Crimean Beach Party
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Crimean Beach Party

Rebecca Lewis A dancer striking a pose. Rebecca Lewis
At the Kazantip festival in Crimea, in post–Orange Revolution Ukraine, the dance tracks play night and day and freedom is in the air.

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.

Which is pretty much what Kazantip wants to be: an
autonomous republic. The organizers have built an enormous,
pseudo-classical stone structure ("It's like our
Brandenburg Gate," says Sergei Litvinovsky, one of the
festival's "foreign ministers"), which acts as the only
entry to the beach. About five football fields' worth of
sand has been fenced off, with impromptu bars and food
shacks set up on the beach around the stages: a main stage
with huge video screens, a Eurodance floor built under what
looks like a jungle-gym geodesic dome, a sea stage on
stilts placed about 100 feet into the waves. The sound
track is a set of dance mixes: electronic music of varying
styles, like house, trance, and so on, the sort of noise
that sounds to most people over 30 a little like an alarm
system for a military installation complemented by heavy
bass, but is curiously effective at getting you to move
your arms and legs.

Most of the revelers have rented rooms in Popovka and spend
the afternoon on the beach before taking short after-dinner
naps and showing up to dance around midnight. There are a
few who make visits to the cities of Crimea—the beach
resort Yalta, where the great powers split up Europe after
World War II, or Sevastopol, the Soviet military city that
was forbidden ground to visitors until 1996—but not
many. There's music almost 24 hours a day, and the dancers
wander mostly between the beach and their rooms. The local
roosters are confused by the whole thing, the all-day and
all-night activity setting their internal clocks at all the
wrong times, and so with no idea what time it is they end
up crowing all day.

It's a strange sort of boon to the area's residents, who
see an unearthly rise in income with the influx of visitors
willing to pay near-Western prices for food and lodging and
who have jerry-rigged barbecue shacks and T-shirt stands
along the path to the beach. The effects of Kazantip are
immediately apparent: new buildings, to provide rentable
rooms to the partyers, are popping up all over the little
town. The local population is, of course, not quite sure
what to make of the wealthy young visitors, decked out in
beads and sarongs or, sometimes, nothing at all.

It's a pretty big boon to the organizers, too: a viza to
get in costs about $50, and around 50,000 people come to
the show over the course of the four weeks. That's $2.5
million. Not to mention bar receipts. And herein lies,
perhaps, the real revolution: this is not the summer of
love, but rather the summer of capitalism. "We're making a
brand," says Roland Stach, a Swiss national who lives in
St. Petersburg and helps organize the festival. The
branding of culture has long been routine within American
capitalism. As subcultures grow in popularity, they begin
to be normalized, introduced to the mainstream. Which is to
say, in a free capitalist society, anything that makes
money is normal. Still, drinking vodka on the beach all day
and dancing all night hardly feels like standard day-to-day
life. "One week here," says DJ Ebola, who traveled from
Düsseldorf to spin at Kazantip, "I think it is minus
five years of your life."

"What you are talking about, so serious?" a young Russian
says, noticing us off away from the crowd without any vodka
in our hands. "What you are doing?You are wasting time! If
you are not drinking or dancing there is something wrong!
And nothing wrong is allowed to be here!"

For information about this year's Kazantip festival, see

Dan Halpern has written for the New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker.

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