Since Communism’s collapse, almost every East European city has had its moment of glory, when the cross-pollination of global capitalism, fast-changing societies, and media hype, created the perfect storm of creative energies, cashish, and a freewheeling party culture. First it was bohemian Prague in the early 90s, widely celebrated as the heir to “Paris of the 20s,” then Moscow in the late 90s, as funny money, sexual insanity and a vast craving for the West turned the drab Soviet capital into a Klondike of greed & sensuality. During the naughties, various smaller capitals had their 15 minutes of fame, as trend-seekers ventured further afield for undiscovered creative meccas. Warsaw, Bratislava, Bucharest, Tallinn, Vilnius, Belgrade, Budapest, Kiev and others experienced spikes of global hipster interest, before the hype subsided. Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, was even named “Party Capital of the Year” in 2006, by the venerable New York Times.
Yet, until Andrejsala’s zany technoheads began to transform Riga, Latvia’s capital city-dubbed the “Moscow on the Baltic” by local expats-seemed immune to the Dazed & Confused London vibes that had so transformed its neighbors. While Tallinn, just four hours drive to the north, boasted stylish house music clubs, industrial-chic curry houses, and summer techno festivals, Riga, whose population is more than fifty percent ethnic Russians, was a microcosmic version of Moscow of the 90s. Dodgy bars in the Swedish-built old town blared Russian pop, while tarts in red heels, shiny black tights and peroxide blond hair sauntered around on a bubblegum & cheap vodka high. Local chavs in Adidas tracksuits and chains seemed to lurk around every corner. There were a few hipster bars, but they were a dismal affair, unchanged since the mid 90s. Most of the nightlife & restaurants catered to the Russian upper-middle class who partied Moscow style, with glitz and glam. Having moved back to Estonia in early 2006, I visited Riga just once that first year, and all my former prejudices were confirmed.
Everything changed one wet spring evening, when we decided to spend a night in Andrejsala’s Singalong Hostel en route to Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. A man named Zagga had been emailing me for a while, saying that he’d picked up a copy of B.East (the provocative mag about Eastern Europe that I’ve published since 2005) and wanted us to check out the Riga scene. Having ignored his emails at first, I was intrigued after others mentioned a swath of docklands that artists had taken over and agreed to spend a night there.
We figured something was in the air as soon as we passed the gorgeous Art Deco buildings on Elizabetes Street and headed toward the river. Hipsters in hoodies and dirk bikes raced past us as we approached the waterfront and the streetlights dimmed. When Zagga, on a bicycle, finally found us, he guided us past the rotting hulks of cargo ships, over railway tracks and down a dark, bumpy road that ended on the freezing Daugava river, that encircles Latvia’s capital. He led us to the Buddha Room at the Singalong Hotel, with its giant gilded mural of the Buddha overlooking a spartan futon. A few minutes after arriving, we were led to a Lithuanian fashion photographer’s show in an industrial gallery next door.
It was a wet, grey Thursday evening. The large unheated space was unwelcoming, to say the least, and I was exhausted from the journey—and from an all-night bender the previous day. Yet, I couldn’t help being swept up by the raw enthusiasm of Zagga and his crowd, whose eyes all burned with that same mad gleam. Between shots of vodka, they shared their passion for this anarchic “factory” that had sprung up in the abandoned docks of a forgotten port on the edge of the city. Eline, a petite blond with a cute upturned nose and punky blond hair, ran the zany Singalong Hostel, and reveled in its growing stature as an “artists” hotel for creative souls who floated through Riga from time to time. A Dutch couple biking through Europe occupied one room; a Latvian-American bohemian chick had taken up permanent residence in the Lenin Room; and some Russian DJs were spending the night before catching an EasyJet flight to Berlin. Zagga, meanwhile, was running a semi-illegal club in a former storage room, called Space Garage, that rocked all weekend to dirty electro and minimal techno beats. “You should stay till tomorrow,” he insisted, grabbing us by the arm. (I was traveling with an Estonian girlfriend ). “It’s wild, Dasha Rush is coming in from Paris, and there’ll be enough pills around to keep us smiling till Sunday.”
His suggestion was tempting: for the first time in a while, I was really digging the vibe. Even the photographs, which portrayed models trapped in a post-apocalytic Vilnius, were better than I expected: while girls in leotards played ping-pong in bombed-out swimming pools in one picture, a model in a billowing red chiffon dress flew over the ruins of Vilnius’ Parliament Square in another. The provocative images fit the mood of the gallery, and that of my magazine—which, apparently, had spawned a cultish fan base in Riga.
As others described their favorite B.East stories or fashion shoots, I felt like a rock star. Wasn’t that why I had started the magazine in the first place? But more than that, I was acutely aware that they were “living” the life I so cheekily hyped. B.East had created a buzz across Europe by hyping East Europe, a vast, chaotic swath of countries that most in the West knew very little about. With our slogan “Eat the West,” we declared that the West was boring and increasingly puritanical, while the East was where the party was. This was the message these crazy Latvians had seized upon and were using to justify the cultural primacy of their creative hedonism. The thick air in the warehouse space, laced with smoke from various joints, was intoxicating. Had the magazine been responsible for giving the scene its dynamism, or did we need this scene to continue being true to our spirit?
Whichever it was, I realized that night that I wanted more. The scene reminded me of freewheeling Estonia in the late 90s, or Prague in the early 90s—and I badly needed another dose. I had spent more than a year in straitlaced post-EU-accession Estonia, where capitalism and mainstream pop culture had triumphed over the wild experimentation of the 90s. The madness of the 90s was now just fuel for amusing dinner party stories in Tallinn, and even the bohemians from the old days were more interested in paying their mortgage, and waking up in time for work, than having fun. Riga, it seemed, was where East Europe was still the beast, and hadn’t yet been defanged. That night, after some drunk Balts chanted “Beast, Be East, Beast, Be East” on the fringes of a cheesy launch party for Maxim Latvia, I knew I’d be back.
I returned sooner than expected. I’d mentioned Vilnius’s insane, sleazy electro DJ crew “Metal on Metal” (featured in our “Red” issue) to, Kirill, the Russian co-owner of the Space Garage, and he’d invited them—and me—to Riga for a B.East launch party. I was excited, relieved to escape straitlaced Estonia for the untrammeled hedonism of Andrejsala. Even though I came solo this time—on the bus even—I was given a rock star’s welcome. Kirill, whose trademark 90s Adidas tracksuit attire contrasted with the smart Lexus he drove, picked me up at the bus station. Elina, welcomed me with a shot of vodka before escorting me to their VIP Buddha room.
We met the “Metal on Metal” DJs – blond, alcoholic Manfredas and Vitas, more commonly known by his stage name Miss America, at a swank Latin-themed restaurant in Riga’s grand old town. A few mojitos and arroz con pollo later, we were already doing lines in the bathroom and revving up for the night ahead. It promised to be an epic evening, echoing the high-octane madness of Estonia & Moscow in the 90s. And, it certainly was. I was invited to warm up the crowd with my electro-clash DJ set, and then “Metal on Metal” went to work on the crowd—Manfredas swigging from a bottle of Jack Daniels while he stood on the table and DJed their remix of Datarock’s “I used to dance with my Daddy.” The energy in the tiny storage room, zanily decorated with Soviet-era relics, threadbare couches Berlin-style, and arty photographs, was heaving and intense as the crowd—fuelled by vodka, speed, coke, ecstasy and goodness knows what else—went into overdrive.
Miss America pulled me aside at some point and said it was one of the best parties they’d ever DJ-ed. The floor was literally heaving to their hardcore electro beat, and unlike Berlin parties, there were beautiful women everywhere, dressed street-style as elsewhere in Europe but much more sensual than Berliners or Londoners. Gorgeous blondes kissed each other; the barmaids bared their breasts for the fun of it; while hipsters snorted lines in the back room and talked about Morocco, Moscow and everything else. At some point, Kirill gave me a pill with a Mitsubishi logo on it, and then everything became a blur. I remember Zagga hugging me and gifting a can of bottled water that the Soviets handed out in case of a nuclear attack, and then later, kissing a gorgeous Russian art student, Masha, who coyly admitted that she had decorated her bathroom with pages from B.East before dragging me onto an abandoned ship just paces away from the Space Garage.
I awoke at 3 pm the next afternoon to the sound of a thumping techno beat, and wandered outside, only to realize that the party had never stopped. It was Zagga’s 31st birthday, and he was hiding behind shades, sprawled out on a couch in the bright June sun, while somebody DJed in the background and someone else ran into town on a beer run. I was supposed to head back that day but was convinced to stay another night, and then another… When I finally made it back to Tallinn on Monday, I reflected that the past weekend had been one of the best of my life. It was like I’d stepped into the pages of my own magazine, was finally living the B.East life, instead of writing about it. I was 38 at the time, still single, and though many of my contemporaries were shucking the party life for responsible adulthood, I vowed not to go quietly into the night. It was June, and the glorious Baltic summer, was just weeks away, and, naturally, I decided to spend the bulk of July and August there. MINI, one of our main sponsors since the launch of the magazine, had agreed to lend me a cabriolet for the summer in return for doing some promotions in the Baltics, and I was going to rock it up, for real this time.
The summer was almost everything that I had expected it to be. It was like a sequel to Riga’s version of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. I consumed even more drugs—ecstasy, Baltic bathtub speed, Afghan charas, MDMA powder—than I had in the spring, and organized a couple magazine bashes, including one on the abandoned cargo ship that abuts the Andrejsala port. Unlike the more mainstream clubs in old Riga that played Europop and commerical house, Andrejsala was a dirty electro paradise, with DJs spinning dirty beats long after the other clubs had closed. It’s hedonistic mix of hipster Russians and Williamsburgesque Latvians, along with some plugged-in visitors, helped create a vibe that was unforgettable.
I had a brief summer affair with a young hipster chick, who ran a Moroccan tea house and was obsessed with the Teremin and UFOs. One weekend we all packed into a camper van and headed to a former Soviet Air Force Base—much like the one used for Germany’s infamous Soviet-retro Fusion Festival—and camped in the rotting hangars for a night. On another, assorted Berlin friends of the Singalong crew showed up for a weekend of sausages, vodka, speed and a Future Shorts Film Festival. Hanging out in the Buddha Room for much of the summer, my life quickly merged with the other “permanent” residents of the hostel. There was Linnards, a flamboyant VJ, televsion presenter, interior decorator and mad partyer who lived behind the kitchen. There was bubbly Eline, of course, who seemed to be having an affair with the somewhat tortured Latvian-American photographer who was camped out in the Lenin Room. Zagga, lived elsewhere, but was almost always tinkering away in the Space Garage. Kirill took me on long drives into Riga’s Russian ghettos, where it seemed time had stopped since Communism’s collapse. There were still Soviet-era shops called “Bread” and “Alcohol.” Some of the houses in the area still had communal flats, with families living in one large apartment. Drunk men in shaved heads and Abibas (misspelling deliberate) hung out on the stoops, while old babushkas hawked dated cans of fish or a single pair of socks.
It was all too reminiscent of the Baltics in the early 90s, just after the freefall following Communism’s collapse. Once one of the great cities of the Russian empire, after Moscow and St. Petersburg, much of Riga had fallen into disrepair during the Soviet era. More than anything, the neighborhood reminded us of how much had changed in the rest of the city since then.
I bought a bike and careened around the city with the crew, stopping for joints on the banks of the Daugava. Sometimes I’d head to Jurmala, the charming coastal town an hour away from Riga, with its pastel-colored wooden houses, white sand beaches and Soviet-era sanitariums. Once we swung on ropes suspended from a tree into the river and pretended we were Tarzans for an entire day. Karin, a zany Russian photographer in Riga, had spent a winter in Brazil, had schemed it up. The joints, beer and topless blondes egging us on were the perfect combination for imagining we were actually in the Amazon.
It was a magical summer and I wouldn’t trade those few months in Riga for anything. The mistake, in retrospect, was returning for the fall, and the ensuing winter of discontent. I should have known from having lived through so many scenes in Eastern European cities that the good vibes and creative cohesiveness don’t last. I should have guessed that that summer was the high water mark of Andrejsala’s evolution, and gone back to Estonia to reflect on what had happened, or moved to a bigger city, like Berlin.
Instead, I chose to move to Riga, reasoning that I could benefit from having such a symbiotic relationship with the crew. Maybe we’d open a club together. Perhaps I could get funding from the Latvian government to open a B.East office in Riga. I could tell that the Singalong crew were a bit taken aback by my decision to rent a flat and move there permanently. Being paranoid, I thought that familiarity had bred contempt, and that they had begun to dislike me somewhat. Despite their protests that I’d be better off moving elsewhere, I found a flat, moved all my stuff down, and started a new life in Riga in the fall.
Almost immediately after settling down, I realized that something was amiss. The blissful anarchism of spring and summer had given way to something darker, something more sinister. The government announced plans to privatize the port and gentrify the area, building modern office blocks, a Modern Art Museum and an underground parking lot. Singalong Hostel was given three months to find a new space and vacate the premises. Meanwhile, the rich Russians had gotten permission to build a chic nightclub at the entrance to Andrejsala, and they were pressuring the authorities to close down Space Garage. Police raided the place in October, and hauled away suspected drug users. It was closed after that and both Zagga and Kirill turned catatonic in the way Baltic people tend to when faced with misfortune. They’d come by my place and not speak for hours or mumble about opening another club, then leave suddenly.
Without Space Garage on the weekends, they felt their lives had lost meaning. Kirill disappeared to Moscow for long periods, trying to set up a record label or some other crazy venture. It was the fall of 2008, and the effects from the global financial meltdown were felt almost instantly. As easy credit dried up, the whole pyramid system of easy money that had fueled the past years’ lifestyle came crashing down. Less visitors came through as the crisis deepened, and with Space Garage shut, the crew started getting itchy feet. Zagga, Linnards, and others would take EasyJet weekends to Berlin and come back recharged and refreshed. In Riga, they were on the edges of society; in Berlin, though, they were in the mainstream. Unlike provincial Riga, Berlin prided itself on its underground culture, its embrace of Olstalgia and its free bohemian spirit. The contrast with materialistic Riga, where the artists were being hounded at every corner, couldn’t have been greater.
Linnards was the first to go, moving to Berlin with great fanfare in late fall, around November I believe. Then a gorgeous redhead photographer I had long fancied announced she was moving to Prague to study film. A few of the DJs upped and moved to Moscow where they could score better gigs. Eline fell in love with an American techno DJ based in London and decided to try her luck there, now that Singalong was closed. Come Christmas, I realized that Zagga and I were practically the last of the spring crew. Since Riga was so small, what takes ten years in New York had happened here in one. I celebrated New Year’s Eve with friends in a third floor apartment that had been decorated to look like the original Space Garage, with retro posters, red leather couches, catwalks for dancing and so on… The ones who were home from the bigger cities talked of the past, and the ones who remained behind also talked about the past. Riga, even for the ones who had stayed behind, had become a dead city, just a vessel for memories from a bygone era. I wondered what I was still doing there and realized that everyone else was also wondering the same thing. What had happened to the B.East? How come he hadn’t also unleashed his own personal B.East into the world? Two weeks later, I packed whatever I could fit into a Range Rover with an adventurous English friend of mine and drove to Kiev, Ukraine, to start a new life.