Ilya Ostrovsky, the man behind KUBANA festival, only had a couple of hours before his flight back to Moscow — a flight he had booked in a state of confusion just the night before, not knowing where he was going or when. But that was enough time to squeeze in a quick lunch with The Baltic Times to discuss life, music and geopolitics over a bowl of solyanka.
Mr. Ostrovsky is a man in a hurry, and not a man you would forget in a hurry. On first impression, he is - almost to the point of cliche - what you would imagine of an alternative music and event producer: dark sunglasses despite the rainy weather, running several minutes late, phone ringing almost constantly, keeping the sunglasses on as we step inside the Desa&Co cafe for lunch.
Suitably enough, the cafe is on Moscow Street, where Mr. Ostrovsky, himself a Moscovite, asked to meet us. A tattoo of Peter Pan pokes out from underneath a short black and white striped t-shirt; skull rings and fish hook bracelets as accessories ...
We sit down at a dimly lit table. Initially Ostrovsky orders a burger, but they’re out of those. A small bowl of Solyanka will have to do, a warming soup for a drizzly day.
Apart from organizing KUBANA festival, Mr. Ostrovsky manages STROVA-media company, which used to produce some Russian festivals and alternative bands, such as TARAKANY! and Kirpichi.
Now, however, the company is mainly focused on KUBANA, which takes up most of their time and energy.
Mr. Ostrovsky wasn’t always in the music industry. In fact, he got into show business after a career in psychology. As he explained, he used to work with teenagers with alcohol or drug addictions.
Considering he hasn’t touched any drug substances, aside from the occasional cigarette, for more than 17 years himself, this seems to be a logical decision — after all, “there’s no point in using those addictive substances while trying to help young people to fight their addiction,” he said.
So far everything makes sense, perhaps apart from the question how he got from being a psychologist for troubled teens to earning a big name in the alternative music industry, which is often associated with a lifestyle that glamorises a fast life of drinking, drugs and music.
“In the end of 90s it was very popular to organize social events like anti-drugs and anti-aids concerts,” he says. “So I started to produce those events. After those experiences I decided to be more involved in show business, and step by step my psychology career was over, or rather became something like a hobby.”
You can clearly see this charismatic man behind the dark shades is still interested in his past occupation, and after being asked more questions about it, he removed his shades, revealing not only his intense, sincere-looking brown eyes, but also additional reasons for changing his professional field.
“You know, at one point I just realised that the actions I was trying to take and the help I was trying to provide could not change the situation on a larger scale,” he says, narrowing his eyes. “I wanted to see some serious results of my hard work, but alcohol and drug situation in Russia at that time was getting only worse, and I doubt that it got any better now.”
Indeed, Russia’s struggle with alcoholism and drug addictions is not anything new. While a few recent WHO reports state that the health indicators of the Russian population when it comes to drug and alcohol related illnesses seem to be improving, the consumption of alcohol and drugs is not getting much better.
To raise morale in a struggling economy, Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently reduced alcohol tariffs to lower the price of alcohol — these sorts of measures would make Ostrovsky’s quest to reduce alcoholism in Russia even more difficult.
Moving to more cheerful topics, Mr. Ostrovsky was keen on sharing the unusual fate of Kubana festival.
Since its launch in 2009, KUBANA became one of the major events in the alternative scene, annually being held in Krasnodar region, close to Anapa and Crimea. That is, until its closing down in 2014.
“A lot of tragic events started happening in Ukraine, and we literally got caught between two fires — Crimea, Donbass…” he recalls. “Then the tragedy with the Malaysian plane happened...” This, of course, had consequences — many foreign performers started to cancel, and the numbers of visitors has decreased drastically.
From having around 200,000 people in 2013, KUBANA went down to just 30,000-40,000 people in 2014. Thus, the 2014 festival was meant to be a ‘farewell’ one.
But a couple of months later, Mr. Ostrovsky and his crew announced that KUBANA will live on, but with a different home address.
“Everybody thought I was crazy to try and sell tickets without announcing the destination point, but I knew it will work out”.
This seemingly wild idea turned out to be quite rewarding indeed — more than 5,000 people have already bought their tickets, ready to follow KUBANA anywhere.
Originally, Mr. Ostrovsky had high hopes for the Latvian beach resort of Jurmala, as “probably every Russian, including me, associates Jurmala with summer, sea and relaxation. A perfect fit for KUBANA”.
But then it turned out to be impossible to arrange anything there, or at other seaside venues - and, to make matters worse, there have been some serious economic issues in Russia, including a sharp decline of the value of the ruble against the euro, made it harder to set up anywhere in the EU.
In the end it was decided to move the festival to Kaliningrad, which is part of Russia, after all. And yet KUBANA faced another misfortune, as Mr. Ostrovsky explained — almost everything was ready for the festival, but then it got cancelled somewhat arbitrarily by the local authorities and the only solution that would be technically possible became Riga.
While it’s not clear whether KUBANA will like its new home, Mr. Ostrovsky certainly seems to appreciate the Latvian capital: “I really like it here. My childhood was filled with some bits and pieces connected to Riga. The atmosphere here is really cosy, and people are friendly. Unfortunately, not all Russians share my feelings, and most of them believe in a myth that Latvians have a really negative attitude toward Russia and Russian-speaking people. Personally, I didn’t have even one negative experience here”.
Talking about positive experiences in Latvia, Mr. Ostrovsky gladly shared his impressions about the mayor of Riga, Mr. Nils Usakovs, saying that he is quite different from any politician he has ever encountered in Russia.
“It is very pleasant to communicate with your mayor — he is modern, actively uses social networks and is extremely open. Actually, the first time I’ve met him reminded me of an old fairy tale, where tsar walks around his kingdom and everybody knows him personally.
"It was when we were walking on Lucavsala, and nearly every passerby was greeting him, and children were shouting ‘hello Nils!’ This was unlike anything I’ve experienced in Russia”.
Despite running late for his meeting in Riga City Council, Mr. Ostrovsky took the time to share his last thoughts on KUBANA’s future in Riga — after all, there is a lot at stake. The circumstances are economically challenging, considering that the festival’s prices might seem slightly too high to Latvian citizens.
“Your financial realities are completely different,” he points out, finishing off his soup. “We Russians are poor and not particularly happy, but when I came to Latvia I realised not everything is so bad in Russia.
"Of course all these circumstances cannot be a definitive indicator, but we will be able to make at least some conclusions about the future possibilities in the end”.
Mr. Usakovs suggested in a tweet that KUBANA will turn Lucavsala into an island of freedom. Only time will tell if that transpires. Nonetheless, Mr. Ostrovsky already seems to feel much less restricted here, and thinks that Russian ‘Kubanists’ will find Riga to be a Baltic paradise.