Sneakers
From the ground up

Before Gosha, there was Москва.

In today’s popular culture, Russia and adidas go together like Moscow and snow. Yet, despite the mid-’70s modernism the “post-Soviet” aesthetic, the Three Stripes existed in the USSR for less than a decade before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Adidas wasn’t banned in Russia – you just realistically couldn’t get it if you tried. Before Mikhail Gorbachev opened the Soviet Economy through his “glasnost” (in Russian: “transparency”) reforms, Western consumer goods were nearly nonexistent and ludicrously expensive once found. Yet, thanks to the influence of bootleg Western TV shows, movies, and sports broadcasts, brands like Levi’s denim and adidas sneakers remained in perpetually high demand. Soviet newspaper Socialist Industry once famously decried youth culture’s hunger (how capitalist!) for black market fashion as “immoral.”

In 1975, the Soviet Ministry of Light Industry tried to reign in this immoral thirst for bootleg jeans by producing its own Russian-made denim. Their success was, in a word, “limited:” the Soviet tooling and production just couldn’t match the quality or craftsmanship of the West. Forget running shoes – if the USSR was going to produce a black market alternate anything, they would need Western tools and a Western factory, both in dreadfully short supply behind the notoriously-closed (and business-unfriendly) Iron Curtain.

It would take an Olympic feat to convince a world-leading innovator to build a factory in Russia. What a coincidence.

Gazeta.ru

Thanks to then-US President Jimmy Carter “putting his oar in” East-West relations by leading a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, adidas CEO Horst Dassler – who had previously agreed to supply uniforms for the USSR – found it more difficult than planned to secure other sponsorships. The Games were eventually boycotted by 65 other countries including Dassler’s own West Germany, meaning if adidas (the “Official Supplier” of the XXII Olympiad, a title Dassler paid handsomely for) wanted to still score big on the games, it had to play ball with the suddenly-invaluable Soviet team.

The Kremlin’s demands were weighty and numerous. First, adidas had to nullify its iconic Three Stripes branding and produce clothes without logos so that a West German capitalist producer would not be shown in any photos or videos of triumphant Soviet athletes. At the time, a Russian phrase captured this East versus West sentiment, roughly translating to “The one who wears adidas will sell the Motherland tomorrow.” Second, any adidas shoes with the Three Stripes had to be modified so the stripes formed an “M”, apparently to celebrate the host city of Moscow.

Last but not least, as part of its “Official Supplier” contract guaranteeing “exclusive supply rights” in a competitive industry, adidas had to produce goods supplied to the games on Russian soil. Whereas Coca-Cola (another “Official Supplier”) could build a bottling plant and secure all of its trade secrets by leaving no flavor concentrate behind after the Games, adidas would have to leave the bulk of its shoe production facilities behind after the Closing Ceremony. Jackpot.

Despite promises not to use any left-behind assets or tooling, the moment the flame was extinguished, the Soviet government got to work. After all, this was the “Missile Gap” 80’s: with the eyes of the world on a hot war in Afghanistan and a Cold War in the skies and seas, who would West German adidas even sue for trademark infringement? Prime Minister Brezhnev? Ivan Drago?

grey-shop.ru

Within weeks, low-top, three-striped, white-and-blue sports shoes – adidas shoes in everything but name – began rolling off the line. There was just one small issue: how to fill that six-letter space on the now-blank heel tab? Thus, the “Mockba” was born.

At its core, the Mockba is a bootleg adidas sneaker sitting somewhere between the Campus and the Gazelle. The sneaker’s name – Москва, in Russian – is the uppercase Cyrillic spelling of “Moscow,” a nod to the city whose Summer Games enabled its very existence. Despite widespread demand for Western consumer goods, the Mockba wasn’t just stocked on shelves like any other Soviet-produced apparel item. Indeed, the story of the Mockba looks a lot like that of the Bundeswehr GAT (German Army Trainer), as both are sports shoes produced by the government, originally intended for military training, that eventually found their way to the civilian market through military surplus sales.

There’s just one fundamental difference. While the GAT eventually went to fashion week and inspired shoes like the Margiela Replica, the Mockba went to war.

When then-President Carter led the 1980 Moscow Olympic boycott, his timing wasn’t arbitrary: the year prior, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan, beginning a nearly decade-long guerilla war in some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth. Standard-issue Soviet gear of the time was unprepared for craggy, mountainous Afghanistan. Every facet of the uniform, from the trousers to the Juft jackboots, was restrictive, uncomfortable, and borderline dangerous when patrolling the uneven landscape.

The boots, however, may just have been the worst offender. To quote a 1995 U.S. Foreign Military Studies Office report on the conflict: “The Soviet field uniform was inappropriate for Afghanistan. It was restrictive and uncomfortable… Soviet boots were noisy and unsuited for climbing in mountains.”

Frontovik

Translated to English from bureaucracy: if you were wearing standard boots, you were at risk. As a result of this gaping standard issue inadequacy, the normally controlling Soviet command gave certain units – typically smaller, more experienced detachments – the ability to procure their own footwear. Instead of the Juft boot, members of elite units like the VDV Paratroopers and Spetsnaz special operations forces “improvised,” opting for lightweight, versatile, and agile footwear that also afforded an element of stealth to their counter-insurgency raids. To quote that same FMSO report: “When possible, commanders put their soldiers in tennis shoes.”

What the Mockba lacked in ankle support, it redoubled in sleek, grippy combat effectiveness. Photos of Soviet Spetsnaz operatives wearing their rebranded adidas to wage guerilla warfare are few – supposedly, Soviet commanders thought that publishing photos of their soldiers in tennis shoes would reflect poorly on their units. Thankfully, however, some do exist: in one famous photo, a Spetsnaz operative brandishes his suppressed handgun towards the camera with Mockbas on each foot. “Sneaker,” indeed.

Ironically, the “hush-hush” nature of the Mockba’s spec-ops users coupled with its voluntary press embargo have since given the shoe’s wearers (and their units) a prestige all their own. Similar to how we associate beards, ballcaps, and Oakley sunglasses with US Special Forces today, the Mockba has achieved a similar cult status in Russian media as the mark of an elite operator. The “cool” factor of wearing sneakers to war has extended to immortalize the Mockba in everything from video game mods to war reenactments, even to action figures.

The 9th Company

Famously, the Mockba would feature prominently in the 2005 Russian war film The 9th Company, where the tough-as-nails veteran VDV Paratrooper who drills the new recruits pre-Afghanistan deployment (think Full Metal Jacket) delights in grinding them into the mud of an obstacle course… wearing his Mockbas.

Sadly, the story of the bootleg Three Stripes for spec ops ends soon not long after: production of the Mockba ceased in 2011 as the venerable sneaker made way for the VKBO, a newer, more advanced PE shoe. While Mockbas remained in isolated service up until then (photos exist of VDV soldiers wearing Mockbas during the Chechen War, which ended in 2009), every passing day makes more and more certain the ultimate retirement of these Made-in-Russia icons.

If you want a pair yourself, your best bet is to Google early and often. Occasionally, pairs do pop up on Russian mil-surp sites like grey-shop.ru, but their official “discontinued” status makes restocks both rare and highly-anticipated.

In many ways, the Mockba’s newfound status as a collector’s item is perhaps the perfect ending to its enduring and canonically Soviet story. The Mockba: an “immoral” capitalist symbol smuggled in on a tide of Olympic fervor, adapted by elite military operators as they struggled to expand the influence of the very system that once railed against it, and finally, due to its own desirability and scarcity, a capitalist object once more.

Not bad for some bootleg Gazelles.

Now read up on 10 key moments in adidas’s history that you probably didn’t know about.

  • Main & Featured Image: eBay
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