KYIV, Ukraine – The rave had been planned for weeks, with the space secured and the DJs, drinks, invites and security all lined up.
But after a recent missile strike far from the front lines killed more than 25 people, including children, in central Ukraine, an attack that deeply destabilized all of Ukraine, rave organizers turned together to make a difficult last-minute decision. Should they postpone the party?
They decided: no way.
“That’s exactly what the Russians want,” said Dmytro Vasylkov, one of the organizers.
So they installed huge speakers, blasted the air conditioning, and covered the windows of a cavernous room with thick black curtains. Then they opened the doors of an old silk factory in the industrial district of Kyiv.
And as if on command, the room fills with young men in stripped shirts and young women in tight black dresses, all moving like in a trance, facing forward, almost like in church, the DJ at the altar.
It was dark, moist, loud and wonderful. It was a country locked in a war that affected everyone in the room, but despite everything, they danced with all their heart.
“If you know how to use it, that’s the cure,” said one raver, Oleksii Pidhoretskii, a young man who lives with his grandmother and hadn’t been out in months.
After a prolonged silence, Kyiv’s nightlife is back.
Many people venture outside for the first time since the beginning of the war. Drink by the river. To meet a friend. Sit in a bar and drink a cocktail. Or three.
It is a city full of young people locked up for two years, first because of the Covid and then the war with Russia. They yearn for contact. War makes this craving even greater, especially this war, where a Russian cruise missile can take you out, anywhere, anytime.
And now that summer is in full swing and the heavy fighting is mostly concentrated in eastern Ukraine, hundreds of miles away, Kyiv finally feels a little less guilty about going out.
“It was a big question for me: can I work during the war? Is it OK to serve a cocktail during the war? said Bohdan Chehorka, a bartender. “But the first shift was the answer. I could see it in the eyes of the customers. It was psychotherapy for them.
With each passing weekend, in a city that already had a reputation for being cool, it becomes easier to find a party. A hip-hop event the other night turned into a sea of bobbleheads. The party took place outdoors. For a while it started to rain. But that didn’t matter. The party was on. On the dance floor, bodies bump into each other.
Across the city, people overflowed sidewalk cafes. Inside the bars, there were fewer empty stools than a few weeks ago. Along the Dnieper River, which runs through Kyiv, hundreds of people sat on the walled banks, with friends, and often drank, silhouetted by the impossibly long twilight and silky blue skies, soaking up the wonders of a northern climate in the throes of a summer night.
But the curfew hangs over this city like a hammer. The party may be on, but so is the war.
At 11 p.m., by municipal decree, everyone must leave the street. Anyone who breaks this rule faces a fine or, for young men, a potentially heavier consequence: an order to report for military service. Working backwards means bars close at 10 a.m., to allow workers to go home. The last call is at 9 a.m. So people leave early.
The rave in the old silk factory, for example, started at 2:30 in the afternoon.
Yet even at this bizarre hour, rave folks said they had managed, with the help of pounding techno and a few other aids, to forget the war. They synchronized with the bass vibrations, closed their eyes and were able to “dissolve” and “escape”, they said. Momentarily.
War is not just a looming shadow, but a force that directs everyone’s life, dominates everyone’s thoughts, darkens everyone’s moods, even if they really try to do the things they loved before.
The hip-hop and rave party donated profits to the war effort or humanitarian causes, in part for the reason the parties were held in the first place.
And in informal conversations, like that of the Pink Freud, a bar, war keeps coming back. A small conversation between a young woman and Chehorka, the bartender, who also works as a psychotherapist, led to a conversation about hobbies which led to a discussion about books which led, inexorably, to the Russians.
Chehorka told the young woman that he was selling his large collection of books in Russian because he never wanted to read Russian again.
“It’s my own war,” he explained.
He added that he felt the whole psyche of the city had changed. “Kyiv is different now,” he said. “People are more polite, friendlier. They don’t drink as hard.
A longing for a close connection, for something meaningful in the midst of a seismic and terrifying event that won’t end, is what brought two dozen people to a recent “hug” party.
Cuddle parties started before the war, but people who came two Sundays ago – a mix of men and women in their early 20s to mid-60s – said they really needed them now .
The hugs gathered in a large tent-like structure by the river, and while new age music played, they lay on floor cushions in a big warm pile. Some were stroking their neighbor’s hair. Others hugged each other tightly, eyes closed, as if it was the last embrace they shared with anyone. After about 15-20 minutes the pile woke up.
Hugs opened their eyes, unraveled, got up and smoothed their pants. The idea is to seek bodily comfort by curling up with a stranger. They found new cuddly partners and new positions.
The instructor was clear that none of this was meant to be sexual or romantic. But still, it felt like a G-rated orgy.
These hugs are another dimension of Kyiv’s party scene at the moment: many social gatherings are specifically designed to bring comfort.
Maksym Yasnyi, a graphic designer, just hosted a 24-hour yoga party, which he called “really cool,” but it wasn’t like going out before the war.
“Before the war, Kyiv’s nightlife shimmered in different colors,” he said. “You could spend the whole night going from party to party. If I allow myself to think about it, I’m going to get really pissed off.
Now, when it hits 10, Kyiv exudes nervous energy. People drinking on the street or by the river check their watch. They cork the transparent plastic cider bottles they were drinking, get up and walk quickly.
Cars drive faster. No more yellow lights. The clock is turning.
Uber prices triple, if you can find one.
Some young people, seeing the impossibility of hailing a turn, say goodbye to their friends and bow their heads and start running home, desperate to beat the curfew.
On shots of 11, Kyiv stops. Nothing moves. The sidewalks are empty.
All that energy that was building, building, building, suddenly plunges into a stunning city-wide silence.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.