Russian rave

Midnight In Russia: A History Of Clubbing & Raves in Moscow

There’s a large chandelier covered in Swarovski crystals that hangs above. Ordinarily, it would act as the centre piece in any other room. But this is not just any other room. The chandelier hangs from the high ceiling in the bar, but as you look around there is also a stone fire place. There is a large row of custom-made brown leather settees, a flight of marble stairs that lead up beyond the first floor. Scantily clad women dance all through the night in the thick windowsills of the Soho Rooms. In between their hypnotic movements you can peer outside into the street, as people regularly climb out of Lamborghinis, Porsches and Ferraris. Looking down at their ludicrously expensive watches, they probably wouldn’t notice you. Among this Moscow community, money speaks in a language most of us have never and will never speak.

It has been widely reported that Moscow has the greatest nightlife in the world. But it wasn’t always that way. In 1991 Russia actually had no nightclubs at all; no extravagant clubs, no $15,000 VIP tables, and no after parties on Joseph Stalin’s boat The Maxim Gorky, where endless supplies of Cristal and beautiful women existed. And there was certainly very little hints of all that which would later arrive in the form of the “New Russians”.

The Soviet Union disbanded at the end of 1991 and it would effectively usher in a new era in Russia, and especially in its capital. People were suddenly able to enjoy freedom’s they hadn’t previously been afforded. In ‘Gagarin and the Rave Kids’ it states, “The emergence of the nightclub subculture has been one of the most noteworthy changes in Russian youth culture in the first post-Soviet decade.” After decades and decades of being controlled, Russians openly welcomed the opportunity to craft new identities for themselves. However, the changes can’t necessarily be solely attributed to the Soviet Union’s decline. Alterations in behaviour and ideology were already occurring in the youth years prior to it.

The first signs of a thriving late night music scene in Russia was when the art community began to purchase abandoned buildings in the late 1980’s. They redesigned them and began hosting all-night parties for themselves and their friends. At this early juncture, the buildings were no longer controlled by the state and it started an underground movement for the disenfranchised youth. “It wasn’t controlled by the Soviet collective… This was only possible between the late 80’s and early 90’s. During this window, the old institutional relations of power had been almost completely suspended but new ones had not yet replaced them.”

The Gagarin Party, held in December 1991, was the city’s first legitimate club party for many. It was attended by hundreds of people from St Petersburg, and thousands of people from the Moscow art scene. The annual Gagarin Party quickly began to gain traction, as organised music events started to crop up with increasing frequency around Russia. “The Gagarin Party was the first legendary rave that activists from the Northern City, Ivan Salmaksov, Eugeny Birman and the Haas brothers organised. These parties were the pioneers of club history in Moscow,” Passport Magazine reported.

Elena Krivovyaz pointed out in The Golden Age of Nightlife in Moscow, “the development of nightclubs in the mid-1990s was a true revolution in Russia. The clubs were not only places to be entertained, they were the centres of new lifestyles.” With Russia’s economy surging thanks to rising oil prices, an upper class was expanded upon. This newfound wealth triggered the rise of the so called “New Russians” as they revelled in the excess. “Interiors became fairly salubrious. Rich and bohemian club-goers visited the clubs and then boasted about their experiences. Clubbers essentially became a kind of elite community.”

In 1993 the legendary Alexei Gorobiy set up one of Moscow’s first nightclubs, Penthouse. It was clear that the capital craved elegant excess. The ensuing onslaught of clubs (Titanic, Jazz Café, Zeppelin and First) clearly played on this. But Gorobiy and his associates recognised and capitalised on this better than anyone else. He catered to the appetites and contributed to the constantly changing landscape of clubs that opened and closed all within the space of a few months. Gorobiy alone creating Shambala, Zima, Leto and Osen within three short years. Seemingly, the trick in Moscow became to appeal to the widespread sense of debauchery, while also closing down before anyone could become bored. “We knew the date of our death,” Gorobiy said in Brett Forrest’s Vanity Fair article from 2006. “Everything operated on a tight schedule. The closing-night invitations were printed up the evening each club opened.”

This type of spending both by businesses and consumers never appeared sustainable though. “As the economy reformed the aggregate income of Russia’s wealthiest 10 percent increased by 50 percent,” Forrest wrote. “Those benefiting from the second-largest oil exports in the world were concentrated in the Russian capital…Yet the richest three dozen people in Russia had a net worth of nearly a quarter of the country’s G.D.P.”

While the upper class was happy to indulge, a new generation of youths later came into the club scene and were unimpressed by what they saw. No longer new or exciting, the scene didn’t appeal to them like it had their predecessors, who had grown up under the control of the Soviet Union. In Beg, Steal, or Borrow: New Beats From Moscow Finn Cohen stated, “There is now a unique generation of Russians who were born during the Soviet Union. They were teenagers during the turbulent 90’s when the country buckled under the weight of capitalism ingested too quickly.”

The elite society of the Moscow clubbers still continues, but it is no longer the defining image of the Russian scene. “The club scene doesn’t represent the posh Moscow of high heels and pink Bentleys. It’s a growing alternative to commercialisation and oil-industry standards of living,” Philipp Gorbachev observed for Electronic Beats.

Hard bass initially captured the imagination of Russian youths, as they sought a different type of music to listen to, dance to, and to call their own. It originated in St Petersburg after the dawn of the millennium. “At some point in late 2010 hard bass slipped under the digital Iron Curtain. It then made its way onto YouTube, pump dancing into the collective global consciousness,” Aleks Eror wrote in Noisey. The next years spawned numerous imitations as hard bass fans appeared all over YouTube from places as far reaching as Slovakia, France and Chile.

By then though Russian music had already moved onto its next big thing. The youth of the day continuing to push towards creating their own individual identities and scenes. These new raves were often hosted in places other than nightclubs though; theatres, museums and outdoor areas becoming the favourites. The media described this new post-Soviet generation as modniki (trendy people) or reivery (ravers). For a city that previously shunned the underground, it was interesting to note its continued rise in the shadows of youth club culture.

In 2009, “Witch House” was created and found its adopted home in Moscow. “Why is it so popular? Because it’s so dark and edgy, which goes so well with our reality,” electronic musician Evgenia Nedosekina said. “If you want to wear black and take part in a rave in some factory, witch house is the way to go.” VV17CHOU7, as the party was termed, quickly became hugely popular with youths. In fact, in 2014 it was the biggest new party in Russia. VV17CHOU7 saw everybody attending, “wearing black and sportswear… dancing to the dark sound of trance samples and deep pulsing bass.” It was a discernible step away from velvet jackets, table service, and Versace handbags.

However it didn’t stay like that for long in the constantly evolving Moscow. An off-shoot called “Skotoboinya” (Slaughterhouse) was quickly created and prospered, and a late-night club scene quickly began to evolve (or re-evolve) around it. As Cohen hilariously pointed out, during the days of the “New Russians” the music on the dance floor was invariably the “generic ‘ntsk-ntsk-ntsk’ of Euro disco. The kind that always features a woman soulfully crooning some phrase that sounds inspirational in the context of strobe lights and cocaine.”

Now though, Moscow has had plenty of time to adjust to that glamorous blend of excess, money and music. While it was attempting to break free from control upon the first decade of the Soviets Union’s collapse, enough time has passed that the scene is finding its feet, among an exciting, less fiscally exclusive environment. Music is at the forefront as the club scene in Moscow continues to evolve away from just fancy and expensive clubs catering to the rich. “A new community in Moscow has been marinating itself in a diverse brew of hip-hop, punk, dubstep, rave, Russian pop, video games and vintage Soviet film soundtracks,” Cohen noted. This integration can surely only bode well for the future of Russian youth’s, music and club culture.

But what has grown out from under the collapse of the Soviet Union in just 25 years is astounding. There have been a number of transformations during that near three decade spell. The barren emptiness of the late 80’s was firstly replaced with the early dawning of club culture. What then grew from the art scene was a lavish display of wealth in the form of grandiose nightclubs and extravagant parties. But as money continues to flow into the hands of a select few, a more causal and eclectic scene has been created. In the ever changing metropolis of Moscow, what might come next is anyone’s guess.

Image: Dazed Digital