Dance, Dance, Revolution!
In St. Petersburg, the electronic music scene is experiencing an unexpected resurgence — and, one dance party at a time, quietly flying in the face of an authoritarian government.
Photographs by Emmie America
IN THE SUMMER OF 2000, when I was 21, I returned to the former Soviet Union for the first time since my family left, as political refugees, in 1988. I spent it interning at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The embassy put up some of its staff in townhomes on the outskirts of town, and one Friday night, the interns gathered in the one I shared with a roommate for a vecherinka, or party — from vecher (“evening”).
It was a strange summer. Russia was even surlier than when my family had left — what meager assurances the Soviet state had provided had vanished in the lawless free-for-all of the 1990s. And I was an outsider once more, though if, in the 1980s, it was because we were Jewish, now it was because I was American.
The intern party kept going until 4 or 5 in the morning; when it was finally over, my roommate and I were so tired that I nearly fell asleep on the stairs to the second floor, slumped against the banister. But I couldn’t, because what was that thumping? Doo-doo-doo. Doo-doo-doo. Slowly, as in a dream, I stirred, and we crawled back downstairs, following the noise into the half-light of morning, through the backyard, past other homes, over a fence, until we fought our way to a lakeside clearing and found ourselves at the tail end of…a rave. I was still in shirt and tie from the office. In other words, I fit in perfectly, and soon we were throwing our hands up as high as they’d go. That night was the high point of an ambivalent summer. While I was gone, Russia had found techno.
When it comes to dissertation subjects, a sociology graduate student could do worse: What kind of American music do immigrant children listen to first? In the uncool part of Brooklyn in the late 1980s, there had been those among us ex-Soviet, Pakistani, and Chinese immigrant kids who went for hip-hop: It was what the Americans — the cool kids — listened to. Others went for heavy metal, because they were as upset as the static in their Walkmans. And then there were those, like me, who listened to techno and trance, because we were lost, too, but we wanted to be happy. The music — joyful, elevating, accepting, anthemic — felt like a repudiation of the disorientation inside us, and of the angry place that we’d fled. In those early American years, I owed my assimilation to a trio of European DJs (Paul Oakenfold, English; Tiësto, Dutch; Paul van Dyk, German) as much as to anything in America. I just never expected that it would be part of what would reconnect me with Russia as well.
AS I GREW OLDER, I stopped going to techno clubs (though I still, sometimes, dance by myself in my living room). Then, a few months ago, a friend in Moscow sent me some SoundCloud links to music by DJs represented by a St. Petersburg electronica label called Roots United: sometimes mellow, sometimes gnarly, as eerie and sticky as anything I’d heard in years. “St. Petersburg?” I wrote him. I had thought the electronica scene was centered, as so much else is, in Moscow. “Oh, yeah,” he wrote back. “Now, Piter” — the Russian diminutive for Peter the Great’s quixotic settlement on the Neva River — “has the best clubs, the best festivals.”
So, I bought a ticket. Perhaps, after years of building up a career and responsible living, I was ready to dance till dawn once again, but it had to do with something else, too. These days, it’s especially difficult to look past the cold wind from the Kremlin, which is every bit as malignant as our intelligence agencies will tell you. Judging by the reactions of some family and friends upon hearing of my trip, some Americans have a hard time imagining that Russia isn’t primarily a country of people waiting to thwack you over the head or hack your email.
But it’s precisely because the Kremlin has such a stranglehold on things at the top — because very few ordinary people have access to the money, influence, and dark power reserved for the financial and political elites — that many subcultures have flourished largely in benign neglect by the authorities. (As long as they stay out of politics, of course.) What I didn’t expect was how vibrantly and defiantly the St. Petersburg electronica scene would embody this informal counterculture — as would the regal city that once represented everything official about the Russian state.
I ARRIVED IN ST. PETERSBURG as it was only beginning to recover from Russia’s Cinderella run to the World Cup quarterfinals; a sense of euphoria hung in the air. It was amplified by the fact that, owing to the city’s far-northern location, the sun hardly sets for a large part of the summer. In other words: ideal dancing conditions.
Natasha Nagovitsina calls it “going on a raid”: club after club until you fall asleep on the dance floor, though one gets the sense that Natasha, one of the most influential club-music promoters and festival organizers in St. Petersburg, doesn’t sleep much. She wanted to give me an overview of the club scene, so I met her — black leather jacket, suede witch slippers studded with little gold mirrors, halo of swirling red hair — at New Holland Island, a new creative cluster in a beautifully refurbished, centuries-old naval works that stages concerts in a circular courtyard surrounded by artisanal eateries. New Holland was financed by the oligarch and Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, reportedly at a cost of $400 million, so it has the feel of a punk-rock museum more than a punk-rock club, though I did see, swaying ahead of us, a sight you’d be hard-pressed to discover outside Russia’s strange mix of the patriarchal and modern: a young woman in waist-length dreadlocks and a perfect French manicure.
It was early in the evening, and the band playing was a Radiohead knockoff, so Natasha, satisfied I’d gotten a glimpse of what the non-techno scene could offer, ushered me into an Uber, and we headed toward Lenfilm, the storied Soviet film studio. There, the organizers of the Gamma Festival — a showcase for industrial techno and ambient electronica — were hosting an opening party of ambient music paired with visual installations.
As skateboarders took flight from the Lenfilm steps, an auditorium filled up with people and reverent silence as two DJs moved through a set of, on the musical side, melancholy noise, and on the visual, an interplay of Malevich-like squares in gray, black, and white. There was nothing to dance to, there were as many people milling outside as inside, and Natasha was ready to go, go, go, but for some reason, I found myself hypnotized by the scene in the tent. Partly, it had to do with the riveted attention those in the audience were giving to the stage: They seemed unembarrassed to be so openly into something. I’d worried that, at 39, I would be walking onto dance platforms to the snickers and eye rolls of kids half my age and twice my fashion sense, but around me I felt only welcome and camaraderie.
WE WERE CLOSING IN ON MIDNIGHT — time, soon, for proper noise — so after a stop at the club Blank (now, sadly, shuttered), on the site of a former military hardware factory on the banks of the Neva, Natasha and I headed to ground zero of the city’s club scene: a vast courtyard off one of St. Petersburg’s most fashionable streets, in full view of its most iconic sight, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. When I expressed surprise that the cluster of clubs there — Stackenschneider (break-beat, that night), Mosaique (techno), and Tantsploshchadka (disco-house) — could afford room in the heart of the city, she gestured at the broken gravel we were crunching across.
“Look under your feet,” she told me. “Everything here is historically protected, so you can’t tear down buildings in St. Petersburg the way they do in Moscow. But there’s no money to fix them up, so they stand in this gorgeous half-ruin.” And that’s why, on Friday and Saturday nights, you can find, on the former grounds of the imperial stables behind the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, not tourist restaurants serving $60 steaks but old sedans, festooned with red balloons, that serve as nitrous oxide dispensaries for the kids streaming into the clubs.
One of the nicest things about dancing in St. Petersburg is that parties take place in venues like former factories or imperial stables, so that even when they’re at their most crowded, you can dance without constantly stepping on someone or them stepping on you, as is one’s inevitable fate in New York. Also, as Natasha and I put away shots of some not-very-good whiskey, I was grateful that no one around me seemed interested in EDM, or the commercial, pop side of dance music today. I met a DJ who was a pioneer of the electronica scene in Kazakhstan, and another whose Crimean techno festival ended up in Vietnam after the Russian invasion. The Kazakh DJ, Nazira, had played at Stackenschneider, but otherwise the DJ roster was mostly local.
“There are, like, seven sunny days a year,” Natasha said by way of explaining the rise of electronica in St. Petersburg. (She was exaggerating — there are closer to…70.) “There’s gorgeous architecture, but it’s a swamp, and it rains all the time. You’ve got to sublimate all that into something.”
RUSSIAN ELECTRONICA WAS BORN IN ST. PETERSBURG when it was still Leningrad. Its proximity to the West at a time of loosening travel restrictions was part of the reason. As Alexei Haas, who founded Tunnel (no relation to the New York nightclub of the same name and period), the first Russian dance club, in St. Petersburg, told an interviewer: “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.”
The twilight of the USSR brought with it the kind of disarray that left central St. Petersburg apartment buildings standing empty after their inhabitants had been moved out for renovations. Ravers took their place. The first night they danced to music mixed on turntables — courtesy of the Latvian DJ Janis, who’d come from Riga — instead of cassette recordings is still talked about worshipfully 30 years later by people who were toddlers at the time.
This fabled history is the personal history of Sergey Lazarev, better known as DJ Kefir, so named because he brought packets of kefir to fortify himself during all-night break-dancing sessions in the mid-1980s, after break dancing made its way over from the West. (In a weird bit of unlikely bedfellowship, it was, at first, supported by the Communist authorities, who saw in it a form of physical wellness.) Like many, he started with rap and hip-hop, but when those genres “became darker, I switched to house,” he told me when we met the morning after my “raid” with Natasha. We talked over breakfast at a blini emporium called Teremok, which — may my departed grandmother forgive me — served me the finest blini I’d ever had, pillowy and with that elusively right dash of sweetness. They weren’t a bad remedy for the previous night’s outing — eight venues, seven hours, one wicked combination of jet lag and hangover — either.
Maybe it was my haze, but I was having a hard time reconciling the youthful face before me with more than three decades on the club scene. Perhaps it’s that, ten years before, during a career slump, Lazarev had taken up long-distance running — “after 80 kilometers, you’re dying, but after 160, you understand you’re alive.” It seemed an equally good description for a long night on the dance floor.
“The great thing about St. Petersburg,” he went on, “is that we were all in it together. You knew everyone, and everyone knew you. We understood nothing, not booking, not lighting, just ran from town to town in the Urals with our turntables trying to explain to security what those things were and why they were fragile. It wasn’t a cloudless time in Russia. The music was a gulp of joy.” He trailed off. “I don’t miss those times, but I do miss the emotions. People came for the music. They would ask, ‘Are you going to play this song?’ They listened to them on their own; they studied them. Now they come to meet someone. But that underground element still exists, and it’s the biggest in this city.”
Kefir’s description of the earnest devotion of early rave-goers flooded me with emotion. Even today, in a country brought so low by its political strictures, there is remarkably little cynicism among a great deal of the youth, perhaps because — especially in a place like St. Petersburg, which has far less money than Moscow — people take few comforts for granted. For instance, a lot of Russian young people live on social media no less than their American counterparts, but they view it with a striking gratitude and lack of jadedness. I’ve never heard one mourn the downsides of connectivity.
“For me,” Kefir said, “it’s all about ‘bring the positive.’ What we listen to today is the most important thing for what we feel tomorrow. You don’t need drugs. If there’s a DJ you trust, if there’s music you trust, just close your eyes, and when you open them, you’ll be a different person.”
THE WEEKEND AFTER I LEFT, thousands of people crowded into a former Siemens ship-cable factory on the remote western tip of Vasilievsky Island, one of the city’s oldest districts, for the Present Perfect Festival, a marquee electronic gathering hosted by Roots United, the electronica label I’d been listening to in advance of my trip. The Roots United office sits on the eastern tip of Vasilievsky; when I met Dmitry Agalakov, the festival’s founder, at a café near it, I asked him what made the St. Petersburg electronica scene different from Moscow’s.
“They have more clubs, but we have more underground music,” he said, alternating between a cigarette and a cascade of festival-related emails and texts on his phone. (In a language half of which sometimes feels borrowed from English, andergraund stands out as the ultimate mark of authenticity.)
Entrepreneurs like the Present Perfect team and Natasha Nagovitsina are doing what they do without any support from the government. “The older people think we suffer from idiocy,” Agalakov said. “They don’t think it’s legitimate culture. But it’s better if it stays that way. When the government starts to help, it’s the beginning of the end.”
Natasha was less forgiving. “Berlin is the world club capital because the city understands it’s a tourism driver, like the World Cup was here, so the government supports it. All we want is not to be interfered with. But they think we’re a bunch of drug addicts. Actually, it’s a huge layer of people,” meaning this wasn’t a small subculture of burnouts. This was what Natasha had wanted me to see, and why she had interrupted her round-the-clock work to meet me. It’s a perfect, black-is-white irony of Russia right now that a corrupt, authoritarian government looks down on this segment of the population while in its general modesty, entrepreneurialism, and patriotism it often represents the best of what Russia can offer.
By “interference,” Natasha was referring to a prominent Moscow electronica festival that had been shut down in 2016 by the authorities hours before its premiere, after months of planning. Everybody in the St. Petersburg electronica scene was still talking about it. (“Somebody probably forgot to share his coke with someone else,” meaning bribes didn’t reach the right hands, as one person explained it to me.) A similar thing had occurred in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, in May, when law enforcement raided two popular dance clubs.
“Do you know what happened there the next day?” Natasha said. “Thousands of people marched on Parliament, set up speakers in the square outside, and danced for 24 hours. And no one touched them. We can only dream about that here. We’re in survival mode — we have so little, and so much to lose. So I’m completely apolitical. I don’t vote. I’m trying to improve the world around me, and that’s it.” She didn’t have to specify that her work constitutes its own modest political rebellion, the greatest a person could afford in an authoritarian state that brutally suppresses dissent. Few Americans I know seem to understand this; almost every American conversation I have about Russia ends with my interlocutor wondering why Russians aren’t flooding the barricades.
Those nostalgic about Soviet notions of customer service will have a fine time in St. Petersburg: After two mornings of being ignored at a coffee shop around the corner from my rental, I gave up and crossed the street to another, called Shchegol (the Goldfinch).
There, the coffee was so fine and the service so friendly that I blurted this out to the proprietor, a young woman named Yevgeniya. We kept talking. It turned out that she loved electronica, too. And she loved Hi-Hat Rooftop, the open-air club where I was going that night. I asked her if she wanted to join, she said yes, I texted DJ Kefir, who had gotten me on the guest list, he secured one more spot, and within minutes I had a new friend and a dancing companion for the evening.
HI-HAT SITS ON THE EDGE of Petrogradsky Island, a middle-class district of apartment blocks and wooded islands, next to a botanical garden that lost most of its plants during World War II, so the ones that survived are marked by special “veteran” war medals. After the requisite awkward hour of standing around, I put away my notebook, and Yevgeniya and I moved onto the dance floor. Around us, the dance floor slowly thickened with everyone from women in heels to tattooed bodies in overalls, all of us periodically submerged by blasts from a fog machine. (And the occasional whiff of some delectable barbecue — almost all Russian clubs enhance the music with visual installations, food, or other blandishments. As Natasha had said about the Russian club scene, “We don’t want only to catch up, we want to get ahead. When I make a festival, there’s going to be a place to put your kids.”)
In the early afternoon, Yevgeniya had surprised me with her friendliness; once we’d met to go to Hi-Hat, however, she’d turned shy and reticent. But a good dance party makes small work of such things. In minutes, she and I were dancing as if we’d known each other for a long time. The music was sublime, the body wanted to move, and that combination filled me with gratitude. It isn’t a cloudless time in Russia once again, and the “gulp of joy,” in DJ Kefir’s words, was enough to blot out the bad weather for a couple of hours. It seems like the electronica scene in St. Petersburg is passing through a perhaps dubious sweet spot: unprosperous enough to remain raw and charmingly real-feeling in a way hard to find in Moscow and Berlin, but advanced enough on the jejune efforts of earlier times to give you one hell of a night on the dance floor.
Yevgeniya and I decided to walk back to our neighborhood, a trip of more than an hour, but St. Petersburg is a lovely walk in the middle of the night in July, when the sky never quite loses a blue edge. This meant we had to leave shortly after midnight in order to cross the Troitsky Bridge before it rose for the night to allow ship traffic through. On the way, I once again mentioned the experience I’d had that morning and the unfortunate ease with which I ran into coarseness, often from older people.
“The people we were just dancing with, they have no connection to the people you’re describing,” she said. “They’re trying to do something different. They’re trying to make their own little country.”
Where to Club in St. Pete
ST. PETERSBURG CLUBS ARE, unlike Moscow’s, fairly inexpensive to get into (covers are almost always under $10), and, unlike America’s, tend to offer unexpected amenities like food courts and bathrooms that (sometimes) stay clean through the night. Bouncers practice “face control” but mainly weed out anyone not sober enough to have a good time. Just get in line, and soon enough, you’ll be in.
Located in a massive Soviet-era ex-railway factory far from the city center, Klub has been deemed “the wildest club in Russia.” Its main dance floor is called Kisloty (Acid). Officially, Klub bans drug sales but otherwise doesn’t interfere with drug use. Come here to dance among the experimental edge of the city’s youth — you’ll see more face tattoos than in the rest of the city combined. Klub hosts an LGBT night, and you’re likelier to see a female DJ spinning than a male one.
Three clubs, situated in different wings of the same large courtyard behind the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Stackenschneider, named after a 19th-century Imperial court architect, is, as Dmitry Agalakov, the local electronica impresario, said, “dark and loud,” with music that tends toward the industrial-brutalist end of things. Tantsploshchadka — “dance floor” in Russian, and the brainchild of a prominent indie rocker named Kirill Ivanov — is “light and green, a happy place,” down to the profusion of fake palm trees, a basketball hoop in the outdoor section, and the kind of disco-house that makes it impossible to keep sitting. Notably, both offer food that’s better than it needs to be, and the same low-shelf liquor selection. Mosaique, the size of a living room, is the minimalist sibling: nothing but the music, and you won’t find any laptops open in front of the DJ — it’s all vinyl.
The multipart outdoor space here is flanked by a massive botanical garden and views of the Neva. Start with several drinks in the tranquil Astroturfed hangout area to the left of the entrance; proceed right to the intimate dance platform, a surrounding rest area, and a bar manned by one of the friendliest bartenders in town. When the clock strikes 11 p.m. and the music ends (it’s an outdoor venue), soak up the booze at the food court that’s been sending blasts of barbecue onto the dance floor all night long.
About the author: Boris Fishman was born in Minsk, Belarus, and immigrated to the United States in 1988. He is the author of the novels A Replacement Life, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal, and Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, which was also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. HarperCollins will publish his next book, Savage Feast, a family memoir told through recipes, in 2019.