On the Belarus-Russia ‘integration’ and our electronic music scene (unpublished interview)

A wooden Putin vs. fridge magnets with Belarusian symbols at a Minsk souvenir shop

These days the people of Belarus are worried about our country’s destiny. On the 8th of December the Belarusian and Russian presidents are going to sign some agreement on a ‘deeper integration’ of our countries. The details are mostly unknown - they were not discussed neither with the people nor with the parliament. We only get rumours, leaks or fantasies about a supra-state Parliament and Government, a common legislation and currency etc. We are afraid that our country will lose its independence - if not immediately, in a forceful or soft annexation, then gradually. Not everyone would be happy about it. Even the Lukashenko’s sociologists claim that only 7.7% of the population wants Belarus to become a part of the Russian Federation. But anything might happen. There will be protests, that’s for sure. The Belarusians have good guerilla traditions - but no one wants a civil/hybrid war here.

And it seems that no one except the Belarusians cares or even knows about this ‘integration’ issue. It’s almost nonexistent issue on the global or European news agenda - and even many (sort of) forward thinking people in Russia know nothing about it.

Some of my friends and colleagues are trying to fill this info gap - like the Minsk Urban Platform in their article. I’ve remembered about an unpublished interview draft and thought i should share it with my foreign friends and fans.

Rory Jones, a journalist from the UK, has asked me a few questions this spring for a Calvert Journal feature about the Belarusian electronic scene. Rory was really keen about our scene so I decided to tell way more than he needed for a short article. I believe a bit of context always helps.

Below is a half of the original interview text, including the pieces that were published. I’ve omitted a couple of questions about my personal ‘music evolution’ and activities. Here are just the bits about the scene and the situation in and around Belarus in general.


- How has the scene in Belarus grown/evolved from when you started DJing to today?

It got more commercialized, compartmentalized and regulated. No more big DIY raves of the early 2000s in secret or half-secret locations are possible. You need a permit from the state for a festival or a concert and the event should be held in specially designated and equipped places. That’s reasonable, but limits the choice of spaces and formats. There used to be open-air raves with 5 different stages somewhere in the woods - with 1-2 thousand people brought there by buses. Smaller underground events do happen in forests and ruins, but now promoters don’t risk doing a bigger event without a permit. But a rave under the police surveillance or at venue owned by a big bank is not a rave to me. Cordoned fun is no fun. As for the ‘less wild’ and more technically complex events like our Mental Force Festival, there’s still a lack of suitable spaces.

Through all the 25+ years of our scene’s history promoters were struggling to find money to cover their cost. In the last couple of years the alcohol brands started to sponsor parties and festivals and, sadly, these brands are the headliners on party posters now. DJs and musicians change but the brands remain on top of the list and capitalize on the scene’s coolness much more than they spend. I fear than in a few years they’ll be telling us and the younger ravers that without them the scene wouldn’t happen and survive. This support of artists and scenes is a marketing ploy for brands, not a charity - let’s not deceive ourselves. Yes, it’s good for tactical goals of promoters but it’s a cancer for the scene. I don’t want to be a part of this culture that’s why I play less now.

For most of the scene’s history, the promoters were also dreaming to have a club run by people from the scene itself, not some guy who has other business mentality - that would allow a bit of stability in organizing regular events. Only recently it has started to change.

- How does the rave scene in Belarus differ from those in other countries like Russia, Germany, the UK?

Our scene relies more on the ‘local supply’ - our own DJs and musicians. Good foreign artists still rarely play here - promoters just can’t afford to book them and the public can’t afford paying higher ticket prices. Until recently, visas were also big obstacle for bringing international artists - if you’re constantly touring it’s hard to find time to apply for a visa at the embassy, so very often they were obtaining visas at the airport - which was more expensive and often lead to event cancellations at the last moment.

We have many good DJs who play music that is available everywhere else, but I think the scene’s unique flavour is in our local artists. Our musicians and top-notch and deserve a wider publicity.

Another difference is the lack of music and cultural media that regularly cover the ‘unofficial’ culture. In the major countries with well-developed scenes the music media has always been very strong - which sometimes leads to many really mediocre artists to be known globally while more talented artists from poorer countries stay invisible. The state of media industry largely depends on the economic factors. And Belarus is still one of the poorest countries in Europe - hence its problems.

In the UK and Germany this scene has always had a different place - it wasn’t just a strange music for freaks and geeks, or a 100% counterculture - but an integral part of the entertainment industry. Here it was more ‘existentially’ important for its participants. After the soviet times of ‘fake equality’ and ‘forced equalisation’ it became a crucial tool for many people to build their identity, to distance from the old - and the current - state ideology and stale, conservative culture. DJs, artists, promoters and curators are essentially working as cultural diplomats for more than 25 years now, helping to integrate Belarus - at least part of its culture and populace - into a European and global context.

The scene has learned to survive on its own, with minimum input from the outside, in an underground and in harsh economic situation. The political dimension - living in an authoritarian country - is a super important factor too. You will hear many promoters and DJs saying ‘music is beyond politics!’. It’s bullshit, music is social and political whether you aware of it or not. But many people - and the scene in general - are ostensibly apolitical. It’s a tactic to stay away from the government’s close attention. But you can meet many artists, DJs, promoters at political protests. (In 2010 I played techno at a demonstration in front of the Hungarian Parliament during the elections. ‘Next time in Minsk?’ - joked the organizers. I still can’t imagine a techno demonstration\parade happening in Belarus.)

In general, the electronic music is seen by the authorities as just a minor source of annoyance - because of noise, maybe some illegal entrepreneurship or drugs. Rock music, critical contemporary art, Belarusian language and native culture, minority rights and civil society in general are deemed more dangerous for the regime which stays largely pro-Russian/pro-Soviet - even though now the regime’s own existence is threatened by Russia much more than by any imaginary revolutionaries.

(A ‘backstage’ of a state festival in Minsk, 2019)

- Has the relaxation of visa regulations brought more foreign interest to the scene? Do you think more tourists visiting the country will benefit electronic music in Belarus?

The short-term visa-free entrance introduced in 2017 has really made life simpler for the promoters, foreign artists and tourists. It was much easier for us to organize a festival (Unsound Dislocation x Mental Force). But it doesn’t work the other way around - Belarusians still pay 60 Euro for an EU visa, and it’s going to be 80 Euro soon. UK and US visas are even more expensive. That’s one of the obstacles for our artists being booked abroad.

As for the influence of this step on the electronic scene - I don’t notice it yet - neither in the media coverage nor in terms of tourists flows. Indeed, I’ve met a bit more foreigners at the parties and myself took a couple of them to a really underground little club away from the tourist routes - but with an amazing DIY sound-system and uncompromising techno.

But without a local friend, how many tourists will end up at a good electronic party, not in a seedy or posh bar or some shisha place? How many of them will care to look for the artist’s info and releases? How many journalists would actually come and dig? Besides, any money surplus from the tourists will mostly affect the revenues of bars and clubs - who almost never share this money with the promoters (and via them to artists). So, I doubt it’ll seriously affect the earnings of musicians, DJs and VJs in a short term perspective - which is a key issue in maintaining ‘artistic sustainability’. But in the long run - yes, I hope more people will discover and share information about our scene and its music.

- Do you think Minsk could compete one day with major clubbing destinations like Moscow and Berlin?

Short answer:

No. Our closest neighbours, partners and ‘competitors’ - are Vilnius, Kyiv and Warsaw.

I do hope that some of the tourists who initially come to Belarus for its ‘post-soviet exotica’ will eventually be chasing not just the ‘ghosts of communism’ or attractive partners but will care to discover our unique cultures - contemporary or traditional - those aspects of Belarus that are no Soviet. Music is just one of the culture’s facets worth exploring.

Long answer:

You have to understand the economic and political context. Berlin is the business and cultural center of Germany, the biggest driving force of the EU. It’ll be increasingly more attractive for the UK creatives because of the looming Brexit. Also, today Germany is one of the working examples of democracy. Berlin is just twice bigger than Minsk but is a much more tolerant, multicultural and prosperous place.

Moscow is yet another story - a huge metropolis with huge money and resources sucked from the whole Russia - and from the neighbouring countries. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians work in Russia because of unemployment and low wages at home. Many artistic talents from Belarus moved to Russia to earn their living and realise their projects (including people from Arma/Outline team). But Russia is an authoritarian state - a sort of like Belarus but much more capitalistic, resourceful - and openly aggressive and militarist. Any truly non-conformist, underground culture will always be suffering there - and here too - until their regime changes. Will it ever happen?

Yes, their entertainment sector attracts many tourists by this ‘political exotica’. A Russian techno artist Nikita Zabelin said that the bigger interest in Russian and Ukrainian techno scene is largely caused by the politics - and by Putin’s actions. But this can end anytime, depending on the authorities will. Putin is a contemporary wannabee-Hitler dreaming about the global domination- will he be stopped? There was a thriving culture and tourists in Berlin even under Nazis - for some time.

It’s a shame, when the media and people start paying attention to some places in connection with some political distress. There are great scenes in the post-soviet countries worthy of global attention, and I personally don’t want my country to become ‘next exotic destination’ only after it gets annexed or devastated by Russia.

(I must admit that I also disapprove of the ‘New East’ label that Calvert journal or The Guardian are using for this region. The term harks back to imperialist, colonialist tradition of exoticising the other and searching for the newer and newer ‘Easts’. There’s a great article about this issue written by my former students who are now good art curators/culture activists - Бывший Запад и Новый Восток )

Belarus has already suffered a lot from Berlin vs Moscow struggle for influence in Europe - contemporary Minsk itself is a result of these forces clash. It was erased by both sides during WW2, then rebuilt by the Soviets as a completely different city - as a ‘window display’ of the Soviet utopia.

Today Belarus is Russia’s political and economic hostage. Even such a small step as a visa-free entrance has greatly annoyed the Russian authorities. It’s really hard to predict subtle cultural or economic processes, when our country’s very independence is under threat. Our society is split along the political and cultural vectors (East, West, isolationist etc) and in the case of a probable annexation it can descend to a civil/hybrid war - like we see at Donbass. Donetsk was once a gig-destination for many Belarusian DJs. There are no raves and tourists there now.

If Belarus survives and will be allowed to develop its own steps, hopefully not only tourists would come - but some people who emigrated and scattered around the globe would come back. I’m hoping that Minsk - or more importantly, the whole Belarus - will have a more or less balanced economy, healthy music scene and thriving culture.

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