When ‘Z’ meant joy, freedom and humour to Russians and Ukrainians

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For Oleksandr Demianenko, a 36-year-old Ukrainian videographer and musician, the highlight of every year during his 20s was KaZantip. It was Eastern Europe’s biggest electronic music festival and was held each August between 1993 and 2013 in Crimea.

“I thought about KaZantip all year round,” says Oleksandr, who is now based in Tbilisi, Georgia and became a festival organiser in 2009. As the event drew closer, spring and early summer brought stress, then after the festival, in the autumn and winter, came “creativity, ideas and plans for the next year”, he says.

With its warm climate and Mediterranean landscapes, the Crimean peninsula had for decades represented the perfect summer vacation getaway for Russians and Ukrainians alike – and for festivalgoers during the KaZantip years. The event took its name from its first location near Crimea’s Kazantip peninsula on the Azov Sea and had “Z” as its official symbol.

When in 2022 the letter Z became a symbol of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Oleksandr says he was “hurt and sad”.

For people like Oleksandr, Z signified more than a weeks-long rave party. It was a temporary way of life that celebrated personal freedom, self-expression and joy.

KaZantip started in August 1993 as an underground event with a couple of DJs mixing after a windsurfing contest. Very quickly, the sports dimension faded, and soon raves were organised in an unfinished nuclear reactor. The event was cemented as a festival after moving 200km (124 miles) west to the village of Popovka on the Black Sea coast in 2001.

KaZantip was conceived as a social utopia, a safe space for young people who valued diversity and creativity. Happiness was paramount. “KaZantip Republic” or the “Z Republic” had its own territory – a few hectares of beach fenced by a wall. Its self-proclaimed president was a Russian citizen and a former windsurfer named Nikita Marshunok.

KaZantip reached international recognition in its second decade, attracting up to 100,000 visitors according to former organisers, and lasted anywhere from 10 days to a month and a half. A transnational community grew around it with devoted fans primarily from Ukraine and Russia, but also from other post-Soviet countries and beyond.

The territory of the erstwhile KaZantip seen from above [Courtesy of Natasha Kto Nado]

‘Radically different’

“I would have liked Z to remain on our flying banners in Popovka, on stickers, T-shirts,” Oleksandr says. “Our Z and the Kremlin Z are the same letter, and yet we see such a radically different use.”

Many former festival organisers and participants, Russian and Ukrainian alike – were horrified to see the symbol of their endless summer parties become an emblem for those supporting Russia after it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

“Some 10 years ago, all fans of electro music associated the letter ‘Z’ exclusively with the annual KaZantip festival, and now this symbol is flaunted on armoured cars and tanks of the so-called ‘liberators’. Resentment and pain!” wrote the Russian musician and blogger Kirill Bagus on his Telegram channel.

There are different theories as to how the letter Z became a symbol of war for Russia, including the letter being promoted after being used to mark equipment and vehicles in a Russian military district.

Although the meaning of “Z” painted on military vehicles is disputed, the letter has become part of pro-Russian propaganda. Z has been used to replace the Cyrillic “з” in slogans such as Zа победу (za pobedu), meaning “for victory”.

A banner at KaZantip reads: ‘Well, Hello, Great people!’ [Courtesy of Nastya Ulyanova]

A viZa to enter

KaZantip was “a way of freedom,” says Oleg Mishuris, a Ukrainian IT worker who was a press officer for the festival from 2012 to 2014 when its final edition was held in Georgia after Russia annexed Crimea.

“We really have the highest density of happy people per square foot,” Marshunok told CNN in 2011. In what Marshunok called the “dictatorship of happiness”, there was a constitution with tongue-in-cheek Soviet references listing KaZantip’s principles.

Articles listed corn on the cob and sunflower seeds as the national food, and kitesurfing as the national sport. Anyone carrying an old Soviet suitcase painted yellow could enter for free, while the festival pass was called a “viZa”. “BE THE ONE YOU WANNA BE AND LIVE YOUR LIFE YOUR WAY is an indispensable constitutional right of a citiZen,” stated article six. A criminal code was added, stating expulsion for those guilty of chauvinism, sexual harassment or peeing in an “unapproved place”.

“For both Russian and Ukrainian youth, KaZantip was a cult phenomenon,” says Natasha Kto Nado, a Russian-Ukrainian creative director, based in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, who worked for KaZantip between 2003 and 2011. “I first came in 1998 from a southern Russian city and KaZantip was something as mythical and cool as Lollapalooza,” she says, referring to the iconic music festival in Chicago in the United States.

For many revellers, KaZantip (shown here in 2002) was a temporary alternative reality [Courtesy of Natasha Kto Nado]

Throughout the year, KaZantip representatives organised events in big cities across Ukraine and Russia, sharing the same pool of resident DJs.

KaZantip’s reach went beyond cities such as Moscow, St Petersburg, Kyiv and Odesa. Oleksandr, who was a KaZantip organiser until 2014, spent his youth in Myrhorod, a city located between Kharkiv and Kyiv. When he was in high school he worked as an administrator at a computer club and regularly followed the festival site. “It was always ahead of its time and inspiring,” he says.

“Online media were still not so accessible and widespread. For a lot of people, KaZantip became a holy place based on rumours. They really created an appealing brand for those who were trying to find a new identity as a form of escape from the Soviet Union’s or their parents’ legacy,” Mykola Siusko, 39, a Barcelona-based artist, says, speaking over Zoom from a blue room, an easel against one wall. Siusko grew up in western Ukraine and first went to KaZantip in 2005 after borrowing $100 from his mother.

An artist making temporary tattoos takes a nap between customers. KaZantip had a constitution where one article called for people to ‘live your life your way’ while a Soviet-era suitcase painted yellow granted free entry to the festival [Courtesy of Natasha Kto Nado]

An escape

Dancing – which mostly happened at KaZantip at night – was a big part of escaping a Soviet legacy as different forms of electronic dance music found their way to Crimea.

The festival grew bigger every year and by 2013 it boasted no fewer than 15 dance floors while the number of DJs and artists exceeded 300. Big international techno acts such as Ricardo Villalobos, Armin Van Buuren, Carl Cox and Ellen Allien came to Popovka during the festival’s second decade.

Many of the bars and dance floors had a futuristic design, but the main stage looked more Greco-Roman with its columns. Festivalgoers wandered around alleys of fake palm trees, many of them in their swimsuits.

A lot happened during the daytime as well. “People were eating watermelons, talking, flirting, reading books, napping,” says Natasha. “The most active were engaged in some creative process, preparing parties, flash mobs or performances.”

People lay on the sand in a Z formation to take pictures. Some brought their children. There were water guns and swimming in inflatable rubber duck rings. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly.

Mothers with their children during the 2006 edition of KaZantip [Courtesy of Natasha Kto Nado]

To get some rest, festivalgoers left the fenced-off territory to sleep in one of the hotels or guesthouses that had mushroomed in Popovka. Some stayed in tents and permanent modular living units inside KaZantip or slept on the beach.

“In 2010, my friend and I literally did not leave the territory for 21 days,” says Nastya Ulyanova, a 33-year-old DJ from St Petersburg who prefers to go by her artistic name Nemo Flashback. She attended every festival from 2008.

“We slept on the beach, kept our things with the guards, heard a lot of interesting life stories. We watched movies on Mars [a neighbourhood in KaZantip], listened to piano concerts in the Earth bar … went to foam parties, met and photographed every sunset,” she recalls.

The uninterrupted techno music blasting from the speakers was the soundtrack to a collective experience that was supposed to be unique – and intense.

KaZantip has often been compared to the legendary Burning Man festival – which takes place every year in the desert of Nevada in the US – because it too offered a chance to live a kind of alternative reality. “KaZantip was definitely an addictive event largely because it was a territory of freedom, a place where you could escape for a few weeks from the oppressive everyday life, domestic problems and work routine,” says Rodion Nagorny, 38, who works in the event and media industry in Moscow and has been to both KaZantip and Burning Man. Rodion says KaZantip was a place where you could express yourself freely and find similar eccentric, like-minded people.

Dancing at night and games during the day; former festivalgoers remember the atmosphere as relaxed and friendly at KaZantip [Courtesy of Natasha Kto Nado]

Balloons into the sunset

KaZantip’s alternative reality was also a subculture of rituals. Every sunset, the president, ministers (festival organisers) and participants gathered on the beach to listen to the gong when the sun disappeared. “Some days, we also wrote wishes for friends and relatives on balloons that we released in the air during sunset,” says Nastya. “And they all came true!”

She says she had wished, for example, that a friend’s favourite DJ would come and it happened.

“Another tradition was to throw our cell phones into the water from the dance floor above the sea. It was an expression of absolute freedom,” says the DJ, who even got a stylised Z tattooed between her shoulder blades. She cherishes the tattoo and is adamant that it will only ever stand for KaZantip and never be connected to politics.

Participants often wore outlandish outfits. A group known for its eccentric and sophisticated costumes was called the “Freaks”. They often wore bright DIY outfits with a preference for yellow and orange – the colours of KaZantip. Skirts among the Freaks were popular, as well as wigs, bright makeup, angel wings, plastic jewellery and silly hats. “They were the pride of the great nation, they needed to be protected, respected, honoured, loved,” says Nastya. “Only Freaks were allowed to some parties and then ordinary dancers quickly made themselves some kind of improvised costume so that they would be mistaken for Freaks but it didn’t always succeed.”

Eight years after its final edition, many former participants are nostalgic for what KaZantip represented. “It was a vacation of total madness, it was unbridled, childish, like everything in the 2000s. It was like being in a snow globe with glitter. It was a blindingly brilliant event,” says Masha Kuznetsova, a Russian designer and architect who first came as a participant before eventually collaborating with the festival.

In 2002 people relax in hammocks at KaZantip. For former festivalgoers, it is difficult today to imagine such an event that unifies people across borders taking place [Natasha Kto Nado]

‘Lost part of our life’

Today the KaZantip spirit feels distant. Olga Lannik, 35, who attended KaZantip in 2004 and 2005 with her boyfriend Mykyta Tochynskyi, 36, has only warm recollections of the festival.

“There’s no bitterness for me in these memories,” says Olga, sitting next to Mykyta in their kitchen, over Zoom. The couple met in Odesa and they currently live in Kyiv, where they have stayed throughout the Russian invasion.

“These memories are not gone. Of course, they’re always going to be with us. But today is not like the time when we can even think about partying or dancing or something like this. It’s the lost part of our life for now,” adds Mykyta, who sports a short beard and long dark hair.

In Ukraine, people in the electronic music scene have been actively participating in the war effort. “I know many DJs who have gone to the front like John Object, Raavel or Detcom,” says Maya Baklanova, a music journalist based between Berlin and Kyiv.

She notes that a volunteer initiative called Kyiv Angels bringing humanitarian aid to civilians and supporting soldiers with donations was co-founded by a DJ while one nightclub started a community fund to support various initiatives such as a shelter for displaced people and financial assistance for Ukrainian artists who have lost their income. “Now it’s calmer in Kyiv, some clubs have reopened, not to host parties but rather as meeting points for the community,” she says.

Maya, who has also done communication work for some clubs, says around 2019, events organisers were increasingly boycotting Russian musicians unless they were actively against their government.

Following the outbreak of war, she participated in the writing of an open letter representing hundreds in the Ukrainian electronic music community calling for an international boycott of their Russian counterparts. The text states: “We, the representatives of the music community, see the actions of Russian promoters, DJs and artists, who keep on holding events and performing, while the military of their country is bombing our cities. We are also observing how our Russian colleagues, including those with the most status and the biggest platforms on an international level, express lack of concern and pretend not to notice the situation.”

Dance-floor structures and revellers are seen at KaZantip. For one former festivalgoer, KaZantip happened at the right time – on the ‘ruins of the Soviet empire’ – and towards the end was already losing its allure [Courtesy of Nastya Ulyanova]

KaZantip’s end

In 2014, the summer paradise of KaZantip fell after Russia annexed Crimea and tensions in the Donbas turned into an armed conflict. KaZantip, as a cultural and social project located in a territory whose new status was neither recognised by Ukraine nor by the international community, could not survive the geopolitical upheaval.

The divorce between the summer republic and its Ukrainian community was swift. After KaZantip’s president, Marshunok, openly supported the annexation of Crimea on social media, many Ukrainians turned against him. At the same time, the new Russian authorities forbade KaZantip from taking place that summer, citing a violation of fire regulations. “The history of KaZantip ended there,” says Ilia Voronin, a music journalist and former editor-in-chief of Mixmag Russia.

Marshunok looked for alternative locations where DJs and visitors from around the world could come. In the summer of 2014, he took the festival to the eastern coast of the Black Sea, in Georgia. The republic was allocated a strip of beach near the seaside resort of Anaklia where there is a pedestrian suspension bridge and several bizarre buildings including a red Chinese pagoda-style structure from when Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili aspired to build a small Dubai on this marshy coastline. But, while the Caucasian nation of 3.7 million inhabitants has a limited pool of clubbers, few Russians and even fewer Ukrainians made the trip. KaZantip Anaklia was a commercial failure.

As Marshunok ventured to southeast Asia in search of new locations, many team members did not follow him. In 2015, Cambodian authorities retracted their approval to hold the festival on an island, citing “indecent tourism“.

The Russian entrepreneur found a new festival home on the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc. The inaugural chapter of KaZantip’s successor, Epizode, took place on New Year’s Eve in 2016 and ran for two weeks. After halting during the coronavirus pandemic, it is due to resume at the end of the year.

But even with its tropical, idyllic location, for former KaZantip participants, who say the festival’s charm waned towards the end, Epizode is unlikely to revive the spirit or have the allure of the original festival.

Back in Crimea, the territory of the KaZantip Republic with its fake palm trees and futuristic structures has not been abandoned. A project called Z.CITY has taken over. The eccentric elements have been purged and while dance floors do host DJs, there are sports and wellness activities on offer as well as plenty of entertainment for children.

Former festivalgoer Rodion has good memories of KaZantip, but he doesn’t regret that it ended, saying, “KaZantip appeared in the right place at the right time, on the ruins of the Soviet empire, when people inspired by the changes only felt the first sips of freedom and still believed in a brighter future.”

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