8 жніўня 2017

“I Wouldn’t Have Made it if it Weren’t For This Place”

1 542
“Even by taxi it still would take long to get there. It was a no-nonsense bar. No censorship. No glamour. Big things happened there — harsh arguments, tears… Do you want to meet someone or to see your friends? Go to the Vavilava, girl…”
Изображение: Vika Biran
© Vika Biran
In the early 2000’s all-girl lesbian parties used to take place at the dining hall of the Vavilava plant in Minsk. This text is an attempt to show and preserve the actual experience of lesbian women in Belarus through personal recollections about this place.

The lack of continuity still makes it possible to speak of LGBTQ as of something uncharacteristic of Belarus, as a “threat from the West”. I want to believe that archiving these real voices will help counter the “blind spots” and the practice of exclusion.

Despite all the ambiguity of the experience described, with all its violence, characteristic of a patriarchal society, it is important for me to treat it with respect and gratitude. The choices we make today, as well as our opportunities and challenges, are partly a result of this experience.

I am deeply grateful to all the people who appear in this piece.

At the time the Vavilava was the only place that positioned itself as a party place exclusively for lesbians

“I Wouldn’t Have Made it if it Weren’t For This Place”© photo by Vika Biran

Smilie, the organizer of the Vavilava’s parties, tells how it all started. Almost as if by tradition we chose to speak in a coffee-house named SajuzAnlajn near what had earlier been known as Panikoūka [1]. It had been right here that over ten years ago Smilie started spreading the information about her first parties. More than ten years have passed since.

I used to hang out at the Anlajn back when it was still an internet café. Three times a week I was here. I was selling fliers. It was early 2003, I was 20 years old… The Vavilava [2] existed for seven years in total.

From the very beginning the concept for this place was to serve as a meeting point for friends. It was not a commercial project. It was for friends to come together, for all of them to be able to meet and hang out where it was safe, not somewhere where you’d have to come and keep thinking: can I kiss my girlfriend here or not? What looks will I get… At first, there had been both guys and girls. Later on, maybe three years in, I turned it into all-girls parties. I only invited girls to come.

A face-control system was in place — no boys allowed. But should a group of girls come with a boy tagging along, a friend whom they could not leave at home to stay alone and bored, we would let him in as long as his friends vouched for him. Boys could not come in alone. But girls — they were all welcome. Why discriminate? We are all different. We look different, we think different. We are all different. We are only united by this place to which we could all come hang.


The separateness of the Vavilava party place was probably its brightest feature, which gets particularly singled out by almost everyone I speak to, all the frequent party-goers.

It is just that this was the only all-girls party at the time. All the rest were mixed or rather skewed towards boys. But the Vavilava was the only place that would run theme, or tema [3] parties for girls back then.

Lena and Ania

To view photos, click on the thumbnail

«The parties at the Vavilava were a unique experience of a separate environment, but it is curious how this environment was perceived by the people that were looking for it»

As I asked Smilie whether there was something at her parties she could not allow, she said: fights, but also the impossibility to avoid them. Part of the reason being, indeed, that the only guests were girls.

Smilie: “Since we all were part of pretty much the same crowd, we all knew each other — who had broken up with whom, who had started dating… And then they would meet here, they would get ridden by emotions. You cannot run away from emotions like these”.

Fights, aggression, hardcore — these are the things mentioned by almost everyone speaking about the parties at the Vavilava… From the interviews it becomes apparent that this experience also included a lot of the violence characteristic of the patriarchal culture. This is how this place is described by a DJ named Tattoo, who played music at the Vavilava from the early days of its existence:

DJ Tattoo: “All in all, there were quite prominent divisions within the Panikoūka gang. They would approach you asking: “Are you a butch or a dyke?” [4] Just like that, looking you into the eyes… And you weren’t even quite sure what the difference was. Hypothetically you knew, but you would think of yourself as part of both… So you stand there thinking. You don’t wear heels. It’s not that you’re really a dyke, but not quite a butch either. Sometimes questions like this would baffle you. But the Vavilava was a… no bullshit crowd of no bullshit lesbians…”

It turns out that, in this case, a separate environment was not only a place where people would find safety from violence, but where they would commit violence themselves. What do the girls mean, then, when they speak of the separateness of the Vavilava as safety?

Maybe, in those times an all-women, lesbian space was not so much a place for physical safety, but somewhere where it was safe to express yourself beyond the gender boundaries that entail female non-aggression by default. Society limits the scope of a woman’s expression, it ignores her emotional range. It is probably because of this that even the manifestations of violence bore, in this case, a flair of liberation:

“I liked it that at that place, you didn’t have to play a role of someone you were not. If you are a simple butchara [5], to put it crudely… Someone like that could come without having to pretend to be gentle and feminine… It was a natural environment — everyone was what they actually were”
“… it had a captivating feeling of freedom to it. Yes, there were fights, of course, but people would come and relax, despite the fights. Everyone danced in whatever way they liked…”
“… nobody would tell you that you look bad there, that you look wrong, that you act wrong…”
“At the Vavilava noone cared what you were doing. You didn’t have to be anything specific there. So you could do whatever you wanted. You could behave the way you were most comfortable with”

The Vavilava as a party place

Parties at the Vavilava would run roughly twice a month. It was a usual factory dining hall, a state-run place, and arrangements for renting it out had to be made with the factory director.

Smilie: “People have their salaries paid twice a month too, so two parties were enough. Because otherwise where would people get the money to attend?”

In her publication Lesbian Youth Subculture in Saint-Petersburg, Russian gender researcher Nadya Nartova writes about a special crowd that came into being because lesbian women had few places to come together:

“This was a group of people where everyone knew practically everyone else, either in person, or by sight, or second hand. They would spend their free time together while communicating beyond the dance parties as well” [6]

These words by Nadya Nartova apply very well to the girl parties in Minsk. Several statements by the people I spoke with point to the fact that the Vavilava was not just a club, but rather a place for a certain crowd to gather.

Sasha and Olia: “Damn, you would know everyone. I would have loved not to know them all, but still I did — although some of them only second hand…”

“…the concept of this place was a gathering of friends…”
“…people always come for the people…”
“… it wasn’t the kind of party you have nowadays, not an event for dancing. It was rather something like… spending time with friends...”
“…the music didn’t matter, what did matter were the people who came…”

Because of the essential need to maintain security, to protect the place from strangers — those who could cause harm, the Vavilava was a rather closed place. The nature of the location contributed to establishing this closed character (far off the city centre, on the second floor of an unremarkable building) as well as the fact that the information about the parties was spread exclusively through personal contacts. Thus the security was maintained, but at the same time the place was quite exclusive and not for everyone to attend.

“The easiest way to get into a closed circle of people who all knew each other was through someone who belonged there already”

Smilie:“In order to come to the party you had to know someone. If I don’t know you, if you don’t know people, then sorry. You must have either a friend or a group to vouch for you”.

This way of becoming one of “our own” (by the mediation of the so-called “guides”) was a common feature to all the scene gathering places of the time:

Masha: “When I was first brought to the Panika, there was no one there. I met a girl online, she just brought me there and said: Here’s where everyone gathers”.

Tattoo: “I came to the Panikoūka during my first year of college, I think… I met someone on chat.by. Someone had already been there: “Hey, there is this place called “Panika”, let’s arrange to meet”. And then you come. You know one person, whom you have met in a chatroom. This person hangs out there, they introduce you to others — and just overnight you get to know ten other lesbians or so. You already have your mini-circle. Then I would bring people who didn’t know anything”.

Lena: “The face control there [at the Vavilava parties] was only to establish whether one belonged to the community — for example, when I bring someone I say they are with me, and they know me through somebody else”.

Often people in search for a community would first come to the “Panikoūka” and there they would learn about other places, including the Vavilava. I wonder whether any criteria existed for people to choose this or that place. My interlocutors say that the choice of the place could depend on one’s social status.

There were other places too, not just the Vavilava. For a while there was also the Kletka, the Fortuna… In essence, they did not differ all that much, but… It was like the Fortuna was more elite, for people of some kind of status, I don’t know. There were people who thought that to hang out at the Panika and with its people was ew, ew, ew… In the sense that “these people who hang out together all around town” suck, that they are just drunks who have all slept one with the other, while us — were are an elite lesbian circle, who hang out here separately (in the BAM cafe). Or, like, we would be there at the Panika, but not exactly there, rather in the yard… Although, in essence, they were not different at all — they would come here every day, drink the same beer.


© photo by Vika Biran

Depending on the organizers' policy, different places could set up their own “filters”, which would cut off the undesired public. For example, there could be the financial factor (the admission fee) or a certain dress code.

Lena: “Some parties had a strict face control policy, others a looser one. In fact, they were all people, but they all had different backgrounds, came from different social contexts. Stuff like that… To put it short, there were events for simpler people, and there were ones for those who wanted to look like they were higher class. So they would put up an appearance filter. The primary cut-off tool was the admission fee that was only affordable for a certain group with money and according social status… Also, they would judge your looks. Psychologically, I like the fashionable crowd better. It is important for me that the people are not aggressive in that crude lesbian sense, who don’t only come there to pick you up for sex. But I can’t dress as well as those people and I don’t fit in with that crowd. So this filter works against me”.

It seems like the Vavilava was exactly the type of place with the fewest “filters”, the lowest entry barriers: almost anyone could get in, regardless of their age, income, etc.

Smilie: “It used to be possible to come to the Vavilava with no money at all, just to scrape up enough to pay for the entrance. You would come and get a seat at any table. You would be offered food and drinks. And a cigarette if you didn’t have any. People would come and say: damn it, Smilie, let me in, I have no money right now. Tomorrow I get paid, I’ll pay you back… And I’d let them in…”

As to the age, the Vavilava was frequented by people of absolutely all ages (“Age? Different — forty, up to fifty. There were enough guests of all kinds”). Today Smilie keeps throwing her parties, but now they are arranged at different places (each time a new one) — once or twice a year. She says that the same people come, but it becomes ever harder to make the older women go out:

Smilie: “The very same people come, just older. In some sense they’ve become smarter, but on the other hand they still have the same silliness in their heads… People come who are already about 60 years old: back then they were 50, now they are 60… They only come to my events. There are about 10 people of this age of 50-60 years old. We used to try to convince them to go out more often… But now they have kids, some of them grandkids. They think: Why would I come? What would I do there? They even treat relationships differently. They have different values: they already have been living for about 15 years with their other half… Some just turn their phones off, so nobody can call and invite them”.

Due to the fact that the “filters” at the Vavilava were quite flexible, it would also be the go-to place for younger girls were not allowed into other places. For instance, Masha first came here when she was still at school. Back then this was the only tema place where she could go.

Masha: “I was 16 or 17 years old, I remember for sure that I was underage. I frequented the place. I would get there in any way I could. At the time I didn’t have a job or anything — I was still at school. (…) For me it was just a cozy place, a place where I felt comfortable. Because at school with your classmates, or even your relatives you don’t feel the same, obviously. But there… There you could forget about all that. You would always feel special in some way, not like your classmates. Of course, there were lots of talks of different kinds, even with teachers, when they would say “Children, you’re growing up, starting to get interested in boys”… I was growing up and realizing that I was not. Maybe I wasn’t growing up at all! In any case, this is all frightening at first, when you don’t understand what that is yet. And that it needn’t be squeezed into any boundaries. You wouldn’t want to be locked into boundaries. But there were boundaries everywhere. Apart from such places as the Panika, the Vavilava… They helped me a lot in life” .

“I would have probably not made it if it weren’t for these places. It is precisely a place like this that shows you that you can feel secure because you’re not alone…”

By providing a sense of security, tema spaces (Panikoūka, SajuzAnlajn, Vavilava and others) also helped the guests to reveal their group identity. People came here not only to relax, meet others, have a beer or two. An important aspect was accepting their identity and legitimizing it with the help of others (you need other lesbians to know about you, then you can enter the community). Smilie says that at the time tema spaces required even greater awareness on the part of the visitors.

Smilie: “Certainly, now it is more open, everyone is more accustomed to this. I understand that we are now approaching a point when no one will be paying attention to this. There is a difference already. It can even be noticed in how people look at you on the subway. Now there is more information around, everything is out in the open… In the earlier days it required a special kind of awareness. In order to come to the Panikoūka, one had to go through so much. People would go crazy back then because it was all unknown and forbidden, as in “I’m not like everybody else!””…

Other girls also speak of the importance of support and the need to belong and be accepted:

Ania: “One earring in the left ear meant you were one of us. So did a pierced eyebrow. A ring on the thumb or on a pinkie — you’re in. This is really how it was, I’ve checked — the earring, the ear, I used to wear one earring too. We needed identification signs. Poor me had it hard having a braid down to the waist… But I needed to mark myself out. Ten years ago we survived in any way we could. How else would we recognise one another? Everyday you go to the university, and it’s suffocating there, but on certain special days… I mean, it also has to do with identity, with self-identification… It’s something separate, closed. So you go there. Nobody knows that place where you go and where you can meet someone… Damn, you’re 17, you realise you’re a lesbian, where else can you meet someone? Nowadays it’s not that important anymore. But when you’re a teenager you need to stick with your own, because it is scary to be alone, “different” or whatever. It’s like belonging somewhere: “I’m no emo, I’m tema”“.

“It was very important. I needed to feel the support, it was important for me to belong to a subculture. It was a part of my life”.

Esma: I was 16 when I first came to the Vavilava. Before that I had seen that all my friends had their own gangs… And there were these identification signs or something, signalling that you belonged to a scene too. It was like a marker. Everyone had a certain crowd to hang out with, and you did too. I have my own place in this world, let it be in a format like this.

Why were places like the Vavilava or Panikoūka possible back then and why have they ceased to exist now? How were they different from today’s queer places? Strange though it may seem, everyone points out that today there there is a choice of spaces to go to. However, in terms of sheer numbers the choice has shrinked: neither the Babylon, nor the Lucik, the Panikoūka itself, or other places exist anymore. What do the girls mean, what choice are they talking about?

It is possible that the Internet and the projects dedicated to gender that keep emerging today give people the feeling of a general cultural change… One may wonder: how does this choice influence the way we perceive our identities today?

1. Aleksandrovsky Square, a small public park in the very centre of Minsk, known as the Panikoūka or Panika to its frequent visitors.—Here and below translator’s notes.
2. The dining hall at the Vavilava plant in Minsk, which used to be rented out for lesbian and gay parties.
3. The collective’s name is made up of two words. Tema (literally “theme” or “topic”) is code for lesbian that originates from the Soviet times. The term and its connotations are discussed in depth further in the interview. Vidos is contemporary slang for video.
4. The term dyke was borrowed into Russian and Belarusian with a shift in meaning: rather than a synonym of lesbian, it came to designate an androgynous lesbian presentation, something considered to be “in-between” the poles of butch and femme.
5. Butchara, a lesbian slang derivative of butch in Russian and Belarusian, has a connotation of crudeness, but can also be a term of endearment.
6. Nartova, Nadya. 1999. Molodyozhnaya Lesbiyskaya Kultura v Sankt-Petergurge [Youth Lesbian Subculture in Saint Petersburg]. Molodyozhnye Dvizhenia i Subkultury Sankt-Peterburga [Saint Petersburg Youth Movements and Subcultures], edited by V. Kostyushev. Saint Petersburg: Norma, 209-226.
7. The Babylon and the Lucik were gay clubs in Minsk.