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Crimean Beach Party

Rebecca Lewis A dancer striking a pose.

Photo: Rebecca Lewis

The barbarians are at the gate... the barbarians are on the beach. The barbarians, in fact, are mostly lying around on the sand, smoking a lot, and not using sunblock. Some of them are splashing in the sea; some are flirting with one other. Many have failed to wear bathing suits, or anything else. Occasionally someone wanders over to one of the makeshift bars built into the sand and buys a few little plastic cups of vodka for his friends. But really what they're doing here on the Black Sea coast is waiting for the night, when they'll start dancing and not stop until the sun comes up.

Hundreds of DJ's from all over Europe have brought their records to this beach in Crimea for the Kazantip festival, the monthlong summer dance party that attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year. The hordes are mostly young Ukrainians and Russians, with some reinforcements from other former Soviet republics and, to a lesser extent, the rest of Europe. Ten stages have been built right on the beach, all of them surrounded nightly by dancers gyrating and swaying and occasionally falling down. It's a carefree life here on the western edge of the Crimean Peninsula, a hedonistic corollary to the youthful demonstrations that swept Ukraine during 2004's Orange Revolution, and which essentially brought Viktor Yushchenko to power. The agenda here, however, is freedom rather than democracy.

Kazantip is a dissident dance party, a subculture intended to transform a culture. Or perhaps: a party that reflects a transformation. The quasi-political tenor of the festival is often explicitly silly—the organizers publish a constitution, for example, outlining the rights and obligations of participants, declaring the party a "virtual Republic" and banning the use of tuxedos, bow ties, and other formal wear, among many other stipulations. To enter the Republic, you buy a "viza," an entry card with a bar code that flashes your picture on a computer screen for security personnel as you pass by.

The organizers of the festival advertise a breakaway entity made up of equal parts new freedom, new attitude, and youthful frenzy, apart from normal life in Ukraine and Russia, and it is surely that. Concrete political goals are at a minimum, and perhaps that's part of the legacy of Communism's fall—after a half century of constant, dominating political pressure on the culture, asserting the right to exist outside the political sphere is an extraordinary cultural moment, a political act in itself. "This is not Russia," says Oleg Mukhanov, a young lawyer from Rostov-on-Don. "This is not Ukraine. This is something else."

For many Ukrainians, the Orange Revolution was an essential step in casting off the old shadow of imperial ambitions from outside the country—at last, a movement toward real independence. Kazantip styles itself a step ahead, embracing irony and paradox: it uses a political image to imagine a society without politics. But as this past year in Ukraine has proven, with Yushchenko wrapped in a strangling cloth of his own problems—from accusations of corruption within his own administration, to the firing of superstar Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, to a disastrous battle over gas with Russia last winter—there really is no such thing.

Kazantip has taken place every summer in Crimea since 1993 and now brings large numbers to the Kazantip Republic, a mostly self-contained enclave of hipsters. The original party was held on the beach near a defunct nuclear power station on Cape Kazantip (in remote, northeastern Crimea), but the local authorities eventually got tired of the revelry and forced the festival to move. The organizers found a new spot on the west coast the next year, and now it's a full-fledged dance revolution that happens on the beach near the hamlet of Popovka.

Ukraine—and particularly Crimea itself—has certainly seen its share of conquering hordes, though not typically the half-naked and dancing variety. On the north shore of the Black Sea, about 375 miles north of Istanbul, Crimea seems to have been missed by none of the heavyweights in the history of pillaging. The Goths, ever the pioneers, sacked the place first, followed by the Huns, the Khazars, and, after a few less famous pillaging peoples, the Mongols and the Turks (both the Tatars and, later, the Ottomans). Meanwhile, some Slavic peoples had begun arriving—the princes of Kiev and their minions—and after the Ottomans were chased out in the late 18th century, Crimea was annexed by the Russian Empire. It became a garden spot for Russian intellectuals and then for vacations for Soviet party officials; in 1954, Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Soviet Ukraine. Finally, in 1992, Crimea flirted with independence but eventually agreed to remain part of newly sovereign Ukraine, officially an autonomous republic within the nation.

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