Sunday, December 13, 2015, early morning. The party is still going on at Closer, the iconic underground club in Ukraine. Out of nowhere, about 50 police officers, some carrying AK47 assault rifles, come to the dance floor. They shout orders, cut the music and quickly close all exits. The party is over. Some dancers manage to escape, others are being searched head to toe. The club is inspected thoroughly, too. The authorities leave with 100g of marijuana, a few bags of ecstasy and 50g of amphetamines. A successful intervention which will allow the police to brag in front of the media, saying they dismantled a drug hub. Sounds a bit too easy…
Sergey Yatsenko, the club manager, criticizes the operation and talks about yet another way for the police to intimidate him and to get revenge for his unwillingness to agree to their racket, something the Ukrainians are quite used to. Sergey is 6’7 tall and not easy to bully. A few months after the intervention, he talks about it, sitting in one of Closer’s chairs, toying with his black beard that reminds us of Raspoutine’s. “Some people witnessed the cops putting ecstasy bags in the club before the raid. We’ve decided to put cameras so that it won’t happen again.”, he says calmly. In Kiev, fighting against corruption is a daily exercise. At the end of February, the appeals court decided that the closing of the club was illegal. It was a huge relief for the actors of the local alternative scene, who fought hard to support the club. There was even a cheerful demonstration in front of the government building, during which 300 people danced all afternoon afternoon, in front of hesitant police officers.
Bribes, police raids and TV shows
It's Friday in the middle of April, the club is hosting a party with the formula that made its successful come-back possible: booking international DJs (DJ Masda, Margaret Dygas and Bambounou played there), and only allowing dancers over 21 who look like they have a good vibe. The 20-something employees are running around: they’re all friends (some of them even lovers) and call themselves a family. Karine Sarkisian, a spicy brunette with mischievous eyes, is in charge of the bar and some of the booking. She cannot forget the violence of the raid and is particularly mad at Ilya Kiva, the man who was put in charge of the anti-drug police force. “He confessed he once used cocaine and he was recognized guilty for asking bribes…” Just like other underground community members, she blames Kiva for making clubs his scapegoats. The raids he launches on clubs are spectacular and allow him to make them into media coups that he uses for his own career. “He even has his own TV show that he created right after a raid at Closer. It’s a big problem, because people actually believe everything he says about us…” Trax tried to reach him, but he never answered phone calls.
When he aims at Closer, a symbol of the Ukranian night life, Ilya Kiva also puts up a fight with the local artistic scene, which made the club one of their hot spots. The 'family' feels like they’re responsible for some sort of educational mission. When you walk around the 500 square meters of the place, you quickly understand why: there’s a contemporary art gallery upstairs, a shop with creations from young Ukrainians stylists and even a small production studio. Those activities are here to diversify the audience and to legitimize the existence of the club to a very conservative society. The decoration is tastefully decorated and mixes the rawness of stone walls with its chairs' vintage, as chains coming from the ceiling to support the mixing table, sprinkled with Jägermeister logo, and add a touch of BDSM to the atmosphere.
No dancing, just standing
Bogdan is a DJ, a producer, and also an amateur journalist. After taking us for coffee in the heart of Podil, a neighborhood close to Closer, home of students, artists and all the hipsters of the city, he then takes us to for a 30 minutes walk to Maïdan Square. Looking up on the way, we see obese and austere buildings and others looking like they were abandoned. The only eccentricity here is a great hill a few hundred feet from Maïdan, the city center. Independence Square is all empty except a few tourists smiling at their cameras for the mandatory selfie. This is where the orange revolution took place in 2004, following the presidential election fraud of Prime Minister Viktor Ianoukivitch, a pro-Russian politician who had Poutine's full support. His opponent and leader of the populist mouvement, Viktor Iouchtchenko, won the election. However, Ianoukovitch finally made it to the presidential seat in 2010 and the alternative scene in Kiev magically disappears: “Until then, the Хлеб club (pronounce “Rhièlp”, translates into 'bread') organized underground events that allowed the alternative community to get together, Bogdan remembers. But it fell apart with the new decade. only a few people were still going out and all the other events were very mainstream… until Closer opened in 2013.” A few months later, Ianoukovitch chooses Russia over Europe, despite Europe’s will to help. A part of the population got very angry at this and Closer closed for a little while. The tension will end up with the Euro-revolution. This pro-European movement will make Ianoukovitch run away in a helicopter in February 2014, after accusation of the military shooting the crowds.
The progressive youth, very involved in the movement, had no longer the time nor the will to go to clubs at night. All of them were closed anyway, and there are no parties… except for a few: “One night, I was asked to come mix at Maïdan around 4pm. It was -15°C outside, people needed the music and the dancing to keep warm. I had brought my desk but I had to stop after 2 hours, my material had frozen. Another DJ took my place.” As we walk pass a memorial, where a 100 photos are set on a table, Bodgan’s face turns pale. He was part of the medical team during the movement. “All these people died during the revolution. In the end, they died for nothing… The new government is as corrupted as the previous one.” Even though the new members of the government think twice before buying a luxury car, corruption in the DNA of the institutions. After Russia claimed Crimea, the Donbass war and the collapse of the country’s economy, the Ukrainian people ended the revolution with a massive hangover. “I was totally depressed for a few months, I sheltered myself in music”, says Bogdan with a sad face.
Rave against devaluation
The economic collapse and the currency devaluation had important consequences on Kiev’s electronic music scene. Closer had to raise their prices to compensate for the increasing cost of international DJs and the plane tickets. The poorest dancers didn’t keep up and could not longer afford to get in. Around that time, Схемa raves emerged (pronouce “siéma” and translate into 'scheme'). It only cost 150 grivnas (5€) to get in, with local DJs and their reputation rapidly grew. They soon became a reference and took the second place in the best places to go at night in Kiev, and it gave ideas to others. “A few raves, the Ryhtm Büro, were organized with international artists such as Abdulla Rashim or Zadig”. Others raves were thrown in Odessa, the Systema and their success was heard as far as Kiev.
Kiev owes the Cxema to DJ Slava Lepsheev, a cool pale looking guy with very short hair who has been in the nightlife for over 10 years. This afternoon, he is in charge of the setting of the room for his new rave, that will start in just a few hours. He puts away his tools to talk with us and tells us why he started all this: “Cxema was born after the revolution, we wanted to make the nightlife happen again after the hibernation and the cultural shallowness that followed Maïdan. When we started out, I knew everyone in the crowd, but by word-of-mouth, it got big and a whole community gathered around progressive ideas.” The 13 previous raves were organized in disused plants or around a skate-park located under an abandoned bridge. This time, it will take place in a former shipyard that was partly turned into a contemporary art centre. The choice is no coincidence, given the tight ties between the art community and Cxema in Kiev. Around us, we see many people working to make the place look good: the scene, the bar and lights must be ready in just a day. “We rent the places each time, says Slava. But in Ukraine, it takes as much paperwork to organize an event than it does to open a club, so it’s too complicated for us. Thankfully, the police only came once, and they just asked to turn the music down a bit. We always have a lawyer here with us each time, just in case we need to talk to the police.”
Slava Lepsheev and one of his DJ friend
Poor but cool
At 3am, the place looks nothing like it was in the afternoon. Close to 1,000 people are dancing, with highly improbable dance moves. A dark and powerful energy comes out from the audience as the soundsystem spits a dark and loud techno. On the dancefloor our heads turn every 15 feet as we see a girl with pink hair, a guy who looks like he just got out of prison with his orange suit… If more discreet, the normcore look is the most popular: the Ukranian party-goer wears weird sunglasses and a loose bob or a cap, with 90’s styled T-shirts, Nike or Adidas, preferably. “Most of them are from the suburbs”, Nazariy apologizes. She’s the PR for Cxema, and also works for an art institute. “They have really been into fashion for the past few years, even though they cannot afford designer clothes.” They belong to the “poor but cool” generation, that was invented by the Kiev artist Vova Vorotniov. He created T-shirts with the phrase, using the Chanel logo for the double 'o' in 'poor' and 'cool'. “To me, it is really a symbol for our movement”, says Slava.
The party goes hard. Stefan Unkovic, a Serbian DJ booked for the event, cannot believe it: “They party as if there was no tomorrow. It reminds of the legendary parties people told me about in the late 90’s in Belgrade, when the country was into a critical phase, just like Ukraine nowadays.” Partying as a cathartic escape to survive the crisis? Cxema raves are a little like the raves in England in 1988 and 1989, that grew with Thatcher’s ultra-liberalism. Even if it was far less dramatic in England than in Ukraine, these political choices directly hit the English youth.
As the sun comes up, it’s starting to slow down a little. The room stinks with sweat, some have gone to bed, others are taking a nap on the transporting pallets close to the entrance. In front of the stage, some all-nighters are still dancing and seem to have forgotten what « tired » means. Three hours later, a few people applause for the last track, but the party is not over yet. The after party will take place at Club 56, with local heroes playing in a small apartment, in a recently renovated building. There are around 50 people here, and they all know each other.
The next Berlin?
Club 56 is no exception: Otel, with a more experimental programme, looks like a family, too. It is way too soon to talk about Kiev like the “new Berlin”, though. The underground scene only has one club and there is still a lot to conquer. Nazar Prokopiv, head of the Ukranian label Wicked Bass, regrets the lack of producers. “There are about ten producers in Kiev, five of which are good… I’d like to have more, I think it will be the next step.” There is something else the scene lacks: “There are no magazines specialized in electronic music. Just a few articles on blogs from time to time.” When mass media writes about the underground community, it is by no means positive and makes its members look like dangerous junkies to most people.
This emerging scene has nothing to feel shameful for. Its sincerity, zealousness and strong desire to have fun give it magic touch. Closer and Cxema crews won’t stop their efforts. “We’re currently looking for a place to organize a big outdoor festival”, says Karine Sarvisian with a big smile on. There is an electronic music festival in Ukraine, Ostrov, but it’s being accused of showing only mainstream DJs and being too profit oriented. Small festivals at Closer, NextSound or Strichka, every year as the Summer starts, make the underground community much happier. Slava Lepsheev, from Cxema, has a few ideas coming up, too: “What we aim for is a huge festival with 10,000 people, with the best local DJs and some international artists, with a huge setting.” He’s pretty confident about what the authorities will have to say: “Some politicians are starting to take a look at what we do. Two young representatives even attend our parties!”. It is a sign, even if only a small one, that the progressive values the underground community stands for, are spreading, slowly, but surely.