‘AUE is an information bubble’ Anthropologist Dmitry Gromov on how ‘moral panic’ fueled widespread fears about a ‘criminal network’ influencing Russian youth

Valery Melnikov / Kommersant

In 2020, the Russian Supreme Court declared AUE an illegal extremist organization and banned its activities. In its ruling, the court referred to AUE as an “international social movement.” But by all appearances, this purported extremist group lacks organizational principles, a hierarchical structure, and other characteristics that typically define a social movement. Indeed, AUE — short for “Arestansky Uklad Edin,” which can be roughly translated as “Prisoner’s Lifestyle is Unified” — is more often described as an informal network. Or as a criminal subculture, whose mostly teenage followers romanticize prison culture and criminal aesthetics. To find out more about AUE and its actual influence in Russia, Meduza spoke to anthropologist Dmitry Gromov about the research behind his forthcoming book, titled “AUE: Criminalization of Youth and Moral Panic.”

Dmitry Gromov, lead researcher at the Center for the Study of Interethnic Relations at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Ethnology and AnthropologyDmitry Gromov, lead researcher at the Center for the Study of Interethnic Relations at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology

Like many social anthropologists, Dmitry Gromov’s work involves conducting research “in the field.” When studying street activism, for example, Gromov attended street protests and activists’ meetings. He took an interest in AUE in 2008, when he first heard the term. But Gromov soon discovered that this supposed criminal network was unlike the “street communities” and “subcultures” he had studied in the past. “I don’t consider the AUE movement a subculture. It’s [more like] an information bubble,” he tells Meduza. 

As Gromov explains, this is the underlying concept of his new book, titled AUE: Criminalization of Youth and Moral Panic. Divided into two parts, the book begins by exploring “what we actually know about AUE and what’s behind it in practice.” In the second part, Gromov examines AUE as a prime example of the effects of “moral panic.” 

Dmitry Gromov defines “moral panic” as a follows:

“This is an informational process that boils down to the following scenario. A particular phenomenon starts to be perceived as dangerous and amoral — for example, the opinion arises that TV and computer games [promote] debauchery. Anxiety arises in society and ‘moral entrepreneurs’ emerge. These are people, groups, and social institutions that respond to the violation of the moral principles in society. They create an information field around such violations, stimulating the development of moral panic. And the phenomenon, usually small to begin with, gets hyped up. Interest arises in society that is clearly much greater than the actual danger from the phenomenon. This often ends with the adoption of some kind of restrictive laws [or] the stigmatization of [certain] people.”

According to the researcher, public awareness of “AUE” emerged in Russia 10–15 years ago, and initially, the term didn’t denote a particular group. Indeed, Gromov says that the elusive nature of AUE was one of the difficulties he confronted while researching his book. “It’s easy to examine what you can touch or feel. If you study a well-known community it’s clear who is part of it, you can simply go and have a chat [with them],” he muses. “But in this case, it’s not known what AUE is, where it exists — and this is perhaps a case where the field research method doesn’t work.” 

Gromov therefore began by analyzing information available online and talking to other experts. He also tried to conduct surveys on the topic of AUE, but this was easier said than done. “Yet another difficulty [was] the wariness of some respondents: since the ‘AUE movement’ is officially recognized as an extremist organization, they try to stay away from this topic,” Gromov remembers. “I tried to conduct a survey in the Zabaykalsky Krai, which is considered the ‘AUE capital,’ and in Buryatia. But I was faced with the very high anxiety of local residents, they were simply afraid to participate in the survey.” 

In the end, Gromov concluded that the “word AUE and the idea of it” was popularized through moral panic and became a catch-all term. “There are separate social problems that have always existed. [But] specific politicians spoke about AUE as a subculture and journalists repeated it,” he explains. 

At the same time, Gromov underscores that there was a genuine wave of interest in this theme. According to his research, the trend originated in the Transbaikal area of the Russian Far East, among school-age kids who liked to draw graffiti and use prison slang. “It was a teenage game. And then it spread across the country — mostly through online communities and music. There was a peak in popularity around 2016–2017, and then it all died out on its own,” he says. 

With this in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Gromov couldn’t pin down what AUE is short for. “Different people describe the origin of the abbreviation in different ways. There’s [one] opinion that this combination of letters isn’t an abbreviation, but a watchword,” the anthropologist explains. “For example, in places of detention, there’s a widespread practice when a prisoner enters a corridor or a transport [vehicle] he shouts ‘AUE!’ and those who consider themselves part of the criminal community answer him.”

According to Gromov, the most popular expansion of AUE used to be Arestansky Uklad Edin, which can be translated as “Prisoner’s Lifestyle is Unified.” But this changed after AUE was outlawed as an “extremist organization” in 2020. The Supreme Court ruling used the term Arestanskoe Urkaganskoe Edinstvo, which roughly translates as “Prisoners’ and Criminals’ Union” — and it quickly became the leading term used online “by a large margin,” the researcher says. 

Roman Yarovitsyn / Kommersant

Gromov tells Meduza that the term AUE was first used “at the political level” in 2014 by Evgeny Sinelnikov — a spokesperson for the Zabaykalsky Krai Prosecutor’s Office. “At the time, there was a real uptick in crime in the Zabaykalsky [Krai]. Sinelnikov said that the crime in their region needed to be dealt with and in his speech he used the word AUE, which was related to the Internet, not to crime,” the anthropologist recalls. “He spoke about how young people were getting into these communities connected to criminal themes, and how this has a negative impact. [He used] a beautiful word and journalists seized on it; they started looking for where this word was used before. And they found [examples].” 

According to Gromov, accounts of mischievous teenagers using the word AUE snowballed into a “phantom story” about the alleged existence of a criminal movement. And as they tried to deal with the region’s real crime problem, government officials ended up legitimizing the story. 

The notion that AUE was a “subculture” reached President Vladimir Putin via the then-secretary of his Human Rights Council, Yana Lantratova, Gromov recalls. “Like a good official, he [Putin] said that it needed to be sorted out: the disorder [and the fact] that children are getting hurt. As a result, the idea of a ‘subculture’ gained a foothold,” he explains. “[Then] journalists started to say, for example, that ‘members of the AUE subculture beat up a child.’ Thus, information gathered around this phantom word ‘AUE’ and the notion arose that such a subculture exists.” 

The Supreme Court outlawing the “AUE movement” only lent credence to the idea that the term represents a well-structured organization, Gromov adds. 

Asked if he managed to find people who claimed to be part of this alleged community, Gromov says that those he interviewed were largely dismissive of the concept of AUE. “I spoke with experts — human rights activists working on prisoners’ rights, the majority of whom have experienced incarceration themselves. Those who were in prison said that AUE is some kind of childish nonsense,” he remembers. 

A series of interviews Gromov conducted with young people in Chita — the administrative center of the Zabaykalsky Krai — also failed to produce many leads. “They [young people] were convinced that this is a calm, quiet city,” the anthropologist remembers. “Some of them had been in a fight somewhere or other, one had a friend in prison, one recalled a street conflict during the interview, but these are all trifles. There was no [mention of] systemic violence.”

“If you travel around cities and prison facilities, you can find people who identify with the AUE movement. But the question is how typical are they? To what degree do they represent general trends of the life of this hypothetical community?” Gromov continues. “There are teenagers who want to go to jail. There are guys who want to choose a criminal career. But this doesn’t mean there’s some kind social movement, a well-managed and structured organization.”

With this in mind, Gromov says it’s impossible to paint a picture of the “average” person who identifies with AUE. However, his anonymous online survey of teenagers demonstrated that there was in fact such a trend. “The responses showed that there really was a period [when] the AUE theme was in fashion,” he explains. “Almost all of the respondents were familiar with this word, but they conceptualized everything related to AUE as a game.”

“At the same time, the majority of those surveyed were concerned about a [hypothetical] rise in crime. In other words, there was no ‘AUE movement’ in their immediate vicinity, but the anxiety still clung on,” Gromov adds.

According to the expert, some social media groups set up at the height of the AUE trend in 2016–2017 are still around. But this Internet fad has long since run its course. “When the fight against AUE began, AUE as a meme, as a fashion, had already ceased to be popular,” he underscores “Though some groups on VKontakte are still operating, it’s because they don’t have AUE in their name and aren’t visible to law enforcement officers. But the people in [these groups] are looking at pictures, there’s no appeals [or] materials to help novice criminals. There’s no communication there, often even the comments are disabled.”

As Gromov concludes, the moral panic surrounding the “AUE movement” has led to a situation where “instead of fighting real crime, the main focus is on countering some incomprehensible phantom.” Moreover, he says, this fight against an apparently non-existent threat is doing real harm. “The campaign against the ‘AUE movement’ is fraught with abuses and investigative errors, which could harm innocent people, including minors,” the anthropologist warns, recalling the string of criminal cases opened after AUE was outlawed as extremist in 2020.

“What’s happening is part of a general trend in Russia: the development of a large number of restrictive and repressive laws and a general narrowing of the legal field,” Gromov says. “Evidently, the [Supreme Court’s decision to ban] the ‘AUE movement’ was taken as a step in the fight against professional crime, although this was never declared openly. But in practice, the consequences of this prohibitive action may be very different.”

Please note. This interview has been summarized for length and clarity. You can read the full Q&A in Russian here. 

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

I’m with you, Meduza

Interview by Andrey Serafimov

Translation by Eilish Hart

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