In Moscow, Saint Petersburg and beyond, club scenes are as dedicated as they are radically creative. Nikita Velichko investigates the current generation of Russian electronic music.
Two hours after Puce Mary's frenetic performance, Клуб was filled with dressed-up, uninhibited, mostly young people. Many of them were there to lose their minds to hypnotic techno from Nastia Reigel, headliner Bill Kouligas, who finished with The Prodigy's "Your Love (Remix)," or one of the other 22 DJs and live acts scheduled that night. But they were also celebrating the first birthday of Клуб, a place that gave them something that had been missing in their lives before.
On the same night, half an hour before Клуб's message, the Saint Petersburg promoter m_division wrote on the encrypted messaging app Telegram that their party was sold out—"we even had the fuse blown at Arsenal because of all the energy." They were hosting Delta, an afterparty of Gamma festival, in a spacious club called Blank, located at a former factory called Arsenal. Alien Rain (AKA Milton Bradley) and Steve Bicknell were playing the party, which organizers said drew more than 1600 people. Клуб had hit capacity with around 700 or 800 people over the course of the night.
Not long ago, it would have been hard to imagine new club openings and sold-out parties in Russia. After Outline festival's last-minute cancellation in 2016, a violent raid at Rabitza the following year and the absurd law against "gay propaganda," the country seemed unfriendly to clubbers. These events were demoralizing, but also led to some false generalizations. Parties are still happening in Russia, and the promoters who suffered have already perked up, keeping on with their work. On the other hand, new centers of power have appeared, with a younger generation, not remembering the Soviet past, seeking its own future.
Russia's clubbing history begins with discos in the '80s, then early dance sessions at Fontanka 145 in Saint Petersburg. But what's happening now began with Arma17. The promotion group, named after the building where it held its first events, turned each night into a different adventure. Besides well-balanced, internationally relevant lineups, you never knew what to expect going to Arma. They could put camping tents on the dance floor, build a maze or hang a transforming five-meter head over the crowd. Arma developed the Moscow audience's taste for a particular kind of techno, house and experimental music (Ricardo Villalobos became a close friend, visiting at least once a year). In the '00s, with commercial VIP-table parties booming around the city, this made for a significant contribution to Moscow's scene.
Arma's best events went longer than 12 hours, with the closing party at their longest-surviving venue going nonstop from Saturday to Wednesday. That venue closed due to property developments in the area, so the organizers held parties in new spots across Moscow. Their biggest achievement was creating Outline festival, a collaboration with the Stereotactic and Sila Sveta agencies. Outline united music and art, local and international musicians. It occupied disused locations usually hidden from Muscovites. In 2014, Outline took place at a former dump on Mnevnikovskaya Poima, a man-made island on the Moscow river. The following year it moved to the soon-to-be-demolished Karacharovsky Mechanical Plant. In 2016 it was shut down at the very last moment.
Natasha Abelle, one of Arma's founders, remembered a tense atmosphere in the lead-up to the ill-fated 2016 festival. Then a sudden order by the authorities to cancel the event appeared along with "inspections" from various organizations.
"At 1 PM the gates of the factory were closed, but the whole team stayed inside," she said during our interview. "We tried to do something, to find a way to hold the festival. At 5 PM it became clear that nothing would happen, the site was surrounded by riot police and fire trucks. They put up notices around the area that the festival would not take place. In the subway they began to make announcements Outline had been cancelled. Nothing could be done."
After that, the challenges continued. A party called Jet was raided. In December of 2016, another party, Data, was cancelled due to a warning from authorities, which Arma said they received 13 hours before the event should have started. Three months later, the same local government was acting to prevent another party, Brave. Eight hours before the event, organizers were warned that some staff, supported by law enforcement, would appear at the venue to prevent if from happening. Arma's last attempt at holding an event in Russia happened in Saint Petersburg, but even there the electricity was switched off less than 24 hours before the start.
"We didn't leave," Abelle said. "We consider it more like a pause." We met in March of 2018 at a café at Trekhgornaya Manufactory, one of Moscow's office and creative districts, where she'd already had several meetings. She showed me a piece of paper where she wrote about Arma's future plans, which at the time included a ten-year birthday celebration at Funkhaus in Berlin, collaborations with Georgia's Khidi club, Serbia's EXIT festival and Estonia's Moonland festival, as well as parties in Ukraine and Turkey.
"I have my version of what happened but there is still no evidence," she continued. "We've spent a lot of time trying to find out the circumstances and reasons, but nothing specific could be found, however in my head a clear picture emerged. In my opinion, there was a remarkable concurrence of circumstances multiplied by the general political situation in Russia. There was a strong negative background on the part of the authorities, concerning electronic music events generally, and us in particular—we became too large, free and independent, with a motive that was incomprehensible to the authorities. At the same time, it is now obvious that, in addition to this, we managed to get ourselves a serious foe in power, who personally helped to ensure that our activities ceased."
These struggles, however, made Arma "stronger, more purposeful and more focused," pushing them to do events internationally. Abelle found ways of hosting new parties in Moscow called A.
"Four events have already taken place, and there were no problems," she said. "But there was some fear at first of course. At the last one, a floor was dedicated to the Arma Records label. That was the first time we openly used the name Arma for an event in Moscow in a while, and everything went well. The event was successful and we did not encounter a ban on the part of the authorities."
After Outline's cancellation, with 12,000 tickets sold, the devoted community gathered at the venue to protest. That was also one of the first things organizers asked people not to do.
"The path of opposition and struggle contradicts my inner nature," explained Abelle. "That is a feature I basically do not possess and which is alien to me. In connection with the events in Georgia, the topic rose again of Outline and Arma and the reaction of the club community. Many wondered what could happen if the reaction resulted in protests. But the political and social situations in our countries are different. Georgia has already felt the taste of freedom completely. In Russia, on the contrary, this is a time of tightening the screws. In Moscow, unauthorized anti-government rallies are regularly held, and we see people being beaten, arrested and poisoned with tear gas. They will not go easy on ravers, and except for creating trouble for several thousand people, there will be no result. With this city's scale, those numbers of protesters are simply invisible. I believe the efforts of an active and progressive minority can change a lot. What I personally can do to change the situation is to continue to do my work, bringing electronic music out of the margins and to secure its status here as a modern cultural phenomenon. I'm sure that can give much better results. I believe that even under present conditions it is possible to do beautiful and strong things and change the world for the better."
There was another moment of fear, stress and insecurity after the cancellation of Arma's ninth birthday party in April of 2017. I asked Abelle what she remembered about it.
"The climate was generated by the police concentrating on nightclubs, stopping private cars and taxis, turning out pockets and strip-searching down to the underwear. There were known cases when the police planted illegal substances into pockets and demanded significant bribes. All of this created a sense of insecurity and stress, people at some point went to the clubs less and the atmosphere at the parties wasn't much fun. However, despite all this, the pulse of Moscow's club scene did not stop. Some young promoters, who have not yet learned to be afraid, gained traction. The surviving clubs brought everyone together. There was a time of unification in the community."
Abelle said she felt that Moscow's dance scene was now "alive." "There has been a rise and an increase in activity. In the meantime large festivals are being held in Saint Petersburg. There, compared to Moscow, the situation is generally more calm and positive concerning the attitude of the authorities to large electronic music events."
She also told me that a new club is opening in Moscow at the end of April. "It won't be called Arma, the name will be different, plus other Moscow-based promoters will participate in it with us."
Abelle is also one of the most in-demand DJs in Moscow. When I caught her sets there, they were mostly deep, dark and experimental, yet with a touch of humour. One of the last times I heard her was in March of 2018 at a party called Minimum, held at the former industrial complex Pluton. In the morning, Zenker Brothers were finishing a three-hour set with a track from Skee Mask's Compro, then still unreleased. The light broke through Pluton's windows. It was the day of Russian presidential elections, and the polling stations had just opened.
Minimum's organizers were the people who, collaborating with organizers of the JOY party, opened their dream club in the summer of 2016: Rabitza. They received gifts, like wooden furniture for a tearoom, heirlooms from Arma and other friends. Some of Rabitza's décor was purchased on Avito, the local Craigslist, or even discovered at a dump. For anyone who saw the club when it first opened, that won't come as a surprise.
Blank, Saint Petersburg
Blank opened in April of 2018, then closed and reopened in October. "We had a burnout," Olya said. "Everything was on the edge. We had to take time to reevaluate some things and find the right way. We shifted our communication from monologue to dialogue, and it was reciprocated. Blank's aesthetic is simplicity, conciseness, understandability, transparency. It's not a DIY space—it's neat, both in terms of events and operational process."
25 DJs, all from Saint Petersburg, played at the 30-hour reopening party, Go Blank. (There was only one woman among them—Gene said there are fewer than ten active female DJs in the city, and Nastya Zimens was the only one available that night.) Go Blank gathered more than 1000 people, a crowd that would have been beyond the imagination a few years ago.
In January, Borys and Shakolin from Kiev's Closer club played at Rhythm Architecture, a party series with digger DJs whose mixes are then published on Blank's SoundCloud. When I was leaving, we talked with Gene about his future gigs in the Ukrainian cities Odessa and Kiev. Although martial law in Ukraine expired, the relationship between Ukraine and Russia is still pretty tense. Men aged 16-60 are likely to be stopped from crossing the border, and Gene doesn't know yet if he'll be able play in Ukraine.
With two floors and six-meter arched ceilings, Blank was made for massive events. Collaboration with outside promoters is a very important factor—as Gene said, "Only by uniting with others can we not only survive, but grow." Moscow's Q For Quintessence and System 108 organized their events in Blank. Backstage there are items left from other promoters, such as the floor lamps from Roots United and mirrors from m_division.
Roots United and m_division are two Saint Petersburg collectives responsible for big summer open-air festivals. Roots United held Present Perfect, where last year musicians like Nina Kraviz, Roy Ayers, Larry Heard and Blawan played at Sevkabel, a cable manufacturer with an amazing view of the Neva river. M_division are hosting Gamma at Stepan Razin factory, the first brewery in the Russian empire, built in 1795.
Both organizers survived the hard times. The Roots United founder Dmitry Agalakov remembered that, in 2009, "events with artists like Mike Huckaby gathered around ten people." That same year, m_division's Ivan Logos and Slava Kostyakhin were organizing open-air raves in Siberia and parties in weird locations throughout Omsk, a huge provincial city where they resided. When they moved to Saint Petersburg, Ivan said, locals didn't understand why two guys from another city were trying to impress them.
Now Roots United and m_division pay respect to the beauty of the city where they're based. Saint Petersburg, famous for its bridges, white nights and unique baroque architecture, is less moneyed and a bit more democratic than Moscow, where the government is based. When it comes to the authorities, Logos told me in our several-hour conversation, it's best for clubs when they don't interfere. Two years ago, Gamma's second day was moved from its original location at Petrovskaya Kosa. One deputy kicked up a fuss because of the noise, although everything had been signed off by local authorities beforehand.
Last year's official Gamma pre-party also took place at the Stepan Razin factory. Travelling from one dance floor to another, I passed through gigantic colonnades and a chillout space with ambient music playing. The Bassiani residents HVL and NDRX, appearing a week after the raids on clubs in Tbilisi, played for a small dance floor.
"We found them spiritually close," Logos said. He echoed Abelle's thoughts on Georgia, saying that, though they share a Soviet past, Russia's problems are different from Georgia's. First of all, a reaction like the one in Tbilisi "is impossible, because everyone would be taken to the police station," he said. "Then there'll be an attempt to find out who's right or wrong. We believe the things we do are out of politics, as with the whole scene, and we hope it will be like that forever. We don't break the law and nobody restricts our freedom. We have an opportunity for musical activities in our country. We do something important for Russia, attracting tourists to our city and to our country."
Last February I went to a new edition of OFF organized by Roots United. Around 2000 visitors were at Sevkabel, despite a temperature of -17°C. Even with some technical problems, like a huge line to the cloakroom, it was an impressive party with decorations following a shipping dock theme. In a beautiful moment of unity, at 8 AM dancers spontaneously started moving in sync.
OFF, Saint Petersburg
During the night I kept hearing that friends of friends were taken to a room where police asked them to take drug tests. The rumours were confirmed by one visitor I spoke to after the event. He told me a detailed story of passing his test. When he asked the policeman what it was all about, he got the answer that they were looking for drug users, and if he didn't use anything he shouldn't worry about it. The policeman also advised him not to drink, because he "already looked strange."
In July of 2018, Meduza, one of Russia's few independent media sources, published an article describing the same case, as well as the Russian club community's relationship with the police. It gave more details about OFF's drug tests, including evidence that some people were detained to take the test with the use of force. The article stated that some promoters know about such things happening at their events ahead of time, but can do nothing besides cooperate—"otherwise they could lose their business."
There was a strong reaction to Meduza's article. Some people thanked the publication for the warning. Others were critical of the piece being published at all, and claimed it only showed one side of the story. Most promoters and club owners have to deal with police one way or another. But for the first time, certain questions were raised. For instance: is it a setup to sell tickets to the event, knowing that some of your guests will have to take a drug test, without warning them? Or was it just bad luck for Roots United? Are promoters responsible not only for the music but also for keeping visitors safe from the authorities?
Roots United declined to comment on the situation. They've since held several big events, including Present Perfect festival, at the same venue without any tests taking place.
Another problem promoters faced a few years ago was that many international artists feared coming to Russia because of the gay propaganda law. The homophobic aura remains one of the most common stereotypes about Russia. Overall, the society is pretty conservative, with LGBT activists being attacked by neo-Nazis, Orthodox activists and other extremist groups. There are, however, active gay clubs, such as Mono Bar, Central Station, regular Sunday parties at Propaganda, or Клуб's Грань (Edge) series, to name a few in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
"Safety was the first question asked when I started bringing people to Russia," said Nikita Egorov-Kirillov, an organizer of a party called Popoff Kitchen. He describes his event as "a queer techno party cooked in Moscow." Egorov-Kirillov was never a frequent visitor to gay parties, mostly because of the music, which he described as "low-grade house mixed with pop and karaoke songs." Four years ago he visited Berlin for the first time, met the people behind Cocktail d'Amore and invited them to play in Moscow, with Discodromo the first guests.
Nikita Egorov-Kirillov and Sergey Nesterenko
"You can feel pretty safe as a gay person here, but not free," said Egorov-Kirillov. "There are always restrictions, a necessity to control yourself in public. If you don't behave provocatively, you need not be afraid of being beaten. And the propaganda law deals only with underage people. So, it's OK here. I felt absolutely free at Arma. Rabitza was also open to gay visitors. Denis Simachev Bar and Propaganda are gay-friendly clubs. As for others, I won't be able to behave there like in Arma, feeling that you can be as you are, and it's normal."
Egorov-Kirillov believed it was possible to make a party for people who, like him, had first-hand experience of what Berlin parties were like. He said Resident Advisor's article about America's gay techno underground was his main inspiration to launch Popoff Kitchen, a regular event ironically framed as cooking classes, Sunday brunches, soirees and so on.
"The description goes like this," Egorov-Kirillov said. "'A chef, Juan Ramos, is coming to our party. Once he serviced 3,000 people in Berlin's sausage fest Berghain.' Some people still don't read attentively and ask me, 'How many courses will there be?' Creating that language, something like a small world in itself, is what makes us different from such parties all over Europe. I was sure there were enough people in Moscow who would be interested in this, it just needed to be made properly. Dissident, the place where we do this, looks like a cool Berlin gay bar. At the same time we have our own visuals, DJs, form and content that we can bring to the world."
In November, Popoff Kitchen celebrated their second birthday, bringing Herrensauna's MCMLXXXV and CEM to Moscow's Pluton club. Egorov-Kirillov described the party as "the first Russian queer 15-hour-techno-rave with more than 800 visitors. Also, Gosha Rubchinsky played his first DJ set there as DJ Technobeat."
НИИ (NII), Moscow
This willingness to experiment applies not only to music but to running the club. "We've been thinking about the ways of transforming the NII community for a year or more," Zaynetdinov told me. "It concerns not the venue, but the ways the community itself can evolve and manage some cultural processes together. We are currently working on some structure of how it may happen on the base of NII. Generally, we believe in a great potential of semi-decentralised creative communities which are managing and making decisions collectively, whether it's about the venue or not. NII is now more of an institution. We want it to develop, to become fully autonomous and independent. For it to renew, and for renewal to occur constantly, there must be some living organism. In the near future there will be a system established, serving as a base for adopting new principles, a new strategy for NII's development for the next few years."
Zaynetdinov also spoke of the feeling of isolation that Russian musicians suffer from. Alexey Nikitin, AKA Nocow, whose records have appeared on Rekids, Figure, Clone and GOST ZVUK among other labels, considered this question to be particularly relevant.
"Although more artists are being released by foreign labels and travelling around the globe, the process of integrating Russians into the global music scene has just started," Nikitin said. "I'm talking about those who still live in the country without moving abroad. There are a lot of reasons for our isolation, including political, historical and cultural ones. Recently, the British Council, the UK's cultural exchange program, ceased its operations in Russia, but that's just a specific example of a very complex problem. There is no universal recipe for what an artist should do to succeed."
At the same time, Nikitin added: "Russia's producers have to integrate into the West—it's extra important for their growth and survival. Electronic music is not a professionalized industry in our country. But we have a lot of creativity at the core. The only thing a musician can do to overcome all the constraints is to work hard, believe in themselves and have a specific goal. We must do unique things in order to offer something interesting to the world, formed by all our individual characteristics. I guess this process is emerging now, with a lot of talented producers no one's heard about yet. The one who climbs the mountain will master the road, and it's important to have patience and not to give up."
One person who didn't give up was Nina Kraviz, the main ambassador for Russian electronic music. While living in Moscow in the early '00s, Kraviz organized a series of parties in Propaganda Club called Voices and worked at an events agency, so she knows the industry from the inside. She shared her thoughts with me at a small café in Patriarch Ponds, a picturesque, posh area in the center of Moscow.
"People all over the world have parties and nightlife in abundance," she said. "In Russia, a small but exuberant scene has appeared. It's growing, becoming more solid. That's the most interesting part for me, right when you start doing something, feeling excited about it and not even thinking about the result. I feel that's what's happening here nowadays."
Kraviz said she was always slightly patriotic, calling herself "a glocalist"—maintaining local traditions in a global perspective. Although her трип label is international, it's always pleasing for her when good artists come from Russia. She remembered going to PTU's concert and seeing a lot of people in the audience who came there without any international headliner playing.
"These are exciting times because generations of clubbers are changing," she said. "The older people are still doing things, but there are lots of young guys and girls who are just 18-20. They're so fresh, dancing with half-closed eyes like there's no tomorrow."
That's how it was for Kraviz when she left her job as a dentist, kicking off an international career. Problems that local musicians sometimes complain about were not problems for her at all. Her Russian origin was exotic and interesting to her audience.
"There is no well-pronounced definition of Russian electronic music," she said. "As a genre it never really found its place in the international consciousness. But it does exist, hailing from Eduard Artemiev and Sergey Kuryokhin. For me, what was happening in '90s, and what I released through GALAXIID, was truly authentic. It contained some ideas that were similar all over the world."
The main thing for Kraviz when she decides whether to release a piece of music is, as she explained, whether she can feel a human behind it. This is in line with the classic Russian writers' reflections on the so-called Russian soul.
"Machines can't translate emotions," she said. "They cannot write poetry. I always thought feelings were most important. I release music when it just feels right, when it sounds like it was made by chance, not following any particular formula, as if made from some unplanned, sporadic process that sounds like a continuation of the human being who made it, or a mistake. Often I put music in a different context and it finds a new, unexpected meaning."
Nikita Zabelin, an Arma resident and one of Kraviz's protégés, founded a community called Resonance, concentrated around his radio show and uniting different musicians from across Russia. "The only thing is a lack of prospects," he wrote to me. "In the last few years we made a huge step forward, and yet it's not enough. Only a systematic, complex approach could help our scene survive. Ideology and full confidence in success will give us a way. This is exactly what our people lack because of proper communication. If we talk about the music itself, which is always a combination of a musician's emotional and life experiences, we have a picturesque story of gloomy worlds. Mysticism is a common feeling in Russian music. Perpetual understatements, significant emptiness, an illusion of incompleteness, melancholy, alienation—this sound resulted from the infinite open spaces of our land and a feeling of loneliness. A tough upbringing and greyness also can make a person lonely. People feel the government's indifference to their lives."
For трип, Russia is much more than Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Roma Zuckerman lives in Krasnoyarsk, PTU are originally from Kazan, Zabelin was born in Yekaterinburg. Kraviz herself comes from Irkutsk, the largest city in Siberia. The best place on earth for her is Lake Baikal. Once she held a party called Trip To Vladivostok, in the country's southeastern corner, 500 miles west of Sapporo, Japan. Although the event attracted only 400 people, Kraviz said it was important for the development of the city's music scene. She dreams about authentic scenes existing in each region, working on their own sound and attracting more locals.
A lot of people now throwing parties in Moscow and Saint Petersburg arrived from elsewhere in Russia. When I asked about how things were going in their home cities, almost everyone said that nothing much was happening, with a couple exceptions—for example, Powder, Sano and resident DJs from Rabitza, Discipline and Arma have all played at Head Bar in Bryansk. трип's goal is shared by ABCD, a promotion group from Izhevsk, a city in the Ural mountains that had a strong experimental scene in early '90s. Bands like Стук Бамбука в XI Часов , Самцы Дронта and Красивая пришла are a part of Izhevsk's legend, in which, for some mysterious reason, many great things happened in a remote place.