The History Of Propaganda: How A Small House Club Brought Techno To Moscow
It’s not easy to maintain a club in Russia. Rabitza, for example, closed just last year following aggressive police raids, and Arma 17 has been forced to move spaces—and eventually, to shut down—following years of similar problems with the city’s authorities. But Propaganda has managed to remain at the forefront of Moscow’s nightlife scene since 1997, bringing house heavyweights to Russia and providing a launching pad for local artists like Nina Kraviz. Its ongoing popularity is due in large part to its willingness to switch up the music, maintain an inclusive door policy and provide a dual-purpose café during the day.
As one of the most prominent clubs in one of the world’s largest cities, Propaganda is surprisingly small. Located just a 10-minute walk from Red Square in the center of Moscow, the 400-capacity venue is nowhere near the size of equivalent nightspots like Fabric or Berghain in other parts of the world. But since opening, the pint-sized party place has attained a global reputation. While best known for its embrace of soulful house, over the years, the musical repertoire of the club has expanded to include crate-digging funk, atmospheric drum & bass, and more recently, deeper strains of techno.
U.S. heavyweights like Joe Claussell, Dennis Ferrer and Timmy Regisford have all passed through the venue, while Nina Kraviz made vital steps towards super stardom through her Voices residency at the club between 2008 and 2010. It was notable as one of the first straight clubs in Moscow to host a dedicated weekly gay party—Sunday night’s China Town—and its “democratic” door policy sought to dissolve the elitism that Moscow nightlife developed throughout the late ‘90s.
The mood in Moscow in the mid ‘90s was one of liberation and openness following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Electronic music culture had gained a foothold, and techno, acid and trance could be heard in select clubs and makeshift locations for the first time, not unlike rave scenes elsewhere in Europe. But nightlife in the city was still one of extremes. The raves were aggressively underground, drug-fueled affairs, while other more mainstream clubs aspired to elitism at the door.
Propaganda’s founders, Kirill Saldadze and Alexander Ovsyannikov (a.k.a. Sasha), previously ran a live music venue called Krizis Zhanra (“The Writer’s Block”). Its location in an apartment complex, however, limited them in terms of opening times and available space. Seeking to expand, they gathered a 15-person-strong team around them and converted a traditional Russian restaurant on Bolshoy Zlatoustinskiy Lane into Propaganda as it still stands today.
The vision Saldadze and Ovsyannikov had for Propaganda was a simple one: To be a space where they and their friends could feel comfortable, and where they could hear the music they liked with a relatively open-door policy. Saldadze points out they didn’t want the club to be “too underground.”
By the opening night, there was still much to be done—the decks were set up on old school tables—but it was busy. A few local indie bands played, and then the new resident DJs came on afterwards. While it was a successful launch, at this point in time, Propaganda lacked a focused musical agenda.
“At first we only had amateur DJs,” explains Saldadze. “They played a mix of hits like ‘Connected’ by Stereo MCs, Jamiroquai, Nuyorican Soul, disco, some rock, acid jazz and funky grooves.” The DJs that came on board for the beginning of Propaganda were Dolschik, Anton Zap and Konstantin Dudakov-Kashuro (a.k.a. DJ Kostya).
“In the first year it wasn’t just a club scene,” says Dudakov-Kashuro. “Some quite famous bands played there, but we felt something had to be developed. Many things were evolving in the ‘90s in Russia, and we felt we were part of this time and these developments.”
Before Propaganda opened, British promoter and DJ Francesca Canty was told by a mutual friend in Moscow about Saldadze and Ovsyannikov’s desire to partner with a western promoter who could help them establish an international music policy and acquire bookings from outside Russia.
“[Propaganda] wanted something entirely different from the expat stripper bars on offer in Moscow at the time,” says Canty. “It was to be something very different for Moscow, based on the owners’ extensive experience of New York and other cities. The word they used was ‘democratic,’ meaning an easy vibe and entry not based on bribes, celebrity status or number of bodyguards.”
Canty was instrumental in bringing international DJs to Propaganda, and she also helped steer the club’s playlists from a mixture of trip hop, indie and disco into breakbeat, and eventually, house music.
“It’s worth saying that the party model for us was [the famous New York house night] Body & Soul,” says Dolschik, although the transition towards U.S. house music wasn’t always smooth.
“In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Propaganda was mainly famous for jazzy and vocal house,” says Dudakov-Kashuro. “Nervous Records, Strictly Rhythm, very warm and positive music. But neither Kirill or Sasha accepted this music for some time. I remember when Andrey Dolschik put on another vocal house record, and Sasha approached him and said, ‘Stop this and switch it to Oasis, or Olive.’”
With its embrace of U.S. and European dance music, Propaganda reflected the thawing of relations between Russia and the West during the ‘90s. The sense of optimism in the air went hand in hand with the feel-good, upbeat sounds you would hear in the club on a Friday and Saturday night. For young Muscovites, the prospect of aligning with Europe was an enticing prospect.
“There was a feeling of being with the Western trends finally,” says Dudakov-Kashuro. “We could get acquainted with people from the west, listen to and buy western music, see western films.”
Alongside Canty, Moscow record shop owner Boris Romanov also helped Propaganda forge connections in Europe and the U.S, starting with the club’s first international guest, Kevin McKay from Glasgow Underground. Although his label was prominent in the deep house scene, high profile international gigs were a rarity for McKay at the time, and he certainly wasn’t known in Moscow.
“There was this idea that people would want the kind of music I played and it didn’t necessarily need a famous face attached to it,” says McKay. “At first I played two or three times a year, and by 2001 when I played there it would be queued out.”
“The only thing that never worked was if I didn’t play house,” McKay recalls. “One of the biggest records at our night in Glasgow was an edit I did of The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done.” I had that looped up and this girl came up to me in Propaganda with a sign that said, ‘Please turn this off, it’s rubbish!’”
One of the nights that McKay would regularly play was Sanchez Thursdays—one of Propaganda’s most iconic nights which just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Helmed by Sergey Sanchez, the nights represented Propaganda’s embrace of deep house as its signature sound.
“I was first invited to play at Propaganda in 1998,” says Sanchez. “I didn’t have any information about it before I went there. Moscow dance floors at that time consisted of bandits with prostitutes and various freaks, so I was ready for anything. I immediately felt comfortable and safe in Propaganda, like home.”
Sanchez had full control of the Thursday night, and what started as a gathering for 20-30 people ending at midnight grew to become a hugely popular party running until the morning, boosted by free entry and Sanchez’s reputation as a DJ.
“Sanchez Thursdays was a point where the club’s identity was established,” says Saldadze.
Six months after the club opened, they branched out to offer food during the day. And while they may not be the only club in the world to do so, there’s a unanimous feeling that Propaganda got the tricky balancing act right. Many people talk with fondness about the transition that takes place from a sit-down dining space into a full-on dance floor.
“Because the place has been open all day and starts off the evening as a cafe, it feels like you’re in a house party that’s gradually getting more and more exciting,” explains McKay. “It started off as a dinner party, more people have arrived, the lights go down and then someone clears a space. The music gets a bit louder, gradually the tempo increases. I imagine it’s similar to what used to happen in David Mancuso’s Loft. It feels very natural.”
Propaganda’s role as a café as well as club helps set it apart from grimier places you might go to hear dance music. But they were conscious to avoid the elitism that was rife in Moscow nightlife when they opened. “Face control” is a well-established part of the city’s club scene, giving one person on the door authority over who goes in and who stays out. Saldadze stresses their vision of Propaganda as “a democratic club environment for normal young people,” but they’ve clearly engineered a particular kind of middle class, fashionable, educated crowd over the past 20 years.
“In Moscow in the ‘90s, there were rock and punk clubs with live concerts, beer and motorcycles,” says Dudakov-Kashuro, “and on the opposite side ravers, techno and trance clubs that were more drug oriented. Propaganda was the club between these two opposites. Some techno fans, some rock fans, people from different social strata, but practically no teenagers.”
As the profile of Propaganda rose to become one of Moscow’s best-known clubs, it started to attract a mixture of tourists and ex-pats alongside the locals. McKay recalls hearing a lot of people speaking in English in the club rather than having a sense that it was especially “Russian.” It’s a trend that’s continued to this day, with the mixture of nationalities and backgrounds feeding into a crowd of genteel party people who recognize Propaganda as a music-centric destination.
While deep house, disco and funk were the foundations of Propaganda’s sound for the first 10 years, the club did experiment with other music as well. Dudakov-Kashuro and Anton Zap threw midweek parties early on representing the deeper strains of drum & bass. While these parties were reportedly not as popular as other drum & bass events in Moscow, in later years, Propaganda would embrace drum & bass one more via the Refreshed nights, hosting scene leaders like Goldie and dBridge.
One of the most pivotal additions to Propaganda’s party roster was China Town in July 2001. At that time, gay nightlife in Moscow was primarily confined to specifically gay venues, and Propaganda was the first regular club to add a gay party to its repertoire. It was also unusual at the time to have a major club night on a Sunday, but 17 years later, China Town is still going strong. The initial front man of the party was DJ Shushukin, who played a mixture of classic and Chicago house. He was followed by Tony Key, and then DJ Slava. Thierry Thomas has been playing at China Town since 2010.
“Propaganda was always gay friendly and never defined itself as a gay or straight club,” says Thomas, “but I can say for sure that over the years, China Town was one of the most popular gay parties [in Moscow]. At China Town, you can see anyone on the dance floor: queer, gay, straight, boys and girls.”
Of the different residencies and regular parties held at Propaganda, one of the most renowned was Nina Kraviz’s Voices. When Siberia-born Kraviz took over the Friday night slot in 2009, she was on the rise, but a long way from the premier league status she holds in the global dance music community now.
“I met Nina looking for the new Friday night promoter,” explains Saldadze. “She was ambitious and bold. She proposed a good DJ team, a plan for international guests and we decided to try. She gave us a new breath and brought really cool guests—I remember her devotion to the music she loved.”
Kraviz has since acknowledged that her residency at Propaganda was significant in the development of her career. Her taste for deeper, techno-oriented sounds saw respected underground names like Dopplereffekt, Steffi, Marcel Dettmann and Radio Slave come to the club. Voices was short-lived, however. Within a couple of years, the residency was over. Kraviz has spoken in interviews with bitterness about being fired from the job, although it clearly hasn’t hampered her progress.
“I think after some time she began concentrating on her career too much,” says Saldadze. “It didn’t help the prosperity of the party, and we had to change it.”
This lack of compromise on Saldadze’s part is woven throughout the musical evolution of Propaganda. Many DJs and promoters talk about abrupt endings to their professional relationships with the club. Dudakov-Kashuro’s tenure lasted until 2005, by which point he had grown bored of playing the traditional deep house the club was best known for.
“2005 was a very different period of time to the mid ‘90s,” he explains, “so I started to mix everything and even play some Russian rock bands, and it was totally against Sasha and Kirill’s tastes. They told me once, they told me twice, and then they decided to say goodbye to me and to Anton [Zap].”
“Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a long-lasting residency or DJ,” says Saldadze. “Usually at some point, people coming to the club start being indifferent to the party and we have to make changes and invite other DJs and promoters.”
Kraviz’s Voices night reflected a shifting trend in the wider electronic music community towards techno, and following her departure, Propaganda made a committed move to represent the genre with the 2010 launch of Warehouse as the flagship Friday night session. The night, which still runs to this day, is helmed by resident and booker Sergey Timoshov, a.k.a. Sergey AM.
“When Kirill decided I could make my own party at Propaganda on a Friday night, I told him that I would like to promote a techno party,” says Timoshov, “because we didn’t have a regular techno party in Moscow. It was quite difficult for the first two years, but now techno is really quite normal for people in the club.”
Over the past eight years Warehouse has hosted the likes of Answer Code Request, Tobias. and Marcel Fengler, UK crossover acts like Randomer and Sync 24 and Dutch mainstays such as DJ Overdose, A Made Up Sound and Ekman. The recent resurgence of electro has equally been embraced by Propaganda—it’s a club that seems to react to the ebb and flow of interest in the electronic music community.
“I always respected Sergey [Timoshov]’s passion and the way he was really trying to build something special in Moscow,” says Cyril Etienne, a.k.a. DJ Deep, a repeat booking at Warehouse. “You could tell music is not just an accessory there.”
Even if the music policy at Propaganda has felt a little reactive rather than proactive over the years, the sincerity of the club’s tastes has been demonstrated in a range of recorded music output. There were various mixed CDs released through the ‘00s, put together by Sergey Sanchez, Anton Zap and Sergey A.M. amongst others, but the recent drift towards techno has resulted in a 12” series on Propaganda Moscow that reflects the booking policy at Warehouse. Act I to Act IV have so far featured the likes of Marcelus, Jeroen Search, Zadig and DJ Deep.
“The way they handle their music label is, again, no gadget,” says Etienne. “They don’t do it ‘Because everyone does a label.’ After they picked up my track, they suggested I make some changes, and actually they were right.”
Propaganda’s adaptability has certainly been one of its strengths in more than 20 years of operation. Despite—or perhaps because of—its size, it continues to hold onto its status as one of the leading clubs in one of the world’s major cities, and consistently ranks alongside the likes of Berghain and Fabric (Kraviz once likened Propaganda to the latter).
“I feel it’s a complicated time for underground electronic music in Moscow,” says Sylvain Peltier, a.k.a. Warehouse regular Zadig, “but Propaganda is still alive, offering a large music spectrum. Even when it is the restaurant, the resident DJs are playing some very high-quality music.”
For locals and international guests alike, it remains one of the best places in Moscow to hear serious electronic music. The music policy has been chameleonic since the start, but by adopting a broader outlook towards emerging trends in other parts of the world and maintaining the intimacy of its dancefloor, Propaganda has continued to appeal to successive generations of clubbers.
At times the odds can be stacked against venues in the city. Arma in particular has had a long history of clashes with authorities, and their Outline Festival was shut down in 2016. Propaganda, too, has been raided by police in the past, but thanks to its longevity and its appeal to a moderate, international middle ground of nightclub attendees, it now has a kind of institution status. It’s that status—and an even mix of passion and pragmatism—that ensures it can remain a pivotal source of electronic music in Moscow.
Read more: These photos document the lives of Moscow ravers after dark
Published July 30, 2018.