This article is all about "Big Night Out," which started as a series on vice.com and graduates to SBS VICELAND tonight at 9:20. You should watch it.
The People's Republic Of Donetsk (formerly just "Donetsk") is a strange place.
After it was taken back from Ukraine by local militia and Russian forces in 2015, the area – which sees itself as ethnically, culturally and politically Russian, rather than Ukrainian – has become a heavily armed geo-political petri-dish. To get an idea of where the city is at right now, have a quick glimpse on TripAdvisor, YouTube or Facebook, and you won't find much about the place since the war started. Outside of war dispatches, most information you'll see is likely to be from before the conflict, when it was very much Ukraine's second city, with a thriving art and nightlife scene, and a football team that the world were paying attention to.
Eighteen months on and nearly 10,000 people are dead, the art institution is a military storage facility and the football team now plays on the other side of the country, back in Safe European Ukraine.
The People's Republic, generally known as the DNR, is a separate, partisan, paranoid place. The war fluctuates, but only ever to a stalemate. The shells no longer reach the city centre and life is seemingly going on as usual there, but from sushi bars and the Ramada hotel you can still hear mortars and RPGs from the frontline. This becomes much more audible after 11PM, when a region-wide curfew for all civilians begins. The streets are quickly emptied, with those who remain facing up to 15 days in a cell for their troubles. At 5AM, the curfew ends and you can hear cars on the roads again.
Donetsk is still very much a working city, and people still live here, still work here and even still manage to have some semblance of fun here. A few nightclubs still open up (at least until 11PM), which is why went to the city to film an episode of VICELAND's Big Night Out series: to see how anyone could still find time to party in a place like this. Most other media is banned by the regime, but seeing as we were making a film about nightlife, they decided to let us in. To this day, I'm not sure exactly why.
Our point of contact was a Finnish guy named Janus Putkonnen, a political eccentric who'd worked his way up to a relatively senior position in the de-facto DNR government, despite not speaking a word of Russian. Janus is precisely the kind of person who'd rise to prominence in a free-for-all like the DNR; a former soap opera actor, theatre director and alternative news blogger, he was an old school commie who saw the DNR as being at the forefront of a "world revolution".
It wasn't hard to imagine him as the DNR's Colonel Kurtz, or Lord Haw-Haw – an outsider who'd found a level of power in a place nobody else would dare go. He was one of those people who was always going to end up in a place like this. A merchant of weirdness. I doubt this is the last we'll hear of him.
To even get into Donetsk you need to cross military checkpoints on both the Ukrainian and Russian sides. A demilitarised road a few miles long separates the two states, with landmines studding the vast sunflower fields on either side. The Ukrainian side feels more official, like an airport with slightly more guns and regimented checks of vehicles. The Russian, or DNR, side is wilder and more intimidating, yet much easier to pass through. Wild dogs brush up against the barrels of AK47s hanging on young soliders' waists. You can't help but notice their Ray-Bans and fresh Flyknits.
"Fuck Ukraine," one of them reminded me as we left.
You come to this part of the world expecting total war, but what you get is a palpable weirdness. In the end you get very used to the gunfire in the distance, which is so separate, so routine and so focused between the separate forces that – from the safety of the city centre – it feels almost intangible. Instead, the things you pick up on are men in the hotel lobby who seem to watch you ("just Mafia guys", our fixers assure us), Facebook notifications about suspicious activity on your account and people walking into cafes and restaurants with guns. In the foyer of the hotel gym I saw one senior-looking officer sitting, fully armed, texting and half-watching Russian EDM videos on a music channel.
But the DNR isn't entirely without its charms. The Stalinist streak that runs through it means that this is a place fiercely opposed to globalisation. All chains and brands – bar the lonely American spectre of the Ramada – have been kicked out. There are no banks either, and walking through the streets it's hard not to applaud them for actually doing what the left in the West has talked about doing for so long. Donetsk is the Russell Brand dream, but realised in circumstances that even the most ardent of leftists would rather not condone.
But in the midst of all this extreme control and total chaos, glimmers of nightlife remain. A foam party in a beach resort, a club full of soldiers doing traditional dances, a crew of teenage BMX'ers calling themselves the "Pilz" collective (a kind of Russian version of Palace, complete with their own bucket hat range). And within that, you see the perseverance of people and the need to get this shit out of their system. It's a sight that makes all your romantic "living for the weekend" notions of escapism seem very petty indeed.
Watch "Big Night Out" Tuesday January 24, SBS VICELAND, at 9:20 PM.