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On the Friday night before New Year’s Eve, my boyfriend and I were in line for the toilets at the techno club Berghain, in Berlin, discussing Buddhism. I’m usually skeptical of Thom’s interest in world religion, but that evening I was open to the world. As Thom was talking, I noticed that the guy in front of us was texting, the angle of his neck more than perpendicular. I empathized with the posture. I can get into a messianic mood at clubs and often feel I need to help liberate my fellow ravers from the absent parties in their phones. “Do you meditate?” I asked him.

Conversations attempted in line for the Berghain toilets have a success rate of about 25 percent, some of which must be attributed to one party’s desire to join the other in their stall, to more quickly put an end to the unendurable wait. But the guy looked up. “Not really,” he replied in a Slavic accent. “But I am jogging a lot, and this . . . ”

This is kind of meditative, I agreed. Surprisingly, Maxim was happy to talk, and good-looking, though a little scary. We introduced ourselves; when he said he lived in Warsaw, Thom replied in Polish, to which Maxim responded in English, sheepishly. He is originally from Belarus, he explained, and moved to Poland only recently. Thom speaks Russian, I offered, but Maxim wanted to talk in English. He considers it bitterly fucked-up that he barely speaks Belarusian, which, he explained, is being systematically eradicated in the country. “If you take your high school exams in Russian,” he said, “you can basically cheat. It is a joke. If you take them in Belarusian, you take them alone with instructor.” He loves to read. The intimidating look, we learned, is an occupational hazard: he is a model—I have never met anyone who looks more like a model—and his agency persuaded him to shave his head. We asked if we could join him in his stall.

Afterward, we parted ways. The party that night was hosted by a collective called Weeeirdos (I don’t make the rules), and like the last of their parties we’d attended, the sets were energetic and “kind of intellectual!” as I yelled to a happy man on the dance floor. (He had no idea what I was talking about.) After some amount of time, Maxim appeared nearby in the crowd. He probably didn’t remember us, Thom and I reasoned dejectedly. One never knows how much ketamine, which induces face blindness, the other person has taken, so one can’t be hurt by it, though one sometimes is.

“Of course I remember you!” Maxim yelled over the music, a hint of relief on his face. We hugged and—also relieved at his earnest display—invited him back to the toilets with us. We wanted to know more about him, we said. How old was he? Why did he live in Poland? He had also mentioned something about Italy.

He is twenty-three. He pulled out a holographic E.U. residence permit. “Protection political,” he said, pointing at the card. “Look! It says ‘protection political’!”

“Thom, does it say ‘protection political’?” I asked.

“Yes!” Thom said, reading the Polish. “Protection political!” I wanted him to put the residence permit away immediately. He was going to lose it.

Like all models, Maxim is “not honored to be a model” but is nevertheless grateful for the source of income. He wants to become a DJ and organize parties. He moved to Poland from outside Paris, where he’d moved from outside Milan, where he’d moved to study and fell into modeling because, as a model friend there told him, “Man, you’re a model.” He moved to Italy on a student visa to escape Belarus, where he’d participated in the protests disputing the country’s 2020 elections, during which the pro-Russia authoritarian president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, was supposedly reelected. In response to the demonstrations, the Lukashenko regime arbitrarily arrested and tortured protesters and continues to enact increasingly draconian measures; activists and rights groups say the government has detained citizens for such offenses as commenting on memes and, indeed, speaking or promoting the Belarusian language, which is vulnerable, according to the UNESCO World Atlas of Languages, and has become a symbol for the opposition.

The first time Maxim left Belarus, at eighteen, he and a friend were arrested for working illegally in China, where they taught English to children. He was deported back to Belarus, where he applied to universities in the European Union. He eventually left Italy because he was “melting [his] brains” with the Ukrainians he met there after the war began in 2022—they were all “so depressed, like really on the mental breakdown,” and he was, too, for obvious reasons.

But they did teach him about music. “You don’t know shit about music,” they told him, invoking the legendary Kyiv club K41. That summer, he went to Berlin for the first time—to a club called Æden—and knew he had to make a change. He liked France—the museums in Paris are “free and really, really amazing”—but although he learned a lot digging in the crates there, the clubs were shit, and he couldn’t get work as a model. When he arrived in Warsaw in 2023, he had two weeks left on his E.U. student visa and applied for asylum on the grounds that he’d been at the protests in 2020; although he’s wearing a mask in photos that circulated, he was terrified in Minsk. “Any day the police can break the door and take me to the prison without any explanation,” he said. Warsaw was, finally, a relief. The Polish bureaucrats “were so fucking nice,” Maxim said, particularly compared with those in Italy. “They process five persons in fifteen minutes.” In five years, he exclaimed as we reached the front of the bathroom line, he would become a Polish citizen. “My kids will have E.U. passport!”

What Poland is doing, Maxim believes, is combating its own long-discussed brain drain—and extremely low fertility rate—by accepting migrants from Ukraine and Belarus. Economists have long warned that the country will need to attract more people to avoid a shortage of workers; last year, a study by Poland’s statistics office suggested that there could be seven million fewer working-age residents in the country by 2060. Since the war in Ukraine began in 2022, around one million Ukrainian refugees have moved there. Meanwhile, Belarus has seen an exodus since the election protests. From a Polish-nationalist perspective, Belarusians are the “ideal migrants,” per a 2020 article on the Polish website Onet; the author adds that the “influx of ‘acceptable,’ ‘similar’ migrants from post-Soviet zones doubtless has a positive effect on the economy.” “They are the Canadians of Eastern Europe,” another 2020 article, on the website Na Temat, proclaims about Belarusians: they are so polite they even take off their shoes when they stand on benches to protest (an accompanying photo proves it). Since the right-wing, populist Law and Justice party was ousted in favor of the liberal, pro-E.U. Civic Coalition party last fall, the Polish government has celebrated its new migrant population, even replacing this year’s anti-E.U. pavilion at the Venice Biennale with an entry by a Ukrainian collective at the last minute.

Maxim sees the situation differently: “What will Poland look like in ten years?” he wondered, hopefully. He presented the possibility of a new Poland, a multinational Slavic state in the European Union. (Questionable, or quixotic, rumors continue to swirl that the country’s GDP could surpass that of the United Kingdom by 2030.) Part of the reason he went to Poland was that he missed what he called “Slavic culture”—not Russian or Ukrainian culture, he made clear, but Slavic: the food, the forest. While the Polish far right and center-left may have radically different views on the European Union and immigration more broadly, both can agree on the attractiveness of someone like Maxim.

It was about four in the morning. Although the European club scene is distinctly post-socialist in character—no truly good techno clubs can be found west of Berlin—it was weird to be discussing the future of Eastern Europe in this context. On the topic of Slavic culture, Maxim said he would tell us a story when we left the toilets.

“I know you like story!” he said to me. How did he know?

His mother and father met when they were young—younger than he is—while performing the kozachok and gopak, fast-paced folk dances in a company that toured Europe. He was yelling over the music.

After the Soviet Union dissolved, Maxim’s mother started another . . . group?

“A troupe,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “A troupe. But it was sexy, not traditional.”

Soon enough, he said, they were hired to dance at the opening of one of Turkey’s first casinos in the early Nineties. A member of the troupe fell in love with the owner of the casino. After a while, she took him back to Minsk, where the rest of the troupe was based. At the time, there were no nightclubs in Minsk of the scale the Turkish casino proprietor envisioned, and he saw an opportunity. Maxim’s father helped start the first one. He was managing a club in Minsk until around the time Maxim left; this is where Maxim began DJing after he returned from teaching English in China, before he could get to Italy. “I had to play fucking disgusting Russian music for disgusting people,” he told me later. “You know, the clubs where people bring in champagne with a firework.” One day, in the back of the club, he had a breakdown. He felt he couldn’t take it anymore. “I was crying and saying, like, ‘Maxim, you have to resist. Stop crying like a bitch. In four months, you will be in Europe.’ ”

The three of us walked onto the dance floor, where Thom and I conferred briefly. What was the vibe here? Were we going to sleep with Maxim? This is often the question whenever you meet anyone at a club in Berlin. But Maxim was too young to be slept with. Rather, he was like our son.

I let Thom follow and caught up with Maxim. “I’m straight,” he said. I acted as if I didn’t hear him. In retrospect it was an accurate interpretation of the assessorial body language Thom and I had just been speaking, which in couples less fussy would have been a telltale sign of a forthcoming “we saw you from across the bar . . . ” Later, Maxim told me that he experienced culture shock when he began hanging out with the Ukrainians, because Belarusian sexual culture is conservative, and Ukrainians engage in the “Swedish family,” a Russian term from the Seventies that refers to a polyamorous marriage; in recent years it has become a somewhat derogatory term in the post-Soviet world for polyamorous or incestuous groups of friends. “My mom told me, before I moved to Europe, like, ‘Man, you have to know one thing: Ukrainians like to fuck. A lot,’ ” Maxim said. “Only after I met Ukrainians, I realized how it is.”

Toward the end of the night, we found Maxim again, and he was impressed by the music: “Absolutely decent.” Who was DJing? I told him it was the party’s organizer, Lolsnake, playing back-to-back with someone else.

“This doesn’t sound like Lolsnake?” he said, and he was right. I wanted to express that it was a sign of taste and skill that he could identify a DJ by sound, but I was losing my speech.

Maxim followed us to the bar, where I felt unbearably guilty turning down his youthful offer of vodka shots.

We smoked. Thom asked Maxim what he did for exercise. He said something unintelligible about Haruki Murakami, martial arts, and the jogging. Grasping for some way to conclude the conversation so we could go to bed, Thom replied, “Maxim, you are a really special person. Most people can’t stay so put together in this place when they’re twenty-three.”

“I wasted my youth filling out papers!” he said.

As we were gathering our strength to leave, he frowned. “Haruki Murakami isn’t a very good author,” he asked, “is he?”

By 2:30 pm on New Year’s Eve—Sunday—Thom and I were back at Berghain, getting wristbands for the club’s sixtyish-hour New Year’s party. We went to the main dance floor, where the music—played by a DJ named Arthur Robert, funnily—was really good. Almost immediately, Thom had my shoulder, his eyes alight with a miracle. “Look who’s here!” he shouted. Maxim’s intimidatingly shaved head. He had been there since 4 am. We left after a couple of hours, but promised we’d be back.

We went to a house party. The next morning, after about three hours of sleep, I woke up in a terrible mood. The friends we were supposed to meet were already back at Berghain, requesting that we bring them snacks ASAP. I really didn’t want to go. They sell snacks there!

“Babe, get up,” Thom said, spilling coffee on the bed. “It’s time to clock in at the dance factory.”

As the taxi rounded the driveway in front of the club, a man in a bomber jacket appeared: Maxim. He was just leaving. We couldn’t believe it. We told him we’d definitely see him in Warsaw, where we hoped to attend one of the parties he’s organizing with a Georgian friend; they’re trying to recruit one of the Tbilisi club Bassiani’s resident DJs to play in the spring. “My eyes, they are shaking,” he said as he departed. Next time, he said later, “we one hundred percent have to go into nature.”

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