Leading Lights: How Kiev and Tbilisi’s dancefloors became hotbeds for social change
They called it The Second Summer of Love, that brief moment in the late 80s when acid house and the rise of ecstasy collided and rave was born. It’s a period of UK dance history which has been so thoroughly mythologised that even those too young to experience it seem to feel the nostalgia. Rave wasn’t the first music movement to have an impact on British society, but its drug-fuelled, anarchic hedonism upset the establishment like no other. In fear of its rebellious spirit, the government tried to clamp down on the free party scene, drafting the notorious Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in 1994.
23 years later, there’s not much politics left on UK dancefloors. Pockets of activism remain in parties that are trying to make clubs safer, more inclusive spaces, but huge swathes of nightlife have been commercially co-opted, politically sanitised and rebranded as mainstream entertainment.
Yet there are parties across the world where clubbing remains intimately entangled with politics, where the heartbeat of social resistance pulses under the 4/4, and in 2017 they continued to thrive. One of the most explicitly political club movements started in Tbilisi, Georgia. Between the gleaming curves of the city’s modern architecture and the meandering pastel streets of its old town is Dinamo football stadium. Beneath the stark Soviet structure, in the poured concrete of an empty swimming pool, a club called Bassiani spearheaded a new counter-cultural movement in Georgian nightlife.
In 2014, Bassiani was born from an absence. “In the late 2000s, the club scene was empty of context. It was just entertainment, not even the music was a priority,” says co-founder Tato Getia. He comes from a politicised generation, who have witnessed wars and water shortages since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union, but found politics conspicuously absent from club culture.
“We realised that it's on our shoulders to strive for our rights against oppression and corruption.”
In any city where young people have had their hope, their freedom or their futures taken away, the personal liberation and communion offered by clubs can be a powerful engine for optimism and change. The music was always key: in just three years Bassiani have turned an unknown club circuit in the Caucasus mountains into a destination with world-class line-ups, hosting label showcases from Ilian Tape, Hessle Audio and Lobster Theremin in 2017 alone.
Yet Bassiani soon took on a more overt activist agenda. “We realised that it’s on our shoulders to strive for our rights against oppression and corruption,” he says. “No one else is going to do it for us.” This was the beginning of Bassiani’s involvement with the White Noise movement, an activist group who campaign against police oppression, homophobia and Georgia’s draconian drug policies. In a country where possession of a tiny amount of cannabis can land you in prison and anti-homophobia protestors are beaten in the streets, the Bassiani founders sit on drug policy reform panels and run a monthly LGBTQ night called Horoom.
“The clubbing world is helping to build one of the strongest movements in the history of independent Georgia,” Getia says, with an understandable hint of pride. “Nothing can stop this.”
In late October of this year, just across the Black Sea from Georgia, armed police raided Kiev club Jugendhub. Dozens of dancers were beaten, arrested, and even enlisted into military service. But just like legislation, police raids couldn’t stop the dance. While Bassiani is explicitly tied to activism, Kiev’s club scene represents something subtler. Their politics is grounded in an anti-establishment ethos, the defiant creation of a space for pleasure and free expression amidst an oppressive police apparatus.
Since April 2014, Slava Lepsheev has been throwing parties in warehouses, skate parks and under bridges in Kiev. At first the Cxema (pronounced schema) raves were created to fill the void left by Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, when a series of violent clashes between police and protestors resulted in the ousting of the President. “When the revolution happened everything stopped,” Lepsheev tells me through the translation of colleague Hanna Vasyk. “It was a frozen scene without anything interesting going on, so we had to start again from scratch.”
“The clubbing world is helping to build one of the strongest movements in the history of independent Georgia.”
Lepsheev’s first parties gathered 100 people to dance to techno in an abandoned factory. Today Cxema counts 2000 attendees. At a typical night you can just make out young dancers throwing angular shapes in thick clouds of smoke, their uniform a hybrid of rave trackies and post-apocalyptic chic. They take showcases outside of the country, recently to Berlin’s Tresor, yet their focus remains doggedly local, featuring almost exclusively Ukrainian DJs.
It’s no coincidence that Cxema appeared immediately after Ukraine’s bloody revolution, yet that doesn’t mean young ravers see clubbing as a deliberately political act. Lepsheev explains: “If you asked clubbers in Kiev four years ago, ‘why are you partying? Why are you going to Cxema? Are you consciously protesting?’ all the 16-year-olds would say, ‘No, we just want to have fun and dance.’”
Just because someone doesn’t think what they’re doing is political, it doesn’t mean what they’re doing is not political, I suggest. When she hears this, Vasyk replies heatedly without turning to Lepsheev to translate: “Absolutely. Political scientists will call it political. After some time has passed, they’ll write about it in their books. But those people who witness it and live in that moment haven’t necessarily evaluated their actions, desires or choices as political.” Just like the UK rave scene, which acquired its political identity rather than starting out with one, Cxema’s existence has only assumed its resistance narrative when viewed through the lens of history.
Though their stories and contexts are different, the scenes in Kiev and Tbilisi both prove one point: that clubbing still offered a vital chance for unity in 2017, both within a country and with the wider world. In political terms, both parties bring locals together while giving them an international reach, a possibility to be culturally connected with the rest of the world. This is particularly significant in ex-Soviet countries which have been so historically closed off. But there’s also a cosmic connection. When you go to a sweaty basement and let loose to banging techno you enter something far greater than yourself, greater even than politics – clubbing at its purest, an expression of joy through movement and music, a defiant liberation of body and soul. And that can happen anywhere.