Norway’s ‘russ’ – the good, the bad and the ugly

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NEWS COMMENTARY: As the end of another school year draws to a close, the annual party season for graduating students known as “russ” is winding down as well. Many teachers are breathing a sigh of relief, after weeks of wild partying and sometimes dangerous stunts disrupted neighborhoods and worried not only parents but police as well. Aled-Dilwyn Fisher from Wales, who teaches at a top Oslo high school in addition to writing for Views and News, shares his thoughts on his first encounter with the “russ” culture.

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There are times when, as a teacher, you just don’t know how to react – after all, you have to be ready for just about anything in the classroom. But this was somewhat stranger than normal – when I entered my class one morning, two students dressed in the russ overalls used by those soon to graduate were sitting under the table, their chairs neatly tucked to one side.

The celebrations of graduating 'russ,' known for their red or blue overalls and caps, traditionally reach their climax on the 17th of May, Norway's Constitution Day. And then exams begin. PHOTO: Views and News

They were already happily and quietly working away at their laptops, and didn’t seem to want any particularly reaction. I certainly didn’t want to make a fuss about it myself. I nervously and half seriously asked if they were OK under the table – they replied that they were and seemed eager to work. Indeed, they worked through the whole lesson without any problems.

It was only later that I realized (or, rather, was told) that this was all a part of arguably that most Norwegian of phenomena – russ. Dares, like sitting under their desks for the entire duration of a class, are completed to win merits and plaudits. Most of these challenges are harmless and fun, and many take place in the classroom. My absolute favourite was when the students had to reply “hallelujah!” to everything I said: For one lesson, I felt like an Evangelical preacher, rather than a substitute teacher, although I did run out of excuses to say things just to hear their reply.

Not all the dares are quite so sweet and innocent but, generally speaking, they are just the kind of thing that most teenagers get up to in similar parties around the world, and involve various levels of drunken escapades. Most are a bit silly or even disgusting, but pose no direct harm to others, such as drinking a half-liter of beer with two tampons stuck in your mouth.

Too far?
The dares exemplify in a nutshell how similar russ is to teenage life in most other countries, and certainly the UK (where I grew up). Alcohol plays a big role as a social lubricant, and young adults feel free to experiment, try different things and let their hair down after years of pressure at school and at home in some of the most crucial, formative years of their lives. Most of the time, the only serious risk is a bad hangover – but things can go too far.

Amidst all the frivolity, there's a dark side to the annual 'russ' celebrations that are now ending after weeks of hard partying. PHOTO: Views and News

There are, for example, a number of health risks associated with the massive gatherings that take place as part of russ. This year’s festivities have thrown up cases of the dreaded meningitis virus, with many students (particularly in Bærum, just outside of Oslo) having rushed to get vaccinations to fend off the threat. As you can surely imagine for such a large gathering of 18- and 19-year-olds, there are some very sensitive viruses and diseases that spread through sex. This is, of course, no different from many societies – but it cannot be dismissed as a “natural” problem that cannot be solved. However good Norway is in terms of social indicators compared to its European neighbours, it can always be better. This includes problems with alcohol – a russ-related death this year was a sober reminder of how things can get out of hand. Rape too is, sadly, a common menace during the party season.

A waste of money?
But these problems, however serious, need to be tackled by all “western” societies. The difference with russ is that is happens on a larger, more organized scale. Indeed, perhaps the worst thing about russ is the way it seems to amplify that awful force present in the lives of every young adult – peer pressure. Peer pressure in any country generally involves people doing things they regret, feeling excluded and not enjoying some of the potentially most enjoyable years of their life. But here in Norway, the russ phenomenon in some ways sharpens the emotional pressure, channeling it into an all-encompassing, mass cultural experience. You have to be part of a the coolest little group; that group, to be really cool, needs to buy a ‘russ bus’, often at great expense, and spend huge amounts of time and even greater amounts of money decorating, painting and, crucially, stocking the bus with as much alcohol as possible. And, don’t forget, you need to buy the hottest tickets to the hottest parties, which take place all over the country.

It is this utterly frivolous waste of money that is probably the most aggravating thing about russ; in comparison, the sex, drugs and crazy dares are fairly mundane. The way money is spent, however, is a stark reminder not just of the gap between Norway’s wealth and that of the rest of the world, but also a slap in the face from the upper class within the country to everybody else. While many students work for years to save money for the russ party season, it’s those from the wealthiest families, with the most obliging parents, who often have the best buses, and parade around thinking they are the best. Again, rich young people do this in other countries too – but the way it is enabled, encouraged and even lauded in otherwise egalitarian-minded Norway turns it into a much bigger deal and a paradox in the country’s social welfare state. It is, quite clearly, not inclusive – and that doesn’t even begin to address how exclusive the whole experience might be for those who don’t drink alcohol, particularly members of diverse cultural groups in Norway’s evermore multicultural society.

Before or after exams?
Of course, there are other things about russ that non-Norwegians find difficult to understand. The biggest for me – as both someone new to Norway and a teacher – is why this intense partying season comes before, and not after, the presumably vital end-of-year exams. Partly, the reasons are historical – the russ season was originally and intuitively after the exams, but was moved in 1979 to before the exams in a seemingly vain attempt to dampen the festivities and encourage moderation by setting it in the pre-exam revision period. But surely a reason for why the move was even considered possible in the first place is because of the way the Norwegian education system works. Simply put, the emphasis on final year exams is far less than the educational method I am used to in the UK.

The debate over changing the dates of the russ season – or, more accurately, on moving the exam season back before russ starts – has raged in Norway for the past few years. The russ organizations themselves are fully behind the change – and the Norwegian Association of Graduate Teachers also publicly campaigns for putting written exams before the russ season (with oral exams still coming later).

A tougher stance?
Rather than listening to these calls, it seems the school authorities are preparing to dig in with a tougher line. A recent meeting between the government’s Directorate for Education and Training and a number of interested parties essentially promised a tougher line against the russ. They criticized schools that had become too accepting of the excesses of the partying season, and promised that russ activities during school hours and the attendant consequences of partying too hard (namely, absence) would be clamped down upon. Furthermore, the attitude remains that russ is a private activity and that exams should not be moved on the basis of students’ social habits. This hard line was disappointing to many of the interested parties (not least the russ themselves), and threatens efforts to ensure the best for everyone concerned, and the welfare of the students involved. Simply put, the attitude towards russ is understandable, but hopelessly unrealistic – if students become virtually un-teachable for part of the year, I would rather that part of the year be well after the serious work of exams is out of the way.

Whether being stricter on the russ will make things better is difficult to argue – it could well end up with the large number of those who act (relatively) responsibly being punished for the excesses of a few. One clearly necessary reform is to change the arrangement so that the exams take place before russ. Beyond that, sexual health advice can always be increased and the positive educational work being done to avoid rape and other serious crimes should certainly continue. Above all, I’d hope to see a different stance towards the profligate spending that goes on. This is something the russ organizations themselves must lead, but it will need a supporting role from parents and schools. Perhaps russ could come to play a bigger role in charity, volunteering and campaigning for social and environmental justice – or, at the very least, they could get back to having a good time without asking participants to spend a fortune.

The Norwegian Prom?
The best comparison I can think of for russ to phenomena in other countries is perhaps the obsession with end-of-school proms that grips American and, increasingly, the UK. Norway, too, at some junior high schools. The proms involve many of the same problems – peer pressure, needless and gratuitous expense, and sometimes alcohol abuse – with many of the same aggravating factors associated with its active institutionalization. The way proms can be exclusionary and unnecessarily tense affairs (through, for example, competition for award categories, which often come down to how much parents are willing to spend on outfits) are similar to russ. The difference is that russ lasts for weeks, and grips the entire nation at precisely the same time.

Ultimately, russ is probably very Norwegian; a highly-organized, institutionalized way for young adults to be young adults. Like all activities that attract young people, at its extremes russ can be exclusionary, decadent and dangerous. At its best, like the American and British proms, russ can be a final hurrah before the start of adult life. One good aspect of its organizational nature is that many of the extremes occur in more public settings and can be challenged; but it is certainly a problem when the extremes become tolerated, encouraged and, eventually, institutionalized. For all the fun of some of the russ traditions, the acceptance of irresponsible expense, in particular, is no laughing matter.

Views and News from Norway/Aled-Dilwyn Fisher
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