the fling

Surrounded by the ordinary crowd (Photo credit: Anastasia Petrovna)

In a couple of hours I’m surrounded by dozens, even hundreds of extravagant geeks. This kind of ambiance is exactly what it takes to make one feel uncomfortable for being ordinary. Internally I curse myself for not dressing up. However, there is a feasible distance between them and quite a number of ‘normies’ at conventions like this one.

Kids and teens migrate from one shop to another to buy ‘cool stuff’ and pester cosplayers; bored parents entertain themselves by commenting on all the ‘freaks’ around while the ambulance crew is on the sidelines yawning. It made me wonder: so what is the deal with the con culture? Is it really for geeks?

Igor Pylaev, the chief producer for Starcon (Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

“Starcon is for a mass geek crowd. For open-minded people who are ready to be exposed to something new, something different. I mean, Halloween is quite a niche thing. And yet, you can see parents with little kids in here, students. I even saw a group of eight or nine elderly ladies who came here to have fun and see what’s what.”

This is what Igor Pylaev, the chief producer for the festival, says to me while we’re standing by the exit. As we carry on talking, he points out one thing: the Russian geek scene is very vague and undefined. There is simply no solid group to speak of.

The reason lies within the mass appeal of this culture. Now that it’s popular, a lot of establishments with excessive resources make their own ‘Comic Cons’ or geek parties. One would assume that it could bolster the community, but the effect is quite the opposite. More events made this culture mainstream and less about the people who genuinely are into it.

There’s still a demand for these events, as conventions remain a developing thing in Russia, but so far they’ve blurred the scene and left a lot of cosplayers and the ‘authentic’ geeks puzzled: “The target audience is confused. They don’t get what to do with that, what’s worth going to, why is this event happening in the first place. As an aftermath, there are people – and I know plenty of them – who gave it all up, because they just got tired of this situation,” says Igor.

The neverending standoff

As it often happens, when looking into something in St Petersburg, comparisons to how it’s done in Moscow are made. And when I bring that question up, it takes Igor a while to respond: “I’d say the Muscovite geek scene is more about the commercial dimension. Be that organising an event or making a costume, I think people in there prioritise the profits of it. In St Petersburg, I think, people just do that for themselves. They’re mostly focused on self-expression.”

That puts a grin on my face. Even within a culture of global origin, some local things squeeze in. I suppose it adds one more feature to the geek community in St Petersburg: it’s closer to the real world than it seems.

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