The train leaves from St Petersburg’s Finlyandsky Station at 7am. We plough our way through commuters on the city’s Metro, before arriving at our point of departure; marble busts of Bolshevik heroes gaze down as we huddle over hot coffees, casting long shadows across the concrete platform.
Russia’s Systo Palty Festival is a large ethno/electronic music festival, which has been held at varying locations across the country since its inception in 2004.
This year’s psychedelic gathering took place deep in the forests north of St Petersburg, just outside the village of Kuolemayarvi (Куолемаярви).
The village still bears the name it was given before Peter the Great took these lands from Scandinavia, and it translates literally as ‘Lake of Death’. It was on this spot that the celebrated theologian and political philosopher Mikael Agricola died in 1557… falling into a fever on his way back from negotiating the Treaty of Novgorod with Tsar Ivan ‘the Terrible’ in Moscow; where he stood as a representative of Gustav I Vasa, King of Sweden.
History aside, Kuolemayarvi is far from macabre. Situated just a three-hour drive from Helsinki, the glassy waters of the lake are surrounded on all sides by dense green pine forests – forming a tranquil and remote setting for one of the strangest festivals I have ever experienced.
It is almost midday before we’re descending the archaic metal rungs down to the platform. The station lies in a grassy strip ploughed through the heart of the forest, populated now by milling groups of festival goers clad in everything from rough-spun multi-coloured jumpers to hiking gear and waterproofs.
It’s a fair trek from here to the lake where the festival is held, but as we’re getting ready for the walk we’re approached by a local farmer. He has stumbled across an opportunity for profit, by ferrying people back and forth in the back of an old white van. So, we pay him a handful of Rubles each, and climb aboard… into a pitch black chamber crammed with Russian hippies and agricultural machinery, my open can of beer splashing foam onto my legs at every turn in the road. We make one brief stop, at a shop in the village of Kuolemayarvi itself – giving me a chance to stock up on practical supplies such as peanuts, more beer and a bottle of honey and chilli vodka.
I’m tagging along to Systo festival with new-found friends: Stasya, Vanya and Katerina. Only Stasya has a ticket however, and so we get out of the van a little way before the main gates. We manage to avoid the security roadblock as we blunder through the dense forest, avoiding bogs, and following the sound of pulsing bass until we stumble out onto a service road within the main festival site.
By the time we arrive the five-day, four-night festival is already in full swing; tents, wigwams and other assorted shelters lie scattered amongst the pines while dreadlocked youths wander to-and-fro fetching water or gathering wood for campfires.
We meet some of Stasya’s friends in the forest, where they are busy setting up camp. They’re not unfriendly but I sense some kind of tension, and after a brief Russian exchange Katerina leads us away from the group. I don’t understand, but it’s explained to me as we walk off towards the lake; we’re holding open cans of beer at this point, and it transpires that these teetotal young festival-goers don’t want us drinking it anywhere near them.
We walk awhile beside the stony shore of the lake – past stalls selling homemade clothes, traditional honey cakes and masala chai. There are sound systems growing out of the trees at every turn, festooned with camouflage nets, streamers and died silk. In between these are an assortment of what could only be described as art installations: a great spider has been built beside the lake from a mass of foliage, moss and fallen branches; a grim reaper rendered from sticks and cobwebs bears a cardboard placard – with a Russian slogan that warns: “For a bad trip not to happen, give to the spirit of Systo a chocolate, sweet or some other nishtyak” .
Someone has borrowed a tent awning branded with the McDonalds logo, and beneath the golden arches they’re selling home-cooked vegan food. An open forest glade designated as a ‘chill-out area’ promises tea, snacks and games, while a tie-died banner reading “people are strange” flutters from the trees overhead. Later we pass a girl on horseback. She lies stretched out along the length of the creature’s back, taking a nap in the last warmth of the afternoon sun.
The festival area seems to spread indefinitely around the shores of the lake. Each time I think we’ve passed beyond the last cluster of tents, we round a corner in the forest path, and stumble into a clearing full of colourful stalls and speaker cabinets stacked under tarpaulin. Apparently Systo Palty is expecting as many as ten thousand visitors this year, and it’s certainly set up to handle the numbers. There are some impressive systems in place for waste recycling, and plenty of food stalls on offer – provided you can live without meat for a weekend. I was dubious at first, but it turns out I can.
The only thing that I struggled with here were the latrines. More pit than pot, each toilet block consists of a vast hole dug in the ground, surrounded by a chest-high fabric screen. Strips of black cloth divide the space inside into separate cubicles, while the cavernous gulf beneath is approached via a pair of parallel wooden planks. Imagine balancing over a deep, open sewer, feet placed on supple and slippery strips of wood, themselves not much wider than the average foot… the obvious danger just doesn’t bear thinking about.
Later we watch a jazz band performing on one of the smaller stages, and I’m trying to find a bar but it seems literally impossible to buy beer at this festival. Drinking is clearly not the main focus of the weekend, and instead the forest is filled with a range of tents, shacks, and even one beached boat, all selling an exotic variety of teas.
Eventually night begins to fall and we head back to the camp for supplies. I pocket the vodka, and find myself chatting to a Russian girl in German. I don’t remember how the conversation started or how we stumbled across this mutually functional language, but it’s refreshing to be able to converse with someone – my Russian being limited at best. Pretty soon I’m sat by a campfire, being offered cups of tea and a tray of strange grey biscuity residue, which tastes fantastic. Somebody somewhere is playing songs on an acoustic guitar while the sun sets over the lake.
When we head back towards the music and shiny lights, we pass through the ‘village square’ – a large clearing dominated by a rig adorned in red and yellow canvas. A net of peacock-patterned silk hangs over the whole area, its green and blue eyes picked out by dancing lasers. We stay here for a while before following the waterline towards the main stage – passing campfires under the trees, a water-bound sound system on a homemade raft, and an emcee battle at the hip-hop tent.
I don’t remember whose idea it was to go off-road, but suddenly we’re under the trees and scrambling down a hillside, through patches of thick undergrowth, to emerge before a ring of fire dancers.
We’re at the main stage now, and as the burning blades and fire ropes leave glowing after-traces in the cold air, the music gradually fades for this evening’s headliners: The Ozric Tentacles.
Spotlights lower their gaze to illuminate the main stage in a wash of reds and blues, the surrounding trees lit up with pulsing LED strips. The band emerge dressed in faded jeans and colourful, baggy jumpers, to be received with rapturous applause; and as the bass and drums kick into a high-speed subsonic trot, guitarist Ed Wynne unleashes a swirling, reverb-soaked solo, and suddenly bodies everywhere are moving; twisting and turning against a grooving wall of sound. The song draws to a climatic conclusion, the crowd roar, and bassist Brandi manages an appreciative “спасибо”.
Pushing forward to get a better view, I loose my friends somewhere in the crowd. By this point it doesn’t matter though, as I become increasingly enveloped in the droning bass, the dancing flames behind me and the writhing bodies of the crowd. Suddenly I remember the bottle of vodka in my pocket… the chilli burns alongside the initial vodka hit, but is immediately followed by a soothing wash of honey syrup, oozing luxuriously down my throat.
For a long time I’m lost in the music, the crowd spinning and turning around me. Then, inexplicably, I’m deep in conversation with a crazy-eyed Russian who keeps asking if I’m German while stroking his wispy moustache. “Nein,” I say. Undeterred, he professes his undying love for the German nation – so I nod, and all I can think to do is offer him some vodka.
We talk for a while in German, before he suddenly asks me to swear my allegiance to the Aryan cause.
I’m a little confused, but when he begins shouting and Sieg-Heiling I begin to understand better. Out of nowhere his friend appears, and these two drunk Russians start singing a boisterous song in German.
I pick out a few words like Juden and Lebensraum before retrieving my vodka from the man’s hand, and melting, clumsily, into the darkness.
My memories beyond this point are hazy at best. I know that somewhere along the way I finished the vodka. I have recollections of dancing on a patio, a half-dozen people holding hands in a ring while an Asian girl tries to orchestrate a Mexican wave.
By now I’ve forgotten I don’t speak Russian – as a result my communication skills seem to improve no end. I vaguely remember crawling through a long tarpaulin tunnel to emerge into a glowing chamber, presided over by a colossal effigy of Felix the Cat. Then I’m back at the village square; now a writhing sea of bodies that stretches far beyond the pulsing lights of the sound system, fading to darkness beneath the silhouetted pines.
The next thing I’m aware of is a pain in my head; pain, and the unbearable cold of a Russian forest. It seems to be midday and I’m on my own at the campsite – I haven’t seen the others since the Ozrics started playing.
I pass the next few hours drifting aimlessly around the festival ground. I try on some jumpers at the second-hand clothes tent, and manage to clear my head a little with a visit to the oxygen bar. There’s a samba drum orchestra playing on the main stage and in the crowd I recognise the moustachioed nazi from last night… but I manage to avoid his gaze. Next I spend about an hour watching a large bearded man in the village square – who dances like an animal high on fire – before returning to camp.
Stasya, Vanya and Katerina meet me there, and we spend the afternoon in the forest. Walking anticlockwise around the lake we eventually find a finger of land that juts out into the crystal clear waters, and we spend some time here just relaxing, listening to the gentle rippling sound of water against a backdrop of distant bass. Here and there pebbles have been stacked into precarious piles, their shadows gradually lengthening as dusk draws on.
Nearby, a makeshift wooden hut has been hung with a handwritten sign that reads “BANYA”; the door opens to release clouds of hot steam and a couple run naked and laughing to the lake’s edge, jumping headlong into water that couldn’t have been far above freezing point.
As we’re walking back, there’s a sudden commotion up ahead. I’m trying to make sense of the approaching figures, but eventually give up. An old man runs towards us moaning and gesturing, dressed in a fool’s garb, his hair braided with flowers. His wrists are tied and bound, and there follows a procession close behind him; his tormentors skip in single file, singing loudly and goading their captive with painted wands.
Dinner tonight comes in the form of a hot miso soup, served at the Hare Krishna tent. This domed structure has the appearance of a luminous igloo, standing out in sharp contrast against the vibrant sun set. After this it’s a reggae band on the main stage, washed down with a glass of traditional Russian honey beer – a perfect end to the evening.
The next morning is colder still… or perhaps I’ve simply had less to drink. Even under half a dozen layers of clothing there is little I can do to keep out the crisp chill of the forest. The e-book reader in my bag hasn’t fared much better, its screen frozen in a monochrome whirl of dead pixels.
We leave the festival mid-morning, although it looks as though many of our neighbours are putting down roots. The slow trudge back towards Kuolemayarvi takes us past a wrecked car, abandoned in the night. When we hit the main however, a passing driver turns out to be our friendly villager, and we catch a ride in his van back to the train station.
A short while later we’re sitting along the cold platform, watching a young couple play badminton on the grassy tracks. Behind us, some guy is playing upbeat folk on a ukelele while his friends sing along.
For me, Systo Palty did a lot to dispel some of the commonly held stereotypes about the Russian people; it’s certainly a far cry from the austere atmosphere of imperial seats such as Moscow, while introducing an entirely unique subset of Russian youth culture.
Peaceful yet never subdued, Systo is a wholesome celebration of music and dance – rather than the experiment in prolonged intoxication typical of so many festivals back home in the UK. The people I met here (save two) were gentle, creative sorts; Tea shops outnumbered bars ten-to-one, drugs were if not absent then at least invisible, and meat products seemed nonexistent – while the only vodka I encountered throughout the weekend came from my own pocket.
Cultural stereotypes spread slowly, and are hard to shift… it seems that many of those concerning the Russian people are criminally out of date. Systo Palty is everything that is good about music festivals, set in one of the most beautiful places one could imagine; it is both refreshingly honest and singularly bizarre.
 The Russian word “ништяк” (or “nishtyak”) is a colloquialism with no literal translation. In general terms though, it denotes a good thing.