“Good afternoon, we’re from the social movement ‘stop a douchebag,’” says a good looking young man, knocking on the window of a car.
What happens next varies: Sometimes, the window rolls up, and the car backs out. Other times, a driver apologizes. There may be a blank stare, followed by an explanation from the youth about how driving on sidewalks is not allowed. On a few occasions, fists are drawn—or even weapons.
Russia’s Stop a Douchebag movement—better translated, perhaps, as the less-catchy “stop a cad”—turns five years old this month. Its humor, international popularity (English-subtitled clips have been viewed millions of times), and earnest bravado draw viewers both in the post-Soviet cities of the former USSR and all around the world.
Russia’s youth gangs are notorious for a reason: Over the last two years, videos of youths entrapping men through online dating sites and then gay-bashing them have gone viral. They humiliate them, threaten to out them to their parents, douse them with urine, and at least one of the men featured on such a video has died.
Stop a Douchebag is different. Its popularity in America, where it’s not quite a household name but videos have nonetheless been watched millions of times, is due in part to the absurdity of Russian driving habits, but also to the activists themselves. The boys are self-righteous, but not outwardly malicious. Most of the time, the worst fate a driver suffers is a hard-to-peel-off sticker on his car. They may be brusque, but they’re not unlikeable.
We’re not laughing at the boys. We’re laughing with them, sort of.
Founded in May 2010 by Dmitry Chugunov, the group initially sprang up in the most logical of Russian cities: Moscow. Its city streets are notorious for the traffic jams that plague them morning, noon, and night. It’s become something of a youth movement across the country—a federal project, as they call it—for young people, mostly men in their teens and early 20s. The majority, like Moscow’s “Driving on Sidewalks” director Maruan Mukhamed, cite their own frustrations in driving for joining the movement.
“Every morning I stand in traffic on the Leningradskoye Highway, and every day people drive there on the sidewalks,” he told The Daily Beast. Off the side of the road, he saw pedestrians getting honked at by cars.
"First I fought with my own methods, and then I thought that Stop a Douchebag was a more famous project, where you just tell drivers that it’s Stop a Douchebag. Seventy percent say, ‘Oh, sorry,’ and drive away,” he says. “And 30 percent are belligerent."
The activists are a loosely organized bunch. Despite the official structure and the five Moscow-based directors, most people who show up for the “raids,” as Mukhamed calls them, have no formal affiliation. A few hours before showing up at a site, the leaders will post the location and contact numbers on Russian social network VKontakte. Some volunteers show up often. Others come once and never again.
For a while, the all-guy crew even had a female participant, Oksana. Mukhamed says she stopped coming. He doesn’t know why.
They all do it, he says, because they want to feel a part of something important. “I have a job, I go to school, and this is a hobby that brings me joy.”
But such bands of teenage vigilantes exist in most major Russian cities from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, and some other ex-Soviet states. (Satellite groups are approved through a quick Skype chat with a wannabe leader.) Viewers watching scenes wouldn’t even know it. Generic Soviet architecture lends an air of uniformity to videos filmed in residential neighborhoods and away from famous landmarks.
Indeed, the best way to differentiate the Douchebag clips is by the antics present therein. Armed with trademark stickers (they read: “I spit on everyone, I drive where I want”), the guys use their bodies to block bad drivers. Oftentimes, the young protagonists of the videos will find themselves on top of car hoods. Videos show drivers pushing them along for feet, meters, sometimes even blocks, if their words, or stickers, don’t dissuade them from pushing forth.
Getting on top no doubt requires some physical gymnastics. And justifying it, even more mental hoops.
“You jump on car hoods,” I say, and Mukhamed cuts me off. No, they don’t. They wind up there as a result of boy-car collision.
But if I’m standing, and a car hits me, I’m going down, falling, I counter. Mukhamed recounts in slo-mo: He’s standing there, the car hits him, the force of contact pushes him. He’s leaning, at an angle. And then he grabs onto the hood to stabilize himself. And then he’s on the hood. Holding on for dear life.
Surprisingly, in a country with notoriously corrupt cops known for taking bribes, the police don’t seem to have issues with this.
Instead, Mukhamed says they funnel about a third of their videos to the police—those showing anything from a small bruise to a tear on clothing. “On almost every raid, my friends or I get knocked down. So if someone give me trauma—a bruise, or dirty clothes, but as long as contact between me and the car happened—that person should be punished,” he says, firmly.
Police sometimes track down drivers: One, he says, got his license suspended for a year. Another, who struck his friend so badly that the guy spent a month on crutches, lost his license for two years.
Only the tiniest fraction of their videos make it online, “so that when people watch the video, they see that you can’t behave like that.” (And to entertain foreigners, of course.)
Mukhamed suggests I watch a video called “Khimki, Carts, and Two Barrels”—one of their most popular clips, but not one I’d come across while wading through hundreds. As I type the cyrillic words into Google, it pops right up as a suggested search.
As the name suggests, the video is filmed in Mukhamed’s hometown of Khimki, best known these days, perhaps, for controversies around the destruction of its forest. (Thugs once beat a journalist reporting on the issue so badly he lost some fingers; another lost a leg and suffered brain damage.) Three guys in a Lexus drive up, and the sidewalk patrol makes them drive off. They repeat the offense, shouting at the boys as they’re confronted.
Suddenly, a guy wielding a Kalashnikov gets out of a Jeep behind them. Mukhamed had an “oh, shit” moment then—as in, “Oh, shit, they’re coming for us.”
But no. The Kalashnikov-wielding dude, whose face is blurred out in the videos, walks up to the original offenders and tells them to ride along and follow the rules. “We thanked the man with the Kalashnikov because it was very unexpected, and he helped us out,” Mukhamed recalls.
Later that same day, another man pulls out a pistol when stopped. The boys don’t budge, and instead call the police. When they come, as Mukhamed tells it, the driver “realizes that he’s fried,” and the guys tell him they won’t press charges if he apologizes to each of them, individually, on camera.
The video ends with his taped apology, telling each of the boys that they’re doing a good job.
The program’s non-violence has seemingly added to its legitimacy. A rare few show members getting into altercations with drivers, no matter how belligerent or belittling they are—and the ones that do make it clear that the boys were hit first. There’s no telling, of course, what goes on in the countless hours of archived footage that made it online, but the politeness is overwhelming.
Mukhamed says most people behave in a rational manner when confronted these days because the group is so well-known, and their manner may be part of the reason why. A few years ago, he’d put that number at 10 percent.
Mukhamed and company are no-nonsense, no excuses.
“When a person buys a car, no one forces him to buy it, right?” Mukhamed says with youthful righteousness. “The person signs up for standing in traffic, paying taxes, expensive gas. That there won't be parking spots. Before buying a car, a person has to think about where they’re going to buy a car.”
If they make that first payment, they’ve made their choice, Mukhamed believes. “The car, the 2.5 tons of metal—it’s purely their problem.”
In 2013, they won 4 million rubles through a contest for presidential NGO grants. In 2014, that figure grew to 6 million rubles, but Mukhamed says that doesn’t last long. The directors don’t get paid, but the windshield-blocking stickers cost 100 rubles a pop to print—and the boys use them liberally.
So are there any circumstances under which they’d let someone pass?
“If we let one person pass, we’d have to let everyone go,” he says.
Not that they are thoroughly insensitive. If they’re doing a “raid” and someone jumps out of the car in a panic over missing a flight, they’re accommodating. They won’t let him keep cutting, but won’t escort him to the back of the line; instead, they’ll let him rejoin the flow of traffic right where he is.
But I press: What if the driver has a passenger who’s in labor?
This isn’t a purely theoretical proposition for Mukhamed, either. His men, he says, have actually had this happen. They called an ambulance for the woman instead.
“She rode to the hospital in comfort,” he says, adding: The flashing lights made the trip faster, anyway.