How capitalism created, and destroyed, Russia’s first nightclub
1. A campfire story
There’s a legendary tale of Russian nightlife, gleefully passed from the old to the young, that begins with police conducting a raid in an abandoned bomb shelter six metres below St. Petersburg.
Cigarette smoke clouds the air. Practically everyone in the bunker is on ecstasy, but when police ask the revellers where the drugs came from, they’re met with the same answer every time – “from a Pepsi machine”.
No, but seriously, who gave you these drugs?
“A Pepsi machine!”
Unable to get a serious response, the frustrated police attempt to beat a truthful answer out of some of the guests. Still, the battered patrons keep repeating the same line.
Meanwhile, a policeman in the next room strides over to a vending machine, gives it a kick, and sends ecstasy tablets scattering across the floor. The party people in the vicinity immediately scramble on their hands and knees, snatching up as many pills as they possibly can. Twenty people are arrested, and the machine is confiscated.
Welcome to the legend of Tunnel nightclub. This extraordinary report appeared in Russian media back in 2004: the theory was that drug users could pay the barman 350 roubles in exchange for an invitation into the room with the machine, and at the push of a button, a tablet – not a Pepsi – would fall out of the chute below. It might be a neat little trick for dealers to avoid being caught red-handed, but it’s also a disappointing inevitability that all the former Tunnel associates we asked dismiss the story as a myth. Appropriate, then, given that Tunnel itself is a mythical place, a fallen symbol of Russian modernity, and a cultural institution that few people actually witnessed in the height of its power.
“Tunnel was one of the best underground clubs not only in Russia, but in Europe,” Alex, a former regular, explains. “It was a cultural treasure in the electronic world, a pioneer of fashion, the last bulwark of underground electronic culture in St. Petersburg.” What was it about Tunnel that made it so special?
Russia’s first ever nightclub, Tunnel opened in northern St. Petersburg in 1993 under the innocuous tagline of ‘a cultural holiday for the progressive youth’. Under the guiding hand of its owner Alexei Haas, who did not respond to an interview request, the club began administering the very first doses of techno straight into the veins of the city. The club enjoyed its glory days in the 1990s before spending its later years as the subject of protracted court battles and editorial moral panic. Tunnel finally shut down for good in 2011, having closed and re-opened its doors so many times that one Russian publication saw fit to label it a “Narcophoenix”.
Russia’s first club was a long time coming: as the communist era wound down, kids across the country were flocking to St. Petersburg, the cultural capital, in search of new forms of self-expression. “Mafia is probably too nice a word for what was going on in Russia during the 90s,” says journalist Dmitrii Pervushin. “Nothing was working the way it used to, and this had a huge impact on youth culture.” Kids were throwing parties in abandoned buildings, cinemas, palaces, cathedrals and museums – every major St. Petersburg museum except the Hermitage hosted at least one rave. Under this anarcho-capitalist system, money could buy anything.
Tunnel perfectly encapsulated this new, chaotic Russian future – a soviet bunker, erected in the fervour of the Cold War, forgotten in the lawless, post-communist landscape, being re-appropriated by bohemian kids to throw unofficial parties, get intoxicated and express themselves. “We were experiencing the joy of a fresh wind of adventure,” says DJ Lena Popova, Russia’s first female DJ and a regular performer at Tunnel. “I actually learned how to DJ inside Tunnel, I didn’t have any idea how to do it at first. Tunnel was not only my first platform, it was my school, including the school of life.”
The club was unique: six metres underground, old water pipes and airtight safes adorning the walls, and the country’s biggest sound system blasting out non-stop techno as a siren song for St. Petersburg’s freaks and geeks. The four dance floors were like big black cubes of sound, and the people inside were free to do as they wished. Although the guards on the door were famously strict, they never set foot inside the club. “In those times, in other clubs, guards were everywhere”, says Alexei Sergienko, the part-owner of Tunnel from 2002-2008. “It was a criminal time. But Tunnel’s audience was not criminal – criminals don’t like the kind of music Tunnel provided.”
The mafia, of course, had its fingerprints all over Russia’s burgeoning rave scene, but failed to make sense of this new culture they were bankrolling. “It was funny, they were looking at it, but they really didn’t get it,” says DJ Slon, one of Tunnel’s first DJs. “Sometimes these guys would come up to me and say ‘we don’t understand what’s going on, we don’t understand your music.”
3. The rep
In its early years, the existence of Tunnel wasn’t easy to know about as an outsider. The birth of a cultural movement is often unorganised, unadvertised, untelevised. It wasn’t too long, however, before word spread. “In the beginning, the people in Tunnel, we were all friends. We had known each other for a long time, since the Fontanka [squat party] days. We all felt at home,” says Slon. “A few years later, a lot of big DJs came to play in Tunnel and they were telling me ‘oh my God, I’m about to play in this legendary place!’ They were nervous, their hands were shaking. For me, I didn’t have any feelings, I just played.”
“We never had the feeling that we were forming the history of electronic music in Russia,” agrees DJ Lena Popova. “I didn’t have time to think about it. I lived, I was DJing, struggling with obstacles, studying, making friends, loving and hating, crying and laughing.”
The growing popularity of techno turned raving into a national buzzword. Mainstream techno events became so fashionable that people like Boris Yeltsin started coming along to them. Though techno was fashionable, Tunnel remained on the fringes of the mainstream, renowned as a place you did not go if you were a good boy or girl. “The people who went to Tunnel were the kind of people who are willing to go to somewhere that everybody tells them not to go. They were able to overcome this barrier,” says Sergienko. For some people, that made it all the more alluring.
4. Dollar signs
As DJs played Monday through Sunday in Tunnel, Alex Sergienko was a frequent visitor and he liked what he saw. Sergienko had witnessed the birth of Russian electro in the squats of Fontanka in the late 1980s, and had since moved into the world of business. “I thought Tunnel was really cool. I thought it was a good commercial enterprise,” he says. After Tunnel’s first closure in 1998, Sergienko saw his opportunity and, along with businessman Terence Mescheryakov, bought a stake in the club.
A father of six, Sergienko has a slender build and a soft handshake, but can still assert control of a situation with a casual waggle of his index finger. Now an artist with his own swanky gallery on Kazanskaya street – which has a security setup that could match most nightclubs – he is a kind, hospitable host and is happy to make time for a chat about his past occupation. “For me, earning money was the goal,” he says of Tunnel, pausing briefly to take a sip of peach juice. “I did it for that reason. Our commercial company was based on controversy, we wanted to create an image of the club, that you shouldn’t go there. We also put posters up around town, in Nevskiy Prospekt, and advertised the club on TV.”
Many in the Tunnel family were displeased with this, and a lot of the DJs and their audience moved on around this time. “We looked at the club as a progressive cultural and religious place,” says DJ Lena Popova. “But our partners, Alexei Sergienko and his team, saw only its mercantile purposes. For them, it was just another profitable place, but for us, it was our life at the time. When our partners took the wrong course, with a limited understanding of the club’s culture, it became easier for some of us to say goodbye to Tunnel and move on.”
Sergienko and Mescheryakov were effective entrepreneurs, steadily growing the club’s brand through merchandising and keeping the club full every night. In 2005, however, Tunnel suddenly announced it was closing its doors. There are a couple of theories about why this happened. “We said it would be closed forever, so a lot of people came to our last party,” says Sergienko. “They bought super-expensive tickets and spent a lot of money, and then a month later we opened it again because everybody asked for us to come back. So we had a grand opening with another super-expensive ticket. This is the commercial trick.”
That may seem a tad cynical, but an even more outrageous explanation exists. After Tunnel was closed, Russian news sites allege, the bomb shelter housing the club was handed over to an advocacy group called Young Rescuers, which erroneously claimed to be the official youth branch of the Russian Emergencies Ministry. Young Rescuers had aspirations to transform the shelter into a youth training centre, complete with a cafe, gym and computer room, and received 1 million roubles from the St. Petersburg city budget to make repairs on the shelter. It didn’t quite work out the way the city expected, however – not only did the youth centre never materialise, but before long Tunnel nightclub was up and running again in the exact same place. A 2007 article from Russia’s Federal Investigation Agency tut-tuts: “it is clear the Young Rescuers have decided that a club is much more profitable than a training centre”. Who was in charge of this Young Rescuers group, you ask? Tunnel owners Alexei Sergienko and Terence Mescheryakov, of course.
Sergienko does not deny the story: “we rented this building, we had a few ideas to create this Young Rescuers centre,” he says. “However, we were not allowed to do so. We didn’t manage it, and we still had to pay the rent.” And, with a solitary waggle of that finger, the conversation is moved on.
Sergienko sold his stake in the club to another person in 2008. “I realised I like to sleep at night. I heard he [the new owner] couldn’t pay the salaries and the rent and after 3 years, it was closed,” Sergienko says. On February 5, 2011, Tunnel had its very last party.
“For me, Tunnel died in 2002, in the winter,” says Popova. “It became just another district disco. At some point everything comes to its logical conclusion: when the content dies, the form will survive for a while, but without content it eventually disappears as well.”
In 2014, Tunnel is still there on Luban Lane, its doors sealed shut, its underground dance floors flooded, its dark surfaces overwhelmed with spider webs and memorabilia. It sits on a still-vacant corner block as pretty Soviet residencies tower over it, and it remains a place you shouldn’t enter. These days, you can sneak into the club through the bomb shelter’s ventilation, although gas masks and wellington boots are advised. When I visit the site, it’s a quiet Thursday afternoon. An old lady slowly walks by, carrying her shopping home. Five pairs of old boots, strung up by their laces, hover ominously from the telephone wires above.
A couple of men in their 40s arrive. They start loading tools into a nearby car and notice me inspecting the shelter.
“Tunnel!” They shout merrily. “Tunnel!” I shout back. “The first club!” They say.
I ask them in broken Russian if they’d been inside. “Da, da, da!” they nod, gyrating their once-young hips to reinforce the point.
There isn’t a place like Tunnel in St. Petersburg today. Lena Popova recommends the beautifully titled BarakObamaBar, while Stackenschneider has an excellent reputation among fans of house music. Alexei Sergienko dismisses the contemporary clubbing scene as filled with “musical bars”, not real clubs. “I hope that soon we will see new places open in St Petersburg,” says Popova, “hopefully proper clubs rather than just little discos.”
The younger generation, of course, disagrees, and that’s what counts most. Tunnel is legendary, yet outmoded. Fashions change, and the passage of time renders you ancient even as it canonises you. Nonetheless, Tunnel’s place in Russia’s cultural hall of fame is secure: a club you can’t visit, an atmosphere you can’t feel, but forever a story you can tell.