Crimean Beach Party
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 www.kazantip.com.
Dan Halpern has written for the New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker.