Monday, April 13, 2009

The white-trashification of Latvia?

My recent post about public transport wardens (based on a blog post in Diena) illustrates something that is part of a broader problem -- societal degeneration in Latvia or more bluntly, the rise and persistence of what one could call white trash subcultures.
One increasingly used concept is that of the urla. I am not sure where the word comes from, but it describes a kind of uniformly stupid, dissolute,sometimes shave-headed or short-haired, largely-substance abusing youth whose uniform is shabby counterfeit-brand jogging outfits. Most often the term urla is applied to Russian speakers, but there are those who argue that there are Latvian urlas as well. I definitely think there are, but since the society as a whole is ethnically mixed, the urla percentage is useful in defining what one could consider the social degeneration of the society as a whole.
Fellow blogger Aleks Tapinsh wrote a few years back that urlas are a dying-breed, but I would dispute this, because it sometimes seems that the proportion of urlas is increasing (if not their absolute numbers). This could be because a large number of “normal” young people have emigrated, the urlazation of the social environment being one of the contributing factors. A related English slang term might be mook.
Above and beyond the urlas, I think that the proportion of what I would call seriously strange individuals is increasing. This perception may result from living downtown and working just across from the central train station. Train stations are magnets for the strange and deviant. In Frankfurt, Germany, I worked a block from the train station and once I passed a person lying in a large cardboard box several days in a row.
Mind you, this is not a pleasant strangeness, rather, it is a disturbing aura of expressionless defeat, surliness, depression, empty despair. This plays out not only on the faces of the babuska-beggers one sometimes encounters (for them, having some kind of expression is a useful misery marketing tool), but on many young people. In another context (maybe it was the LatviansOnline forum) I described these as “thin, lizardine young men in baseball caps”. I coined the phrase “lizardine” to describe a lizard-like behavior of expressionless, motionlessness broken by a short dash to another position, there, to reassume the “lizardine” stance. Dark urla or semi-urla wardrobe goes with this type of creature (I am wondering if these are not grown-up “booze babies”, like the developmentally disrupted crack babies produced in American ghettos).
I had noticed all of this long before the economic crisis set in, so that is not the cause of these sights. The urlas and others were already there. They add to the ghetto-street-life atmosphere that I already described back in 2000 in an essay I circulated on the internet (pre-blogosphere days) and excerpts from which I reprinted in an earlier post. I also used the term mutt to describe such people, although in terms of a total lack of ethics, parts of the educated and “upper class” Latvian elite could be described as mutts
To the urlas and the generally strange I should add the regular encounters one has with staggering drunks at inappropriate hours. After midnight on Friday, one understands, but Wednesday mornings at 9 AM?
The overall picture one gets is of a society that, perhaps, has passed a tipping point and with the added pressure of the economic crisis, will suffer the lethal drag (to any rapid recovery or normalization)of this social substrate. In more prosperous societies, it is possible to reallocate social services and education resources to pull some of the mutts and mooks out of their condition, but this is unlikely in Latvia.
There is a website in Russian with photos of urlas


Anonymous said...

I was forced to be a friend of this type of person once and all I can say is they are big softies inside. If you don't pay attention to them they will get offended and smash you in face. I guess it all comes down to lack of love and good relationships in family. But this definitely indicates that there are problems in society.

mxz said...

It's a name that is more like a general description of a class of society, members of which are more likely to, as you point out yourself, abuse substances, behave in an anti-social manner and generally tend to get in trouble with the law for some reason. The fact that they all wear track suits, sneakers and cheap leather jackets is merely a coincidence.

There are groups like that everywhere, not just Latvia. Pacific islanders in New Zealand, some Aborigines in Australia. Never been to London, but god knows what happens there with all the scum of the world descended there.

I think it's part of society, only it has different names in different regions.

Mr.Key said...

I would like to add that they usually tend to ask for a cigarette from bypassers. I was once ignoring such person (urla). That hurt him very much - he followed me several blocks and shooted out his jargon.

One very good suggestion I got from colleague is to not to look into their eyes. Explanation - dogs don't bark at those whose eyes are tied down.

(sry for my bad English)

MrVariant said...

Sometimes I think the phrase, "The Good Old Days" overexaggerates, although it's better by comparison than current times. It's sort of like when things change from bad to worse.

roze said...

But JURIS :))))))))
You totally didn't get the tone, self-irony and sense of the site, link of which you provided. That's funny and sad at the same tame, as it seems you don't get quite a lot of things in Latvia, just measuring them by your own foreigner experience. Which makes you wimp, bitch and complain about the place you live in, instead of trying to know it a little bit, haha.

Juris Kaža said...

The thing is, I don't understand Russian. It may well be the site is ironic. I was reacting to the pictures, many of which seem to show the kind of lowlife one sees in the streets rather often. Maybe there is a better site?

roze said...

Urlas are a just small thing. Incredibly small. The general (and the best) thing to do is to stop complaining about just everything in Latvia, comparing it to Nigeria, Somalia and Antarctica, predicting Armageddon on daily basis just because this place is somehow different from the one you grew up in. Just try to look and understand. Some of your points are right. But most of them doesn't make sense for this country and context. What does it mean – Failed State Latvia? Not more to my mind as Failed Journalist Kaža. Or Winning one. Depends on your perception.

Juris Kaža said...

Latvia, of course, is not Somalia nor Nigeria. I never said it was a failed state in this respect. But it does show signs of failure compared to Western European standards of democracy and civilization.
We have a political elite totally out of touch and contemptuous of its own electorate (which we have seen happen in some other countries) but there IS NO viable opposition, or more precisely, there is nothing anyone can do to prevent a bankruptcy of the state apparatus by this summer.
Latvia has also failed to make progress toward being the kind of society that people with Western European values expected it to become in nearly 20 years (since people gathered with slogans "let's return to Europe" in the late 1980s). Instead, much of society is ignorant, provincial, intolerant and hostile.
I am not saying this can't be found in other societies, nor that there isn't a large crackpot religious right in the US. But the US electorate seems to have opted for change. Not Latvia. New election laws but no one to elect and/or too late for anyone you trust to do anything...

Anonymous said...

orjol - erglis (ru)

Anita said...

If you want to meet an urla, see a guide to their bars at
Good for a laugh