Ülase12: The Home of DIY Punk & Autonomy in Tallinn

Ülase12 is a community social center in Estonian capital Tallinn. The place has been running since 2010 and it’s still strictly non-hierarchical, anti-fascist and DIY. Besides hardcore punk shows they are also co-hosting an anarchist bookfair, Ladyfest events, and run a lot of movie screenings, debates and community organizing.

Can you start with presentation of the social center and how it came to be?

At some point in 2010, it got clear to us that both the local anti-authoritarian movement and the local hardcore scene needed a home for their activities. This doesn’t mean we only limit ourselves to this one physical space, however, we’re always open if anyone needs help putting on a show, crashing on our couch and so on. None of us had any experience running a place like this, and we had nobody to ask advice for either as we were the first place like this in Estonia. So we basically just gathered people from different groups together and decided to give it a go, put in money from our own pockets and jumped in. Six years later we have hosted over 100 bands from across the world.

We have had movie screenings, discussions, dinners, workshops, self-defense, freeshops, provided people chance to meet or just crash on our couches. The space is run by a horizontally organized collective, consensus based decision making can be slow at times, but we think we can benefit from practicing it.

Unlike many social centers in Europe, you rent the place. Was it a choice, and how do you manage to keep the space open?

Before we decided to find the cheapest possible place to rent, we did try to squat several buildings. What makes us different from the Western parts of Europe is that we have no tradition of autonomist protest movements. Squatting was legally a very grey area 10 years ago, meaning some of the squats lasted for a few days, some longer, but it was impossible to hold public events in them. It was also difficult to organize any resistance during the evictions, as the movement itself was very small, we’re talking about less than 10 people. So we decided we need to focus on building a movement, writing, translating, very basic things, and this is easier to do when you don’t have to worry about losing all we’ve built in an hour.

Our aim is not to make money or earn our living by organizing this space. We’re all students and workers, mostly on minimum wage or precarious. We’re not financed by the state nor the city council, no sponsor deals or anything. We wouldn’t have even made it past the first year mark if it weren’t for our community of supporters, guests, friends, comrades, who have been very helpful.

When entering the main room, you’re greeted by antifascist flags. Can you explain the importance of antifascism in the functioning of the space and maybe it’s relation to the presence of nationalists/Nazis in the broader punk scene?

Our space was first opened by anarchists, a lot of the members are still anarchists and others are sympathizers of the anarchist ideas, so politically we are antifascists by default. What we aimed for was a space where everyone but fascists can feel safe. This means we don’t want to see any discriminatory behaviors at Ülase12.

When punk rock first hit Estonia in the ’70s, the country was occupied by the Soviet Union. Naturally, the punk scene was rebelling against the system and the system hit back with some nasty repressions. It wasn’t so much about nationalism, rather national liberation. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, it was understandable that the movement got kind of confused. We’re talking about a massive shift from one system to another. One might argue we’re still in transition. So, a fair share of punks and skins went from being for national liberation, to being actual far-right nationalists.

Then you had younger people coming into the scene in the ’90s and 2000s. Remember, at that point, you had the independent, capitalistic, nation-state of Estonia, instead of the Soviet regime. And when you were in this situation at that time, a youth searching for punk music, you mostly found stuff from the ’80s.. Without understanding the context and the huge shift that took place between these two generations, this meant that a lot of the content from the ’80s could have been ripped out of the context, for example, lyrics about opposing the Soviet regime were now used by the far-right as anti-Russian songs.

A huge change came along in the middle of 2000s when hardcore punk started getting more exposure in Tallinn, especially within the Russian-speaking community. Nazis tried to walk into DIY hardcore shows as they could walk into any other punk show, so we had to deal with this issue. And since, having a place free of Nazis is a tradition of our local hardcore scene and we want to keep it that way.

It seems like most DIY bands touring through Estonia make a stop at Ülase12 on their tourplan, halfway between Rïga, Helsinki & St-Petersburg. What does the DIY punk scene looks like from where you’re at?

We’ve been fortunate with the geographical location in this sense, yes. We have a few other promoters such as the guys from Damn.Loud who put on shows as well, local bands like Nailbite have put out their records recently. Seems like it’s going a bit better now after a few years of regression in the scene.

The DIY punk scene can be as fantastic as frustrating at times. You get people from New York organizing a solidarity show for a small place in Estonia like us. Fantastic bands touring and giving their all, sharing the floor with the crowd. But then at other times, you have a bunch of struggles you have to get through and you think if you can do it.

But the fact is—we’re going into our 7th year soon. We’ve outlived some actual, professional venues, this wouldn’t have been possible if what they tell you about punk being dead was true. It’s not, it’s dead for those who have conformed already.

The last time I was in Tallinn, around the time of the anarchist bookfair, the Estonian parliament house was lit with the colors of the French flag, in response to the latest “Paris attacks”. Elsewhere, such signs of “solidarity” have been followed with a crackdown on dissent and the places where it happens. Have you felt the effect of this recent wave of repression? Can you take time to present the general social and political situation of Tallinn, and Estonia?

Our biggest problem politically are the far-right nationalists. Or to be precise, their growth. The Neo-Nazi movement is one thing, but the so-called refugee crisis brought a whole new dimension into the game, with some previously apolitical family guys started getting radicalized by the far-right, protests against the refugee quotas were almost weekly at some point.

As described earlier, part of the Estonian punk scene has, and always had, a sense of patriotism to it due to the fact we had been occupied for decades. Now, if even parts of the rebellious punk rock is conservative, you can only imagine how it is elsewhere in Estonian society.

A few years ago we tried to keep a couple of Nazis out of our space. A well-known politician who used to be a punk in the ’80s tried to come in with the Nazis. We thought that was bad, but now we’ve got actual Hitler sympathizers in our parliament, gaining more and more support. The government itself has been in the hands of liberals of different shades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Economic inequality, the far-right outnumbering the antifascist movement, no leftist alternative to the liberals—this makes up a perfect mix for the far-right to organize and gain ground.

What the far-right is trying to do here at the moment, is to act as if they are the rebels, instead of, say the anarchists or the squatters or whoever. This is not true, you can’t be a rebel if your kind is represented in the government, if you’re beating down at people from a position of power, if your ideas are widespread in the society.

It is especially sad to see people from the punk scene buying into the far-right ideas. In punk, you accept choices that your friends decide to make. Whether we talk about the color of your mohawk, jacket, choice of music genre. We want to slam into each other while listening to fast and loud music, we feel as if this our passage to freedom, even for just one night. But then we go and start judging other people for things they never got to choose. There’s nothing rebellious about being a Neo-Nazi, as what they stand for is the opposite of freedom.

The Ülase12 social center can be contacted through Facebook, Instagram or VKontakte, or write to ylase12@riseup.net

Giz Medium

Giz Medium is an anarchist librarian and DIY punk musician living in Marseille. He publishes the zine Cheaptoys.