The Rise of the St. Petersburg Rave

An eyewitness account of the early Russian rave scene by Alexei Yurchak.

Youth partying at Planetarium. Photo by Igor Bystriy

On June 9, Gosha Rubchinskiy will be presenting his SS18 collection in St. Petersburg, the birthplace of Russian rave subculture of the late 1980s and early 1990s. To complement the show, which was inspired by the rave aesthetic, INRUSSIA has created a book that serves as a contextual guide to the movement and features photographs as well as interviews from its key participants. Below is an excerpt from UC Berkeley anthropology professor Alexei Yurchak's essay “Gagarin and the Rave Kids,” which is also included in the book. The text presents a firsthand account of the birth of the phenomenon and its various cultural nuances.

In the late 1980s, perestroika dramatically changed the political and symbolic contexts of nonofficial cultural production. Soviet borders grew porous, and many members of the last Soviet generation began to travel to the West. The steady drizzle of nonofficial cultural imports turned into a sudden downpour. Concurrently, the relentless public attacks on the party, ideology, and state institutions of power reached their zenith. These factors provided unique material and context for nonofficial symbolic creativity and led to the emergence of a new type of youth subculture organized by a group of unofficial artists, musicians, and their friends in St. Petersburg, who produced the first all-night dance parties of the Soviet era, ultimately spreading them to the rest of St. Petersburg, to Moscow, and then to other cities.  

Many members of the nonofficial cultural scene in St. Petersburg were among the first to travel to the West. They were in a privileged position, because for such travel one needed a legal invitation from someone abroad to obtain a Russian exit visa and a foreign entrance visa. Many of these artists and musicians had foreign friends who traveled to the Soviet Union, including foreign art students, journalists, and even festival organizers and exhibition curators. Westerners also became increasingly interested in the newly available glimpse of Soviet unofficial art. And for their part, many Soviet artists traveling in Western Europe encountered forms of youth culture, such as dance clubs and all-night raves, that could not exist in Soviet times, even in the nonofficial sphere, for various reasons, not the least of which was state control over time and space. 

Alexei Khaas, the founder of the first Russian dance club Tunnel (opened in St. Petersburg in May 1993), described his first encounter of the West to me: “In 1988 in Stockholm I went to the club called Mars located in a former subway station. The place was full of transvestites. Everyone was happy. I watched all night how the DJ played records and decided that we must have this in St. Petersburg.” Artist and critic Timur Novikov, whom the Russian press has dubbed “the ideologue of youth culture,” had a similar experience: “When in 1988 I found myself for the first time abroad and visited night clubs, I thought that this was the most interesting of those things that we did not have in Russia.” Through their ability to travel and their unique positions as purveyors of nonofficial cultural forms, these artists were able to emerge as the producers of a new subculture, recognizing which Western cultural material to draw on, yet transforming it to fit existing Russian cultural demands and the temporary vacuum of state power. 

Ravers at Tunnel. Photos by Igor Bystriy

Another late perestroika development was the emergence of a new type of quasi-private place in the city. In the centralized universe of a socialist city, the older buildings at the center were always renovated according to a centrally managed plan. The city administration began the renovation process of a building by moving its inhabitants into new apartments, usually in the suburbs. During late perestroika, however, the city administration unexpectedly underwent tremendous turmoil and turnover (during the first free elections in 1989, for example, the Leningrad City Council was voted out). The country entered a transition period marked by considerably diminished power in the official state institutions. Thus, many buildings previously emptied for renovations were “forgotten” by the authorities. During the general disarray of the period, however, the electricity, heat, and water supplies were often not cut off. 

One such forgotten building was an old apartment block close to the city center on the embankment of the Fontanka River, No.145. In 1988, a group of artists, musicians, and their friends moved into two of its many large apartments. Since the apartments did not belong to anyone, and were in fact supposed to be demolished, the artists felt free to change the physical layout. They broke down the walls dividing rooms to create a large dance hall 10 by 20 meters in size, painted the walls, and restored the molding on the ceilings. Basically, they did what the New Russians started doing several years later when they bought communal apartments and turned them into large, pleasant spaces for themselves. 

The building was still connected to electricity, heat, and water, but no municipal agency kept track of their consumption. The new inhabitants even managed to connect to a phone line in the courtyard and could make outgoing calls. They started listening to different recordings of Western house music and worked on the design of the place, trying to reproduce the atmosphere of a Western nightclub. Soon they started inviting friends and friends of friends, “a group of young people who liked to have fun,” for the first all-night dance parties to house music. 

Georgy Guryananov painting at Fontanka 145. Photo via Alexei Khaas archive

The birth of such utopian places as Fontanka 145, controlled by neither the state, the market, nor the previously ubiquitous gaze of the Soviet collective (all the other apartments were unoccupied), was possible only between the late 1980s and the early 1990s. During that window, the old institutional relations of power had been almost completely suspended, but new ones had not yet replaced them. The general critical disposition of society during perestroika and the chaos in the state institutions left even the police baffled. During several particularly loud parties, remembers Alexei Khaas, a couple policemen attracted by the noise knocked on the apartment door and asked its new inhabitants to turn down the volume. The policemen were almost apologetic. They thought everything was legal and did not request any residence papers. The idea of squatters was still beyond them, as was any association of techno music with drugs.

Such utopian places can be better understood in terms of Hakim Bey’s “Temporary Autonomous Zones” (TAZs), which he defines as decentralized experiments that exist outside the legal framework of state-controlled society, connected by informal networks of communications through a loose and shifting membership. These zones exist in the unofficial sphere, and often center on extraordinary “peak experiences,” which Bey compares to “mini-revolutions” that do not directly confront the state. 

The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the state, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the state can crush it. Because the state is concerned primarily with simulation rather than substance, the TAZ can occupy these areas clandestinely and carry on its festal purposes for quite a while in relative peace… Its greatest strength lies in its invisibility – the state cannot recognize it because history has no definition of it. As soon as the TAZ is named (represented, mediated), it must vanish, it will vanish, leaving behind it an empty husk, only to spring up again somewhere else, once again invisible because undefinable in terms of the spectacle. The TAZ is thus a perfect tactic for an era in which the state is omnipresent and all-powerful and yet simultaneously riddled with cracks and vacancies. 

Perhaps Bey’s definitions of the autonomous are too idealistic and even utopian. In fact, temporary autonomous zones are never quite free from the state. However, the unusually high degree of such freedom in certain moments and spaces makes his concept very potent for our analysis. The apartment on Fontanka 145 became the site of such a TAZ, a space suspended outside the institutional state power, an ideal place for new creative experiments. 

Ravers at Fontanka 145. Photos via Alexei Khaas archive

The inhabitants of the Fontanka apartment experimented with music, light, design, clothes, dance styles, drugs, and ways of organizing a large all-night dance party. The parties were primarily held on Saturdays, and for the first year they were closed and exclusive, with a strict policy of face control at the door that preserved the unusually private and relaxed atmosphere of the apartment and the necessary conditions for an unrestrained creative process. The place functioned as a large, private club. 

The parties, which became known as hauz-vecherinki, continued between the spring of 1989 and 1991 and became popular enough that more people wanted to get in than the place could hold. Eventually these organizers started charging 3 rubles (then $2-3) at the door. These first parties were organized practically for free – rent and electricity were free, and equipment, music tapes and later records, and materials for designs were usually brought from the trips to the West or were gifts from foreign visitors. This situation gradually changed, and by the time the first big public raves took place the organizers had entered into complex financial relationships with new businesses and quasi-criminal groups. 

Each night the dance party was treated as an important cultural event for which everyone waited impatiently and in which great artistic resources were invested.

The original regular partygoers included several dozen artists, rock musicians, and their local and foreign friends, who represented a visible part of the city’s unofficial cultural scene. Many at the parties looked strikingly different from the Soviet public outside, with rings in ears and noses, dyed hair, and unusual and colorful clothes. Gays, who were forced to keep a low profile in the official sphere, were visible and relaxed. Anyone could openly experiment with transvestism – a marker of club culture in the West. 

The new house music, in which the DJ played a creative role by constantly mixing and sampling, provided great potential for experimentation and learning. At first, the only house music available for the parties was on tapes brought from Europe that were simply played on a tape recorder all night. Soon, however, several party goers (some later became famous DJs) started mixing music from reel splayed on reel-to-reel recorders. At the time, the only real DJ in the USSR – someone who actually mixed from records and not reels—was Janis from Riga, Latvia. The Latvians, who had strong cultural links with West Germany, learned about rave culture before anyone else in the country. Janis was invited to play at Fontanka, and he brought his own records and a turntable, thus providing the opportunity for his hosts to experiment with record mixing. Within a year, by 1989, Fontanka 145 had its own turntables and a wider variety of house records brought by friends from Sweden. By that time the scene had also expanded to include younger people, in their late teens and early 20s, many of whom today are active promoters and DJs in the night dance subculture. 

Planetarium. Photo via Alexei Khaas archive

The nightlife subculture reinterprets such central concepts of modern urban life as time and space. All the parties happen late at night – in the past, the time exclusively controlled by the Soviet state, when no public events could take place. Increasingly they have taken place in traditionally state-controlled spaces. For example, Tunnel, was launched by Alexei Khaas (in 1992 in St. Petersburg) in a former fallout shelter belonging to a nearby factory. This was the post-Soviet reality: bankrupt industrial enterprises, research institutes, museums, and palaces of culture, formerly subsidized by the state.

Gor’kii Dom (Bitter House) was held in 1992 in St. Petersburg’s Gorky House of Culture. The project focused on symbols that had survived perestroika and the collapse of the state. This focus provided grounding and continuity for new, post-Soviet symbolic creativity. The mixing of symbols is evident again even in the name of the event. Here “gor’kii” (bitter)  is used to mean both the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, founder of socialist realism, and “bitter” drugs. “Dom” (house) refers to both the Soviet “House of Culture” and house music. The party began at midnight with the performance of a choir of World War II veterans, who sang war songs familiar to the audience of young ravers from childhood. That performance was received by the audience with utter respect and without any cynicism. These traditional patriotic symbols, when put in the context of a rave party, at first seem paradoxical. However, this procedure freed these traditional symbols from both the ideological Soviet pathos previously attached to them and the public shattering to which they were being subjected by some groups of moralistic intelligentsia.

Photos by Igor Bystriy

Symbols were reinterpreted and made relevant for the post-Soviet, future-oriented youth culture. This active reinterpretation of recently state-owned and ideologically charged symbols occurred at many rave parties. As with house music – which is continuously remixed, sampled, and quoted in new contexts – here, former official symbols were also remixed and presented in new contexts and in a fresh, nonlinear format. They were sampled by editing pieces of a heretofore united symbolic tapestry out of their traditional place in the Soviet culture of symbols and out of their new place in anti-Soviet criticism. Thus, the new “symbolic samples,” containing quotes from past and recent Soviet meanings, were placed into a dynamic new cultural context.

This dynamic symbolic creativity at the time of the political power vacuum played a significant role in producing new cultural forms and meanings for the coming social order. Groups of artists and designers quickly gathered around the movement, and much creative work went into the preparation of every event. Each night the dance party was treated as an important cultural event for which everyone waited impatiently and in which great artistic resources were invested. The phenomenon grew so big that in 1991-1992 most art exhibitions ceased in St. Petersburg, having been replaced by the night parties as the most serious, carefully prepared, and massive artistic projects. 

Alexei Khaas spinning vinyls at Fontanka 145. Photo via Alexei Khaas archive

After the early 1990s, the scene experienced major changes. Although the night parties became more common, the symbolic order in the country was increasingly acquiring new official and nonofficial organizational principles, and the power void was being quickly replaced by new relations of power and types of control. It became less easy for procedures of the night dance subculture to take advantage of the official and nonofficial powers ignorance of them. The state, the police, the media, the market, the Mafia, and their various combinations reentered the temporary autonomous zones. 

For example, such places as Fontanka 145 and 10 Pushkinskaia could not emerge today, although some of them still exist and may still continue to function for quite a while on a limited scale. No longer can one suddenly occupy large official spaces and escape the control of the state, the market, and the Mafia. The changing official laws and the entry of the Mafia into security and business arrangements, and even into sponsoring the night dance parties, played a critical role in the construction of a cohesive subculture. The organizers of night parties had to explore new structural opportunities and limitations, and to become more businesslike and inventive in negotiating and dealing with these official and nonofficial powers. Purely by virtue of its longevity, popularity, and ability to permeate pop culture, the original closed rave scene was prepared to undergo a transformation. 

All these internal and external factors contributed to the closure of the temporary autonomous zone and the transformation of the relatively small and experimental cultural phenomenon of night dances into a large, institutionalized subculture with its own trendy symbols, people, and lifestyles. As is often the case,the transformation occurred through an ever-growing demand for access to the hallowed halls of the subculture’s origins, to the primary places of cultural dissemination, through the demand for trendy music, clothes, images, and ideas. 

The book continues the collaboration between INRUSSIA and Gosha Rubchinskiy, which began with a guidebook to Kaliningrad and a short film about the designer’s AW17 show in Russia’s westernmost city.