A Post-Post-Soviet Scene Post-Quarantine
Vytautas Magnus University (Lithuania)
The quarantine officially ended in Lithuania on 17 June 2020, the day before I gave my Master's thesis defense. The final three months of my research directly corresponded with the three months of Lithuanian quarantine, which started on 16 March. This had an enormous impact on what my thesis ended up being about and my methodology for the final stages of my data collection. While it was a scary time for all of us around the world, it was also an epic time to be collecting anthropological data on an underground culture, specifically rave culture.
My work became about presenting a portrait of Lithuanian rave culture as it existed just before this quarantine took place. Although the end of quarantine marked the end of my official research period, it also marked the beginning of the post-quarantine event season. This report will briefly touch upon what (some) rave events have been like in a post-quarantine Lithuania. Some potential trends might be echoed in different local contexts that researchers might want to look out for as their fieldwork locations begin opening up, particularly those working in post-Soviet countries.
The post-Soviet context is inseparable from the beginning of rave in Lithuania during the 1990s. The creative consumption of symbols from the Soviet past, "symbolic sampling", by the members of the last Soviet generation was the genesis of rave culture in post-Soviet societies (Yurchak 1996: 99). When the transition period ended around the mid-2000s with Lithuania joining the European Union and switching its currency to the Euro, this symbolic sampling combined with the creative consumption of goods in a newly opened, post-Soviet capitalist market (Baločkaitė 2011: 409).
While rave culture was begun by the last Soviet generation (circa 1980s), and there are still people from this generation highly involved as organizers and participants today, during the transition period (circa 1990s) a new generation entered the scene, "the truly new, post-Soviet generation" (Yurchak 1996: 99). And now, another new generation, which I call the post-post-Soviet generation, has entered and started to develop rave culture to match its particular cultural logic. With the entrance of each new generation and the intermingling of the different and varied sensibilities, there are accompanying discursive shifts within the larger rave culture, specifically regarding its institutionalization and commercialization.
Rave culture in Lithuania is primarily an event culture (St John 2016) because the only in-person manifestations of the raver community happen at rave events. Events within rave culture, as they are primarily understood in Lithuania, include those in clubs, free parties and festivals. This means that raves are both institutionalized and commercialized, but some raves are neither of these things, which is slightly confusing. The distinctive mark of rave culture according to my interlocutors is that it is "underground", but this is a vague, multivocal and relative concept.
It is also a concept that carries specific connotations in a post-Soviet context, namely: something that is illegal and/or something that is about resistance (these things are related). These connotations for the underground are both deeply intertwined with the worldview of Lithuanian ravers, even for people within the post-post-Soviet generation. Both connotations are found in the explanation of Lithuanian underground culture as described to me by one of my interlocutors, a 19-year-old student from Vilnius who self-identifies as a raver and does face painting at many different psytrance raves (in both clubs and festivals). Her explanation is representative of what many others said:
The Lithuanian underground culture has always been strong historically, especially since the Soviet Union oppression and annexes. And not necessarily that underground culture was just rebellious, we had this thing called knygnešys [Lithuanian book smugglers], who are our culture heroes... who would carry books through the borders, and that was one of our country's bigger rebellious ways against the oppression, to spread culture and art.
As Alice O'Grady pointed out: "While on the one hand [these events] sit within the tradition of earlier countercultural scenes such as raves, free parties and occupations, from another perspective they are the output of a process of domestication of this same legacy" (2015: 92). Her analysis was based specifically on UK outdoor festivals, but the notion of domestication (or commercialization) is also applicable to rave culture in general, particularly to what's happening in rave clubs. Lithuanian ravers are keenly aware of this process and implement several (sometimes incongruent) strategies to combat this, often simultaneously.
The most popular strategy for combatting the commercialization of rave culture is emphasizing its underground nature, which happens discursively (in person and especially online) and in the marketing for events and artists. The term "underground" was mentioned nearly every single time I asked my interlocutors what the terms "rave", "raver", or "rave culture" mean. This is including interlocutors from all different parts of the rave culture milieu in Lithuania (e.g. different subgenres and generations). Most seemed to employ the notion of the underground as a tool for differentiating what they are doing from the mainstream.
During the quarantine, I stayed at home. This gave me the time to go through and revisit all my data to determine what kind of finalizing data I would need to collect and determine a methodology for collecting it. All of the official in-person events scheduled during the main lockdown period were canceled and many more were postponed (some several times, others indefinitely). So, I became much more actively engaged with the secret Facebook groups, where people were complaining about quarantine, hosting virtual raves/festivals with Facebook Live and sharing memes/posts lamenting about how much they miss rave.
About two weeks into quarantine, a petition created on the Lithuanian platform www.peticijos.lt/visos/ was circulated in Facebook groups to ensure that people who are not ravers cannot use the term "rave" for their branding. The now deleted petition stated (translated from Lithuanian):
They take advantage of another culture to push their product cheaply... Prominent public figures clearly do not understand what styles of music (e.g. techno) dominate in real raves and grind everything into one. Don't be indifferent and sign this petition if you don't want to be called 'rave' every song played on Power hit radio in the future.
The petition, with 281 signatures, was targeted at two specific DJs. One of my key interlocutors throughout this research project explained:
It's a project of two guys who are DJs and producers of EDM. They have their own festival which is [an] EDM festival. And they are calling that 'rave' and themselves and festival attendance as 'ravers'. Because we have quite a strong rave culture it's kind of an insult... This is basically everything what ravers don't like, beginning from people, their taste in music, attitude, lifestyle and so on... It's not like super offensive, I don't really think ravers care much, it's more like wtf.
What was most interesting about this was that it seemed that the quarantine's void in actual rave events taking place was being filled with an amplified discourse of "real" and "fake" ravers, a discursive differencing mechanism that has been documented as part of Lithuanian rave culture since the 1990s (Šliavaitė 1997). For example, here is a comment about the petition representative of the thoughts of most commentators: "The radioist style, called raving, humiliates the true raving culture and its representatives. Don't confuse simple popular music with real raving". Although my formal research was finished before I was able to truly dive into the effects of quarantine on contemporary sociality and individuality, the way that rave has re-emerged post-quarantine seems to suggest that this discourse emphasizing authentic raving as underground might be translating into practice.
Like many other countries, Lithuania eased its restrictions in phases. Bars with outdoor seating areas were allowed to open on 23 April. Although they were technically open, serving and playing music, these places weren't allowed to hold larger events until recently with the end of the official quarantine period on 17 June. During this in-between time, bars and restaurants were required to abide by specific guidelines, namely: everyone wears masks, only two people at each table who must be at least a meter apart. From my observations of underground music bars as well as most other places in Kaunas, these guidelines were barely followed, e.g. there were often more than two people per table, and it was rare to see a mask.
Although all mass gatherings of over 150 were officially prohibited even after 17 June, I knew of several illegal parties happening with up to 400. I know a few people who are part of a team that organized some of these parties and, though I was unable to attend them personally, I spoke with many people about the events and received several pictures/videos. They threw three different parties during the quarantine period, each time illegally occupying an empty space within the city (Kaunas). One of my friends, who has been a key interlocutor throughout my entire research period, remarked, "actually, no fucks were given about that place... but what's the worst that can happen, they just shut the party. There was that sense of doing it, lots of stress, lots of unknowns, but that's what makes it so good". He also described to me that it was like, "quarantine never happened, forget that," regarding the lack of adherence to any government-specified guidelines. It is important to emphasize that many people outside of the raver scene have also made similar comments, so it doesn't seem to be a uniquely raver thing to have taken the quarantine restrictions lightly.
When I asked him about whether he thought that the quarantine was making things go more underground, he said that he agrees. He immediately started comparing the kinds of parties he and his friends were throwing (illegally occupying an empty space to have a party, even if the parties were not free) to the events in clubs. He said, "It's not about the money, it's about the rush you get". And "I would like to stay underground. We can do something legal and something on the side, more '90s".
The quarantine officially ended on 17 June and I attended my first club event soon after, but this wasn't the first event to be held post-quarantine. That was a solstice themed event, as the holiday Joninės (a.k.a. Rasos, Midsummer, St. John's Day) is a big part of Lithuanian folk culture and many people even get the day off from work. The host of the event was Walden Aether which is one of the biggest psytrance event organizers in Lithuania, and a decorating team, label and visual effects producer at events hosted by other organizers.
The leader of this organization is J-Magi, a member of the last Soviet generation who works as a rave culture producer full time, traveling throughout Europe decorating and DJing at different events and festivals. Although there are specific rave clubs in Lithuania, Walden Aether does not have one primary club location, but rather rents out spaces for the events (rather than illegally occupying), sometimes small clubs, and sometimes large music venues. The attendance at the events where I conducted participant observation (pre-quarantine) varied between less than 100 to over 1,000, depending on the scale of the event and venue. At this event, the limited capacity was at 130, and there were around 80 people who attended.
Although Walden Aether usually rents out official venues, the space for the event they hosted post-quarantine was, as described to me by J-Magi, "true underground". Next to the central train station in Vilnius (Lithuania's capital) there is a building that has been turned into two different bars with outdoor seating directly on the side of the train tracks. In the basement is another space sometimes rented by rave organizations for events.
Interestingly, J-Magi described this event as "true underground", even though this was an officially rented out space, there was a cover charge and they were selling Walden Aether merchandise in one of the side rooms. In this sense, underground is literal (basement). But, also, the date of the event and the theme of the decorations (symbols of Lithuanian paganism) implied a sense of the Lithuanian cultural underground. This is the idea that rave culture is following the tradition of the Lithuanian culture heroes mentioned earlier.
Although my Master's project is officially over, I will continue to conduct informal research on Lithuanian rave culture. It seems likely that the trend of putting special emphasis on the underground (perhaps the specifically Lithuanian underground) nature of rave culture will continue as we move into a post-quarantine world. This is what many ravers have optimistically hypothesized, but it remains to be seen whether the appropriation of "rave" as branding will continue to be an issue as the larger (more mainstream) clubs and organizations re-open. What will happen to underground clubs (and their discursive status of being underground) as illegal parties become more popular again?
As more countries phase out their restrictions, it will be interesting to see whether a renaissance of underground parties (free or otherwise) happens in other places. Or perhaps the increased government surveillance will result in further domestication of rave and other underground cultures. This will all need to be situated within its local context, but it will be interesting to examine these trends on a global level.
I would like to thank all of the amazing people I've encountered in my research in Lithuania, who have welcomed me with open arms into their community, given me their time and shared their stories with me. Thank you to my colleagues and professors at Vytautas Magnus University who have introduced me to Lithuanian culture, and to Kristina Šliavaitė for taking the time to discuss her work with me. I would also like to thank the contributors to this journal; had I not found it when I did, I probably would have never been able to finish my research.
Camille LeBlanc Liederman has recently finished her Master's degree in social anthropology from Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania. Her main research interests are religion, spirituality, mythology and consumer society. She is originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, and attended undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
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St. John, Graham. 2016. "Electronic Dance Music Culture and Religion: An Overview". Culture and Religion 7(1): 1-25. <https://doi.org/10.1080/01438300600625259>.
Yurchak, Alexei. 1996. "Gagarin and the Rave Kids: Transforming Power, Identity, and Aesthetics in Post-Soviet Nightlife". In Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex, and Society since Gorbachev, ed. Adele Marie Barker, 76-109. Charlotte: Duke University Press. <https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822396413-004>.
 The research for this article was conducted for my Master's thesis, "Seeking Belonging: A Case Study of Lithuanian Rave Culture", which looked at identity and belonging within a specific local, post-Soviet context. My research focused on rave culture in the two urban centers of Lithuania, Vilnius and Kaunas, and took place from October 2018 to June 2020. The methodology included participant observation, ethnographic interviewing and online participant observation. This was adapted during quarantine to add two different long-answer surveys, which were inspired by Lee Gilmore's 2010 Burning Man questionnaire.
 Rave culture is used instead of EDM because this term was used by my interlocutors, with EDM understood as the mainstreaming of rave culture.
 As pointed out by Baločkaitė, the scholarly debate on whether or not Lithuania should still be considered a post-Soviet society ended in the early 2010s with no resolution, but scholars simply moved on.
 Minerva, interview with author (on Facebook), 16 April 2020. For the purposes of anonymity, all names have been changed.
 Attenborough, personal communication with the author (on Facebook), 1 May 2020.
 Anonymous raver, interview with the author (in person), 28 June 2020.
 All names have been anonymized, including organization names.
 J-Magi, personal communication with the author (on Facebook), 17 June 2020.