The Russian Start

Bali: the incubator for the Russian surf scene

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Russian surfing was incubated on Bali. The top Russian surfers live on Bali and many of them learned to ride waves in the frothy nuclear shorebreak of Kuta. Irina Kosobukina learned there, as did aerialist Sergey Mikheev and longboarder Nikita Zamekhovskyi. The first Russian surf competitions were held here in Balian, and so was the charming and internet-friendly High Heels Surf Contest in which competitors cross-stepped on soft-tops wearing four-inch stilettos.

Many Russians came to surfing from kite-boarding and kite-surfing, such as Evgeny Tsyshkov, who started the Kuta-based school Surf Discovery and was once an Olympic-class windsurfing junior world champion and one of the best kite-surfers in Russia from 2004 to 2006. Dima Zabula, who runs the surf school Endless Summer, was also a top-level kite-boarder and coach. Dima remembers the Russian attitude toward trying out new extreme sports:

“When I was teaching kite-surfing, we would get many international students. When there were German students, they take everything step by step. They go slowly. They take much more time in the water without any board. But the Russians do it totally different. I met a lot of guys who bought the gear and they don’t know how to do it and they don’t even take any lessons. They try by themselves and launch it and crash. And you know, throughout the whole world, it’s a common slang in the kite-surfing world: If somebody launches a kite wrong and they smash into something, this is called the ‘Russian Start.’”

Russian surf schools on Bali have been a contentious topic for years due to general participant over-zealousness. But they are now becoming more accepted in the Kuta-Seminyak area of the island. Allegations that the schools brought too many students to places like Batu Bolong in Canggu were resolved in meetings with Balinese locals. Now the Russian schools only bring two vans of people each morning after 9 a.m. And threats to shut down the Russian surf schools were proven idle.


Russian expats first made their reputation on Bali for street art, wild parties, and the High Heels Surf Contest. Now they’re working alongside the local surf population and coming to appreciate the cultural nuances of the island. Photos: Konstantin Trubavin/Jason Childs

The Russians are becoming more sensitive to their impact and responsibilities in the water, and do the best they can with new students. Evgeny explains, “Once, in Lombok, maybe four years ago, I was with a group. We paddled out and one local, a friend of mine, asked why they never smile. Russians never smile when they paddle out. It’s true, when you see someone paddling out, very serious—100-percent it’s a Russian. So from the very start, we try to teach people that it’s important, when you paddle out, to smile and say hello to everybody.”

Russian surf schools have evolved since they were founded eight years ago: from teaching techniques adapted to fit the Russian language and culture, to negotiations with the local community to find the best places to teach. The surf schools also employ as many local instructors as possible—along with the native Russian speakers, about 50 to 90 percent locals.

The Russian community contests on Bali also inspired a national championship back in the homeland. The Russian Surf Federation is starting a newly minted tour for 2014, with stops in Sochi, St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Vladivostok, and Kamchatka. Sergey Rasshivaev is the head of the Russian Surf Federation. After getting his travel passport cleared (“we have special one for this”), he spent two years traveling and learning to surf. “No money for food. It’s not a problem. It was hard, but I was really happy. We are hungry for that—travel and free life.” He’s since started a travel company, Surf Holidays, and began exploring waves in Russia.


“We are hungry for that—travel and free life,” says Sergey Rasshivaev, the head of the Russian Surf Federation. Photo: Sergei Shakuto


So what can we expect after the “Russian Start?” According to Brad Gerlach, Russian style is not entirely antithetical to good surf style. “I am indirectly influenced by Russian philosophy,” he says. “My dad’s diving coach was Russian. My dad was my coach. [They have] incredible aesthetic eye for beauty in movement.”

As Leo Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace, “The strongest of all warriors are these two—Time and Patience.” If the Russians continue surfing as they apply themselves to everything else, Russian surfing will be nothing less than epic and slightly terrifying in its beauty and general intent. Of all new cultures to come to surfing, Russians could in their own way be the ones to do it with the most style.

While on Bali I spoke with Made down at Batu Bolong. Made is one of the locals who has a board rental business on the beach and is part of the local banjar, or neighborhood government. Batu Bolong is one of the best places to learn to surf on Bali, and has seen many Russian surf schools and Russians beginners, day in and day out, for years. I asked Made, “What are the Russians like?” He thought about it and shrugged, “Biasa.”Same as everyone else.

For a more in-depth look at the Russian surf experience on Bali, read Mariah Ernst’s “Priboy Tovarishch!” in issue 23.2 of TSJ.