Underground clubs and startups: On Kyiv's subcultural revolution

22 December 2016
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One of the legacies of the Maidan in Kyiv is a subcultural revolution that retains its momentum to this day, albeit under increasingly precarious circumstances. Luigi Spinola talks to the DJs, entrepreneurs and politicians who know the scene best.

Shamil Khakimzyanov never stands still. He shifts endlessly from one foot to the other; the thumping beat of the electronic music makes it hard to follow what he’s saying. He’s satisfied. It’s four in the morning, and after a limp start, the club is now bursting at the seams, the DJ’s on a roll, the crowd is swaying. The rave was organized by his promo group, Reset. And success here at Closer is crucial on the Ukrainian underground scene, which is his world. The club is reached by climbing the steps of a disused factory in Podil, the old trading hub of Kyiv, overlooking the river Dnepr. Here, a few years ago, clubs, spontaneous raves, creative communities and start-up hothouses began springing up in shabby buildings and shipyard hangars. “Closer began three years ago, when a group which organized parties decided to settle in one location”, says Shamil. “We’re celebrating its birthday this week”. The timing coincides with the Maidan uprising, which began on November 21 2013: on that day, a handful of students and activists met at the column of Independence Square to protest against president Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the partnership agreement with the European Union. Ten days later, when the police beat the youngsters to a pulp, the protests turned into mass demos against the regime. “Yes, things have more or less changed since then, with the revolution”, Shamil confirms. “Today, the Kyiv underground scene comprises a lot more people, and they are a lot more involved”. And almost all of them were born after the end of the USSR. They go to raves organized by Cxema in garages or under bridges, and to the Rhythm Buro secret parties. In the summer months, those who can go as far as Port club in Odessa. But the best place is Closer, Shamil reassures us.

People even come here from abroad. Vladimir is visiting from Belarus for the weekend. His hair is in dreadlocks. He lives in Minsk, where he teaches African percussion, but was born near Chernobyl. He was one of those children who would spend part of each summer in Italy, hosted by a family – his was near Bergamo. He often comes to Kyiv to see his friend Andrii. Before, they would meet in Koktebel in Crimea, the hangout of choice for post-Soviet hippy types. “We’d rent a hut and spend the whole time playing music or rolling joints”, he says. However, the Crimea has been off limits since the Russian invasion, so they meet in Kyiv, which is fine by Vladimir. “There are no clubs like this in Belarus. And nobody would dare demonstrate in the streets, like they did here. The police would smash you to pieces with their truncheons. Nothing will change for as long as our batka (father) Lukashenko is alive”. Until he dies, Vladimir makes trips to Closer. This time he’s brought along his girlfriend too, “to let her feel the freedom there is in this area”.

Shamil’s club economy

However, geopolitics is hardly a defining standard when it comes to music. The bartender Irina suggests we return to Closer next week, when the Russians will be on the turntables. “Russian DJs are better”, she tells us, although unable to explain why. “They’ve got more money, more energy, Russia is more of everything”. Shamil was born in Russia: his family is from Tatarstan in the heart of the Caucasus. His father left immediately after the collapse of the USSR. “He wanted to open his own business, and the mafia here was less evil and advanced than at home”. He’s got nothing against the Russians. “It’s not North Korea. We’re brothers, and I’m sure that when the president changes, things will change there too. And maybe they’ll join the European Union as well. What do you reckon?”. Now, though, doing business is more difficult in Moscow. “There’s more stuff happening, but more uncertainty too. In July, the authorities cancelled the Outline festival at the last minute. That way you lose all the money”. Under Vladimir Putin, he concludes, you can’t work properly. But he can’t support himself in Kyiv either through techno alone. Shamil is good at what he does, he gets foreign artists with fees of ten thousand euros to come to the festivals he organizes, and soon he’ll also be launching his own vinyl record label. But it’s not enough. He quickly goes through the figures. “A record costs ten euros, here on average we earn 300 to 400 euros a month. If you’re really into it you buy ten records and that’s a third of your salary up in smoke”, he jokes. His theory on the club economy, “If the economy is strong, people have money for superfluous things like clubs. And they put that money back into circulation”.

It’s not like that now. The economy shrank by 6.8 per cent in 2014, by 12 per cent last year. And after the collapse of the local currency, which lost two thirds of its value in a triple crash, life is sweet for people visiting from abroad with euros; but it can be very bitter indeed for those living in a nation that produces little to nothing. And even paying the 180 grivna on the door at Closer (six euros at current exchange rates), becomes an impossible challenge for many.

So for now, underground culture is a hobby – by day, Shamil is an “energy efficiency consultant” – or at most on a mission, as his friend Nikita Ierashev explains. Ierashev is launching Picnic, Ukraine’s first magazine dedicated solely to electronic music: “Most people come here for the raves and to take pills. We want to spread a little cultural revolution”. While waiting for the political one to pick up again, “we don’t expect funding for culture like underground festivals get in Europe, but we’d at least like to stop paying kickbacks”.

Something did change after the season of Maidan, they say. But not enough. “The revolution took place, but it was never completed”, according to Shamil. “But we’re still in motion. Either we go ahead and become like Berlin, or the government will try to throw a spanner in the works. In which case, who knows”.

Closer club, Kyiv, in October 2016. Photo: Lorenzo Pesce (Contrasto)

Berlin is a beacon. The city is home to clubs with cult status, such as Berghain. Shamil has only glimpsed the place, because entering the EU costs a lot, even for just a few days. But it was enough. “Now we know how they live in the rest of Europe. We want the same for us. And we have the potential to manage it. Why should we give up on it? In Berlin the wall fell – here it hasn’t yet. We’ve done about 80 per cent of the work. What’s missing? I don’t know, maybe we have to kill the oligarchs – but then they’d ruin our karma”, he laughs.

He was born in 1989 – that’s still the hump to get over. “But the iron curtain is something that old people have in their heads, not us”, he says. “It’s not a question of ideology of geopolitics, but of age. People born during the Soviet Union have other priorities. If the revolution stops, it will be time to change things, when those born after the end of the USSR will gradually begin to count more”.

Culture, business and politics

“The reference to Berlin is spot-on”, says the MP Sergii Leshchenko at Honey, one of the trendy bars in the centre of Kyiv, where breakfast costs as much as a day’s wages for the middle classes. “Here, the same thing is happening as happened in Berlin after the wall fell, when the techno music boom happened. These are vibrant times. And clubs, like start-ups or street art, are part of the revolution”. So much so that after Yanukovych fell from power, when a police chief seeking consensus tried to shut down Closer, a protest rave outside the main government building forced him to reopen the club.

Leshchenko is familiar with the underground scene. His girlfriend is Anastasia Topolskaja alias Nastia, Ukraine’s most famous female DJ. But he has other credentials, other than nightclub connections, for talking about change. He worked at the bellicose Ukrainska Pravda and was the investigative journalist most feared by those in power during the old regime. After the Maidan victory he decided to go into politics, along with his friends and demonstration leaders Svitlana Zalishchuk and Mustafa Nayyam; Nayyam is the son of Afghan emigrés and went down in history as the man who triggered the revolution with a Facebook post.

The mini clash of civilizations around Closer is part of a generational clash which, Leshchenko says, “affects all sectors in Ukraine: culture, business and above all politics, with the newcomers pushing for change, and the elite hanging onto old privileges”. However, on the other side of the generational barricade, there’s another, non-elitist, Ukraine; instead of techno, it prefers sentimental Italian pop of the kind that was popular during the USSR, and the most they’ll do to get high is wash down their salo (lard and raw onion, the national dish, even more so than borsch), with horilka, the cheap local vodka – which is never bad, because as the Russian saying goes, “there are two kinds of vodka, good and excellent; bad vodka doesn’t exist”.

The rupture described by Leshchenko can be intolerable, depending on when you were born. Two dates of birth are equivalent to two systems, two curriculums – one of which is irremediably compromised, as explained by Vitali Sych, editor-in-chief of Novoje Vremja, the most widely-read weekly of the new Ukraine: “Here, job offers are frequently aimed only at people below the age of 35 or 40. They don’t want people with experience, because they’re bad experiences: they don’t have the right skills and mentality. But it’s hard for people who are being excluded. My mother is sixty, she’s looking for work, and says, ‘What am I supposed to do? I can hardly knock years off'”.

Like Sergii Leshchenko, Svitlana Zalishchuk also gets heated when talking about the revolution, but she knows that the social and economic context in Ukraine is far from helpful: “We’re one of the poorest countries in Europe, and before you can appreciate freedom, you’ve got to at least have the money to put clothes on your child’s back”. She is not entirely convinced by the theory of the generational conflict applied to politics. “The point isn’t age”, she says, “but your mentality and where you come from. If you’re a product of the old system and have skeletons in the cupboard, you don’t dare move, because you’re open to blackmail”.

A little window

She herself isn’t. She comes from civic society, she says proudly. And she underlines how much it has grown in the past few years. “That’s the real transformation. Our minds have changed. Three or four years ago, we didn’t even know what a volunteer was. Now one citizen in five is engaged in the most diverse fields”. She claims to have founded “the NGO most critical of the regime”, the Centre of United Actions, at the age of 26. Now she’s 33, and is champing at the bit in parliament.

“In 2014, a little window opened to enter the system and change it from the inside. We climbed in before it shut”, Leshchenko explains. The youngsters of Maidan found space on the list of candidates headed by the president of the republic and chocolate king, Petro Poroshenko. Their political current is called “Euro-optimistic” but the experience was disappointing. And since then, the government’s popularity rating has fallen as much as the GDP, crashing down to 6.8 per cent of consensus, according to a survey in late October. “What’s politics like? Can I swear?”, jokes Svitlana Zalishchuk. “Let’s say that from up close, it’s a lot worse than I’d expected. We made a compromise, using the President’s party as a tram to take us where we wanted to go. But we got squashed by it”.

Svitlana hasn’t given in yet, but it is hard, she admits. “For a quarter of a century, the intertwining of politics and the economy was the cornerstone of the ‘new’ system, which inherited the vices of the old one. We managed to break the oligarchs’ monopoly over politics, but that doesn’t mean they no longer count. They are still the most powerful, influential figures in the country”.

In today’s political system, she estimates that only one in ten is in favour of change. “The problem is that the energy of Maidan has dispersed; now we have to create our own force to consolidate the results of the revolution”. Basically, what’s needed is a party, and they have taken one. Svitlana Zalishchuk has become the co-leader of DemAlliance, a one-of-a-kind liberal formation held together, she says, “by the fight against corruption”.

Ukraine is at the same level as African kleptocracies, according to the charts compiled by Transparency International. Here, corruption is the Moloch you always find yourself faced with. And it is indicated as the true enemy to be beaten – much more so than Russia.

“The fight against corruption was the driving force behind the revolution of dignity”, as they call Euromaidan in Ukraine. So says Daria Kalenyuk, one of the country’s most highly respected activists. “Every Ukrainian has to deal with it. You pay to get your child into nursery or into university, to get medical treatment, for everything. And it’s easier to live if you follow the rules of the game. But there is growing intolerance, especially among young people who travel and understand that here they’re being robbed. Until they revolt”.

It was the same for her, too. She was a lawyer, which in Ukraine, she explains, means mediating between those who pay and those who pocket kickbacks. “I couldn’t accept it”. So she founded the Anticorruption Group, which campaigns to push through impactful legislation and to make information regarding large bodies of wealth more openly available. Her NGO is one of the new players that, in the post-Maidan era, is continuing to put pressure on those in power.

A good revolutionary push

But that’s not enough. Ukraine has a structural problem in terms of the concentration of wealth. In 2013, the year of the revolution, the country’s 50 richest men owned more than 45 per cent of the GDP, more than double that in Russia. This also has heavy consequences on the health of the economy, not just that of democracy. And since then, things haven’t changed a great deal. “The oligarchs profit by investing in the political system, not in their own businesses. They sell poor-quality goods and raw materials at overblown prices, thanks to licences and contracts that are gifted to them by the State”, Kalenyuk explains. Alongside this elephantine economy, however, a stream of young entrepreneurs is making Ukraine into a rather unlikely start-up nation; in 2015 it had more than two thousand businesses, and 20 thousand IT engineers. A Ukraine which is travelling fast, perhaps too fast. You can meet this Ukraine at the Open Data 1991 incubator, near the flame-red building of the Taras Shevchenko National University, or at the Hub 4.0 co-working space in Podil.

Ivan Seleznov is 20 years old. Along with two peers, he launched the OpenWorld project which aims at making Ukraine’s cities more accessible to the visually impaired, by developing a system of Bluetooth beacons linked to an app. “The revolution provided a good push”, he says. “The town councils are more open to these projects now”. Four municipalities, Kyiv first and foremost, have already ordered the device. However, the attempt to raise capital using crowdfunding was more or less a failure. Why? “I imagine it’s hard to think of this kind of social innovation when people are still going without fundamental goods”, Ivan lets slip with a hint of embarrassment.

Alex Patsalo, the founder of Digit24, also fears being a little too ahead of his time. His start-up uses a single device to turn a home into a smart house. “Selling it here is very difficult”, he says. “People don’t even know what a smart house is”. He raised the money needed to launch it through a Ukrainian business angel. He was lucky. Until not long ago, one of his colleagues says laughingly, start-uppers who failed to repay their debts ended up at the bottom of the River Dnepr. Now, potential investors are getting the concept of business risk into their heads. “But our agreements with them wouldn’t stand up in court, there’s a lack of the right legal and judiciary structure for doing business”, Alex explains. “It’s hard to breathe easy”. So as soon as the papers are drawn up, Digit24 will move to Delaware, in the United States.

Between science and business

A lot of people have the States in mind. They hope to replicate the fairytale of Jan Kourm, a boy from suburban Kyiv who emigrated to Mountain View, where he founded the messaging colossus WhatsApp, before selling it to Facebook for 19 billion dollars. But not Dariya Loseva. She’s changed her mind. “I wanted to do a doctorate abroad”, she says, “but the revolution convinced me to stay”. She studied genetics, and at university she noticed that many of its uses are not available in Ukraine. So, with her course mate Ruslana Shadrina and two other young women – all under thirty, Loseva herself is 27 – she founded the company MyHelix, which suggests personalized diets based on DNA analysis.

Podil area of Kyiv, October 2016. Photo: Lorenzo Pesce (Contrasto)

At the Open Data 1991 incubator, the four scientists learned the basic skills necessary to become entrepreneurs. Although actually, Loseva explains, “we set up the company in order to continue doing research. When you’ve been bitten by the bug, it’s hard to stop. And since we weren’t getting government funding, the idea is to invest part of the money we make back into research. And we want to do it here”.

They move nimbly between science and business, but that’s a bridge which Ukraine has trouble crossing. “I think it’s part of our soviet heritage”, says Daria. Scientists are shut up in academia, and businesspeople don’t go and seek them out. “They don’t feel at home in an incubator”, stresses Oleksandra Alokhina, marketing manager, “where creatives, scientists and business experts have to learn to work together. It’s new to us, I myself didn’t know what it was a year ago”.

They smile upon learning that the European Union supports young female entrepreneurs. “Yes”, says Loseva, “I’ve noticed that in the west, the fact that we’re four young women is acknowledged. It isn’t here”. However, Alokhina does believe that the conflict has changed something. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living in one of those stories from the Second World War: the boys out on the front line, while we work away behind the scenes”.

At the Microsoft offices that host the incubator, the war seems light years away. But Alokhina feels it, no doubt about that. “Many of us know people who are on the front, almost everyone has someone on their mind”. She was born and raised in Mariupol in Donbas, which became a battleground in spring 2014. She hasn’t returned since the conflict broke out. “My mother is still there. We lived near the frontier with Russia, but now she’s moved house. She couldn’t take hearing the gunshots any more. I don’t want to go back, even though I feel guilty about it”.

Many of the volunteers who left for the frontline were involved in Maidan, she says. “And they aren’t the right-wing extremists who were polluting the square”, she points out. “Many of my university friends, IT experts or start-uppers with no military training, set off to fight from one day to the next”.

Some were later recruited by the information technology brigades, founded to fight battles in cyberspace.

A misunderstanding to unravel

Maxim Korzhenevsky did not go to the front, but has done his bit in the cyberbattle of Maidan; with the organization Logistic Headquarters, he set up the technological infrastructure necessary to occupy the square. Through a call centre, he regulated the flow and life of volunteers coming from outside. “The real battle was fought in terms of physical resistance”, he says. “If you were tired, hungry or freezing cold, we found you food and somewhere to sleep. And we’d organize shifts to allow the square to be defended at all times. They thought they’d screw us over with “general winter”, and they didn’t succeed”. Maxim is amused as he gives a detailed account of the moves and countermoves of the duel with Russian hackers, who tried to send the system haywire. Until victory came. “I shafted the KGB”, he concludes.

Maxim’s laughter is happy, raucous and contagious. It’s an evening of celebration. A slice of Kyiv’s information technology community has gathered at the Mezzanine for Sasha’s birthday – he’s the biggest party animal of the group. The Mezzanine is just one flight of steps away from Closer, but it’s a more relaxed club. Its clientele is more grown-up – they could be the older brothers of the regulars at Closer – and the music is softer too. Ruki’v Bryuki have just finished their set. Aleksander, the group’s 32-year-old frontman, is dressed like Elvis Presley in the 1950s – at the height of the Cold War – but sings rockabilly, rhythm & blues and mambo to his own lyrics, in both Russian and Ukrainian. “Half and half. Before we only spoke Russian, now we’re all trying to speak Ukrainian. But that’s the way it should be”, he adds rather sheepishly. Then the DJ puts on Aukyton – a cult group back when the USSR was in its final throes – and everyone goes crazy. Including Maxim.

Now Maxim has gone back to normal life, with a full time job in internet payments security. “When the protest began, I wrote to my partners, ‘There’s a revolution going on in my country and I have to take part’. And I left running the business to somebody else”, he tells us the next day at home. “After that, I spent every moment thinking how I could help Maidan. Every so often I’d swap over with my wife Olesia, and we’d stay at home relaxing with Fedor”, their son, who was three at the time. Maxim joined the protests because the police physically attacked the students. “If they hadn’t beaten those kids with that level of violence, there wouldn’t have been any Maidan. They crossed a red line, and there was no going back. Europe has only got so much to do with it”.

That’s a misunderstanding which people in Kyiv are keen to unravel. “Abroad, you are convinced that Maidan began to protest against the decision to not sign the agreement with Europe”, says Vitalij Sych, the editor of Novoje Vremja. “But that’s not what triggered the mass demonstrations. The Maidan movement formed because one night, they beat boys and girls until they were bleeding. The next day, we expected to hear apologies, resignations, we wanted to hear them tell us that it wasn’t something normal. But there was nothing. For those in power, that was the way it should be. Two days later a hundred thousand people took to the streets. Because we didn’t want to go on living in that kind of society. And we weren’t going to go away until it had changed. If anything, that was, and is, the Europe we have in mind”.

The Chinchillas

Kyiv’s pro-Europeans consider EU citizens to be spoilt brats who take the benefits of integration for granted. “I’ve got Polish friends who are always moaning, and I tell them, you just can’t remember the way things used to be. Now you can travel wherever you want. If something happens to your daughter, you can get justice in a court. And that’s what Europe is, the translation of the changes achieved”, says Sych.

As a politician, Svitlana Zalishchuk underlines the fact that “it is difficult for us to discuss integration with an EU which is disintegrating”, but the community’s structure is of little interest here, much less geopolitics. “Things are more simple than that”, Sych insists. “On one side we have Russia: there’s no real press freedom, there’s no competition in economic terms and in politics. And corruption is rife. On the other side there’s Europe: you can’t kill journalists, you can open a business, say and think more or less whatever you want. There are people who have seen Russia. And then seen Europe. And they’ve chosen. That’s all there is to it”.

That is why people in Ukraine often stress what great hurdles they face if they want to leave the country and head west. Like Shamil, in the middle of the night at Closer – totting up the figures, and adding the conditions imposed on him to the cost of the visa. And Sergii Leshchenko gets heated when talking about it; he believes that in the battle to change Ukraine, the turning point will be the liberalization of visas, something which is imminent for short stays (up to 90 days) following the agreement signed in Brussels in early December.

“It’s fundamental for us to see how other Europeans live, and understand how to achieve that”, he says. And having dipped his last piece of bread in his eggs benedict at Honey, Leshchenko looks up and says, “We are the tail end of a long wave of democratization which began thirty years ago, but are leading the way in the Soviet Union. We know that all eyes are upon us. And after us, sooner or later it will be Russia’s time too”.

Maxim isn’t so far-sighted. In many ways he already feels he’s won. He realized this a few days before Yanukovych fled. “I was with some friends and their children, and when the police started to charge we began running. At one point we overtook an old lady who was standing still. She looked at us in astonishment and shouted, ‘What are you doing, there are a lot more of us than them’. You just couldn’t have continued escaping, you would have felt like a shit for the rest of your life. So we started running towards them. And for the first time, I saw them run the other way. It was just a moment – then there were other clashes, very harsh ones, with victims too – but something changed in my mind. There, the police aren’t beating us anymore. And that’s no small thing. Nowadays policemen are so soft that we call them chinchillas. The rest will come”.

Published 22 December 2016

Original in English
Translation by Catherine Salbashian
First published in Internazionale, 14 December 2016 (Italian version); Eurozine (English version)

© Luigi Spinola, Lorenzo Pesce / Internazionale / Eurozine


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