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How Russian youth is raving into a bold new future

For the nation’s youth it is more than just a weekend but a conscious choice about the world they want to belong to, today and tomorrow – watch a film about it here

A crowd of youngsters are lounging on the floor in the vast space of a disused factory, taking a break from dancing. Sunglasses are out and the crowd on the dancefloor is still big, despite the glistening of smoke and sweat that’s getting caught in the morning light. This could easily be Berlin or London, but these are scenes from the heart of Moscow, and in this city raves remain truly special. For Russian youth it is more than just a weekend pastime — but a conscious choice about the world they want to belong to, today and tomorrow.  

Although Russian youth culture still looks fresh and new to the Western eye, it has its own history dating back a few decades, and its own 90s rave explosion. In his latest collection, Gosha Rubchinskiy tapped into the underground St Petersburg rave legacy, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. One of the pivotal moments was the 1991 Gagarin Party, named after the Soviet space hero, which had three thousand ravers dancing amongst the derelict satellites and rocket engines mounted on plinths in Moscow’s All-Russia Exhibition Center.

Since then, dozens of clubs, night and producers have been and gone — but raves still remain a symbol of the new free young energy. While in places like Berlin or London, rave is an accepted element of cultural legacy, in Russia it is still the domain of the young at heart, and the ones who believe in the global brotherhood of night wanderers which lies beyond politics and borders. Seeking to capture this special energy, filmmaker and photographer Stas G and musician and director Nikita Voronin teamed up for a project about the now defunct Moscow’s cult techno institution, Arma17.

“At the techno parties I felt the challenge to the society, rebellion which I felt was missing in the punk music today” – Nikita Voronin

Located in a huge brick building of a former gas plant, Arma17 was a true techno temple. The idea for the project first emerged when Nikita Voronin, previously involved in post-punk and hardcore music scenes and studying documentary filmmaking, decided to somehow preserve the club’s unique imprint on the city’s youth.

“At the techno parties I felt the challenge to the society, rebellion which I felt was missing in the punk music today,” he recalls. “It was a kind of intimate riot, only known to you and people around you on the dancefloor. To be honest, the overall idea of the project up to this day remains slightly vague for me — I still don’t understand what the hell was happening to me at the time. Maybe it was the adult world which I entered but didn’t manage to accept straight away, maybe I became more sensitive to the problems of people around me, and particularly the young generation. In any case, both were linked to electronic music”.

“Arma parties were different not only from other nights in Moscow but also from all the parties in Europe I’ve been to”, Stas G remembers. “It was about the scale and extensive preparation: every event was like a mini-festival with several dancefloors and complex set design created by artists. The atmosphere was also special: the parties took place once in a couple of months, and it was an event everybody was anticipating and preparing for. It was a kind of party where you’d just go wild.”  

In Arma on a weekly basis, he’d bring a VHS camera and film everything around him. “As I wasn’t missing a single party, at some point I felt that I was witnessing the emerging of something new and exceptional in Moscow — the new community, new parties, new people. Mostly we were trying to document some traits which reflected the Arma nights: bits of set design, lighting, the space, interesting people. It was sort of an imprint of the unique moment,” he says.

In the video, a cross between an art film and a documentary, scenes from the club are overlaid with a monologue which Nikita describes as “contemporary interpretation and exploitation of gonzo journalism”. At times, it’s witty and over the top, and at times incredibly sincere. Through this juxtaposition, it also becomes evident that it’s not just about Arma — but something much bigger. It’s not just about a club or a party but about the Russian rave movement as a whole. Today, it also looks like a postcard from a world which has vanished. Arma17 shut down in 2014 due to the redevelopment of the building and its surrounding territories.

“Everyone knows, any party, event or club can be shut down any moment, at times using force”

The 2016 Outline festival, organised by Arma’s creator Natasha Abelle and her team, was shut down on the day by authorities. Since then, bureaucracy and the unpredictable actions of local authorities have been the reasons for the cancellation of a few Arma events.

Despite the obvious opposition of the state-endorsed values to the ones of rave culture – family and wholesomeness vs freedom, self-expression and hedonism – the authorities’ position is hardly ever articulated. Instead, the promoters face endless windmills of obtaining approvals from various governmental organs, and a general aura of distrust and disapproval. Everyone knows that any party, event or club can be shut down at any moment, at times using force, and existence within this brief moment of freedom make the morning hours of raving even sweeter. 

Moscow’s major club destinations Monasterio and Solyanka have closed in the recent years, mainly for financial reasons. At the same time, even in the wake of the financial crisis which hit Russia in 2015, Moscow’s DIY spaces, like NII and Rabitsa, are on the rise and keep the party going.

“Russians of the new generations, the ones who are now younger than 22, are absolutely careless radicals” – Nikita Voronin

At the centre of the film, documented in its nostalgic VHS hues, are the young Russian party-goers, oblivious not just to tomorrow, but to time itself. At the same time, it’s far from just being pure escapism and is also about the ever-present ideological collision of the old and new in the Russian society. “The fact that Arma was so popular among Moscow’s youth only proves that there is a whole new generation which wants something different from what the state could provide or what is considered important to older people,” says Stas G. “This generation has another priority and entirely different worldview. And the fact that Arma team could not work in Russia anymore and had to leave the country only proves that there is not yet enough space for alternative youth culture”.  

“Russians of the new generations, the ones who are now younger than 22, are absolutely careless radicals”, Nikita adds. “Their ideas about reality are for now quite far removed from the actual situation. I don’t judge them, I think it happens to every new generation. Overall, I’m happy that they are more open to the world than everyone before them. As the power structures are dominated by the same people who’d been there since the late 90s, the confrontation with the authorities is unavoidable — the eternal conflict of fathers and sons, nothing new”.

Some could say that today Moscow’s rave scene is not what it used to be, and the closure of Arma17 is the sign of its decline. But the truth is, all the great parties become great because they have to end. It’s a part of the continuous rebirth, a unique moment in history — and a small fracture of the bigger movement.