Norway’s infamous “russ” season, normally a time when many high school students celebrate graduation with wild mass partying and bizarre rituals, has been postponed by the Corona crisis. While more than a few Norwegians can look forward to sleep better at night this spring, some reckon that the time is ripe to finally end the unruly and controversial tradition.
Organizers of this year’s festivities are hoping to start their so-called russetid (end of school celebrations) on June 16, the day after the current ban on large cultural gatherings is likely to end, if the authorities think it’s safe.
“We’re planning to postpone celebrations until the summer holidays start,” chairman Johann Schwenke Rief of the graduates’ celebration board (russestyret) for Oslo and Viken counties told state broadcaster NRK. “That’s when the government will announce whether the infection levels have either worsened or improved a lot. We hope they will have improved a lot, so that several people are allowed to gather in the same spot.”
Officials including deputy health director Espen Rostrup Nakstad have, however, stressed that it’s too early to tell what the Corona situation will be like in June. “First and foremost, we believe the russ celebration in 2020 will have to be very different and limited, compared to what earlier classes have experienced,” Nakstad told NRK.
Rief said the organizers have a “good dialogue” with police and health authorities. He agreed that it would be irresponsible to have celebrations at this time because of the Corona infection danger.
Russ (roughly pronounced like “roose”) parties are already known as risk zones for dangerous illnesses. Russ are encouraged to be vaccinated against meningitis, for example, and are rewarded with an extra credibility knot on their clothing if they check for common veneral diseases before the party begins. But in the face of Corona, a good party is hard to combine with the one thing that keeps the virus at bay: social distancing.
Organizers in other cities including Trondheim also said they’re aiming to let the party begin in mid-June. Further delays caused by the Corona crisis could force a total cancellation, as most russ would then be having to prepare for university, take on summer jobs or report for military duty. Some local russ committees have already cancelled theis year’s celebrations altogether, NRK reported.
Some partying has already started around the country, forcing police to break up several gatherings of youths that were larger than legal.
Although many students take no interest in the russ culture or opt for low-key celebrations, others look very much forward to those busy weeks of partying. Recent comments in the media from young people describe admiration for the russ culture, a desire to create memories for life, and not least – fear of being denied a memorable end-of-school celebration.
“This is a time when young people from all over Norway gather to celebrate that they have completed 13 undescribably long years of school and stress,” wrote 18-year old Sofie Myrvang in the Si: D page in newspaper Aftenposten, a lively forum for “young debate.” While apparently not sick herself, Myrvang complained that Corona “has taken over my life.” Others worried that years of preparations for the russetid, including heavy investment in gear and vehicles, could turn out to be wasted. (Story continues below the video).
A time for ‘dropping horns’
The untranslatable “russ”-word is believed to be a simplified form of cornua depositurus, a Latin term which describes the transition from youth to adult by “putting down the horns.” What’s today known as russ and russetid in Norway started, according to one Wikipedia article on the subject, in Copenhagen in the 1700s as a student initiation rite. At the time, young Norwegians had to go to Denmark for higher education, since there was no university in Norway. Older students would greet freshmen by attaching a horn to their forehead, forcing them to keep it on during a ceremony during which the future students had to carry out various tasks to prove that wisdom had replaced their inner beast. Ludvig Holberg, a Danish-Norwegian author, mentioned the phenomenon in his 1722 comedy Erasmus Montanus, ridiculing the self-important intellectual elite.
When Norway established its first university in 1811, it also got its first russ, who were forgiven for public drunkenness and rowdy behaviour. Although similar traditions exist in Denmark and Sweden, russefeiring in its current form is a uniquely Norwegian tradition, the crudeness of which tends to irk locals and shock foreigners. A common remark in Norway is that “this year’s russ are the worst ever.”
“My foreign research colleagues are surprised when I tell them about the russ celebration in Norway,” sociology professor Willy Pedersen told newspaper Aftenposten in a 2019 interview. “Once, when I described these three weeks of free reins for 18 year-olds just ahead of final exams, with lots of alcohol, one-night stands and fighting, someone asked me why in the world we accept this.”
An elite phenomenon
Pedersen, a scholar at the University of Oslo and an expert on drug use in Norway’s youth cultures, pointed out that the russ tradition is still legitimized by its roots in society’s elite generations ago. “That’s one reason parents allow their offspring to take part,” Pedersen told Aftenposten, “but it also makes things more difficult to change,”
When King Harald was russ in 1955, the secondary education leading to exams called artium that in turn opens the path to university, was a path open to relatively few. “But these days, almost everyone can take part in the celebrations,” Pedersen said.
Importantly, the russ season is not organized by schools, but by the students themselves as a private cultural movement through a system of boards and committees that change each year. In the background, though, lurks an entire industry supplying the russ with their red or blue clothing, printing their stickers and name cards, selling tickets to their mass gatherings and organizing their package tours abroad. These commercial players skillfully exploit what has been called a “market with no memory”, because the tough lessons learned from one year’s russ aren’t passed on to the next year’s group.
According to Pedersen, a big change occurred in the 1990s with lavish buses blasting music from top-of-the-line sound systems, perhaps sponsored by rich parents with foggy memories of their own russetid being the highlight of younger years. Such costly toys are mostly a privilege of teenagers from the wealthier parts of the Oslo region, setting the capital apart from the rest of the country. For more than a few future russ, work needed to finance and style the bus can consume more time and attention than school itself.
It’s about more than the money. Pedersen has called the russebuss culture “an effective vehicle for exclusion,” a closed system packed with its own codes and rules, sometimes only accessible through coolness auditions and beauty contests. Those who lack the budget, or the looks, or the cool, or the taste for alcohol, have to look for fun elsewhere – and follow their classmates’ fun via Facebook only.
“The bus (group) is established as early as the first year of the secondary school, and it defines much of the socializing. The bus is the starting point for parties and birthdays, all of it posted on social media,” Pedersen said.
Most buses hire professional drivers, and sometimes even parents are on board when the “rolling” season begins. Nevertheless, incidents of rape, vandalism and alcohol poisoning have often marred large gatherings, despite the presence of police officers, private security, church representatives and other grownups. Dedicated party music routinely describing girls as “whores” doesn’t help.
In recent years, the practice of “beefing”- planned fist-fights between young men from different buses, has become commonplace, adding to the dangers of taking part. Some russ have also gone on package tours to the Mediterranean, creating mayhem in destinations like Kos and Majorca. The Corona crisis has likely called a halt to that.
Time for a change
Meanwhile, pressure has been building for years to move final exams forward, to the weeks before Norway’s Constitution Day on May 17, meaning there would be exams first and partying afterwards. For four decades it’s been the other way around, much to the frustration of teachers, principals and their professional organizations who believe this strange order of things is negative for learning and exams results.
In 1979, a Labour party government decided to reschedule secondary exams, based on the perhaps naive belief that such a move would restrain partying as students would supposedly use the extra time to prepare for their exams. Instead, the russ season has expanded in every way, with celebrations most likely restraining preparations, and students showing up for their exams exhausted and hung-over.
A poll of 200 principals conducted by newspaper Aftenposten in 2016 found that 59 percent wanted serious change in the way celebrations take place or have the russefeiring abolished altogether. “It ruins a lot of the learning and concentration among students during the last months of their last year, ” veteran principal Atle Solberg Berland said at the time.
A study in 2017 by the education directorate (Utdanningsdirektoratet) came out strongly against any tinkering with the current timing of exams, arguing instead for maximum teaching time. “To reduce teaching time and introduce earlier exams to influence the russ celebrations would be a drastic move with uncertain results,” the study said. It claimed that “signs of the times” had indicated that celebrations in many areas were about to find “a reasonable space” relative to the goals students need to reach.
“For this reason, there is no need to signal that planning of the school year should ‘set aside time’ for russetid. That could go against the positive trend,” the study claimed.
While the Corona pandemic threatens to put a damper on this year’s celebrations, it’s too early to tell whether that will strenghten the hand of those who would like to see it go away.
“This year is an excellent opportunity to scrap russetiden for all time,” wrote 21 year-old Filip Degrassi Westad in Aftenposten’s Si ;D forum. Westad admitted that he had enjoyed his own russetid, when he was part of a bus group. “But now I’m a few years older,” he wrote. “The russetid has changed, from a pleasant point in life to one that leads to undesirable behaviour. Celebrations distract from schoolwork and leisure activities. The police have to take care of russ every day,” he wrote of recent russetid seasons.
Westad described the money spent on bus ownership, equipment and events as “purposeless expenditure” that ends up in the pockets of businessmen exploiting the russ and their parents. “To me,” Westad wrote, “the russetid results doubtlessly in a large loss (of money), regardless of the memories one keeps.”