Summer 2019. It’s 3 a.m., and I am lying in a hammock in the middle of the woods, just north of Kyiv. The moon and starlight barely stream down through the dense canopy of rees. But an area some 100 meters away from me pulses from the glow of blue and red flashing laser lights and lanterns strung here and there. There, a crowd gathers around a stage, about 60 square meters in size, roaring to a DJ’s feral music. The revels won’t end any time soon: Raves like this often go all night, lasting well into the following afternoon. While I find myself needing a breather, rest couldn’t be further from the minds of the ravers. They stamp their feet into the ground in a frenzy, the reverberations rippling across the forest bed. I close my eyes, drinking it all in.
In 1986, my parents, a Russian-Tatar woman and a Ukrainian man, met in Perm, Russia, and fell in love. Seeking a better life for themselves and their one-year old son, they settled together in Antwerp, Belgium; in 1993, they had me. Like in many immigrant families, my parents struggled to make ends meet. They pushed us to excel academically to fulfill the dreams they’d had when they first moved abroad. In Leuven, I enrolled in law school. From there, the rest of my life seemed predestined: work at the same firm for 40 years; buy a big villa; pay off a never-ending mortgage; retire without having ever actually lived. I realized I wouldn’t be any good at it. For years, I had traveled back and forth to Ukraine, attempting to connect with my roots. A cloud of uncertainty hung over the country, due to deep-rooted corruption, the frozen conflict in the east and constant economic struggles. A life of stability there felt impossible. Yet the chaos also offered more variety—excitement, even. In Ukraine, I could reinvent myself and contribute to its democratic reforms. In January 2019, two years after finishing law school, I moved to Kyiv to work at a local NGO, focused on democratic development through international cooperation.
Five months later, my eclectic new collection of friends—designers, doctors, musicians, IT workers and journalists—invited me for what they thought would be a perfect introduction to the real Kyiv. Rhythm Büro, a group of local party organizers founded in 2015, had announced its third annual Natura rave, an event meant to unite its core audience of alternative-minded creative people and veteran ravers with new, less-established artists. The rave scene here bears some similarities to its Western counterpart: dark rooms, techno music and crazy leather outfits. But it goes beyond that. It’s less focused on dress code, and more on self-expression and comfort.
Never could I have imagined this kind of scene in old, conservative Ukraine.
We gathered at my friend’s apartment near Klovs’ka to find out where we were headed: Rhythm Büro would only reveal the location of the event via text message 24 hours in advance. Finally, the coordinates came through: a place deep in the woods, about 30 kilometers north of Kyiv. On that sunny afternoon in June, we piled into a taxi and headed into the unknown. Upon arrival, we pulled over by the side of the road and proceeded on foot down a dirt path that led us deeper into the forest. We followed the sound of music and loud chatter. On a long stretch of road leading into the woods, we found over 2,000 people wandering through the forest, toward the music, ready to dance.
For me, Ukraine had always been the land of sketchy clubs where rich businessmen would take their barely-of-age girlfriends and sex workers to spend ludicrous sums on overpriced champagne. But this was something unexpected. Wandering the grounds, I found food trucks selling sandwiches and simple cocktails. Girls in long, flowery dresses swayed while guys with neck tattoos talked about their next big art projects on sex positivity. Never could I have imagined this kind of scene in old, conservative Ukraine.
After hours of non-stop dancing and loud conversations with strangers, I retreated to my hammock to recharge, listening to the quiet chatter around me. The sounds of the rave receded into the background and I began to drift off. Then, the DJ unleashed a series of bell-like tones, followed by a sudden drop to a deep bassline. My fatigue kept me from sensing the sudden change from soft, dreamy house to driving, hardcore techno. I closed my eyes and drowned in darkness, the beats from the 20 speakers flanking the stage pounding in my chest. Suddenly, my friends pulled me up. Let’s go!
As I approached the scene, I saw hundreds of people in their 20s and 30s tearing up the improvised forest dancefloor. One raver was decked out in an intricate full-body suit made of ropes; others wore sports bras. All seemed united in a shared bliss, dancing to gritty techno music with broken beats and whispered voices. I waded through the crowd and reached the stage. I had never seen my fellow Ukrainians at complete liberty to do whatever, dance however they pleased and kiss whomever they wished. Even in Kyiv, a large metropolis of over 3 million people, such an open, relaxed atmosphere felt unimaginable. I threw my hands up to the sky alongside hundreds of fellow ravers and felt my feet sink deeper and deeper into the ground as I leapt into the air along with them. In response, the forest ground let loose a vast cloud of dust and sand. As it drifted back to the forest bed, it clung to our sweat-soaked skin and clothes. The warm air enfolded us, smelling of birch and dirt. We merged together. Soon, the sun would rise. But none of us wanted to go home.
• • •
In 1991, Ukraine emerged from the Cold War as a nation made very much in the authoritarian Soviet tradition. For decades, any sort of political activism meant a one-way ticket to the gulag. Suddenly, concepts like free speech and political dialogue were no longer verboten. But the fall of the Soviet Union also heralded an overnight conversion from communism to capitalism that wrought havoc on the country. An “every man for himself” mentality led to oligarchs like Rinat Akhmetov accruing vast, ill-gotten fortunes at the expense of the working-class and poor Ukrainians, who saw their meager savings evaporate. Simple survival consumed average Ukrainians, who had little time or capacity to contemplate how to exercise their new liberties. And the people remained wary about authority figures like the police: They have it out for us. Businessmen? They must be corrupt. Our politicians? They are all about nepotism and money. By the end of the 1990s, many Ukrainians, both young and old, viewed “politics” as dirty and corrupt. Trying to influence political change by voting or lobbying seemed futile, a feeling that persisted through the early 2000s as Ukrainians saw the political class fail, time and again, to rid the power structures of bribery and corruption. Then came Maidan.
They started to realize the power they possess,” said Serhii Leshchenko, 42, former MP of the Ukrainian parliament, advisor to President Volodymyr Zelensky and long-time raver.
On November 21, 2013, Viktor Yanukovych, then president of Ukraine, announced that he would not be signing a long-awaited pact to establish a political association and free trade with the European Union. Instead, he would opt for the Moscow-engineered Eurasian Economic Union, which would have ushered in economic integration with Russia. In protest, 1,500 students and activists flooded the streets, only to be attacked by the police. This triggered nationwide demonstrations and a massive, unprecedented, months-long rally on Kyiv’s Independence Square, known as Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Over the course of the protests, more than 100 Ukrainians died at the hands of the berkut, a special police division that was later dismantled. In the end, Yanukovych fled for Russia, which would later annex Crimea illegally and begin its occupation of territory in the Donbas.
Following Maidan, younger Ukrainians came to feel their views on politics finally mattered. The Revolution of Dignity had unchained within the younger generation the realization that their views on politics and their voices counted. They had manned the frontlines of the revolution and represented the first generation born into an independent Ukraine, largely removed from the memories of Soviet oppression. “The children that had witnessed the Orange Revolution in 2004 were now, 10 years later, in their 20s, and they created their own vision of Ukrainian independence. They started to realize the power they possess,” said Serhii Leshchenko, 42, former MP of the Ukrainian parliament, advisor to President Volodymyr Zelensky and long-time raver.
But the aftermath of Maidan also evoked anger and depression. The annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine spurred an economic crisis, even as Ukraine took a more pro-European turn under President Petro Poroshenko. “It really influenced the emotional state of our people,” Dmytro, 25, a DJ and producer who goes by the stage name of Badwor7h. “There will be more challenges ahead, so we have to bond together and create cultural institutions on the basis of our personal values,” Vika, 26, a student at Mohylyanka University, who witnessed the revolution firsthand, told me.
That meant, in part, a cultural explosion, in the form of street art, electronic music and streetwear fashion. Unlike other scenes, where you either belonged or you didn’t, the rave scene functioned as a meeting point for all these graffiti artists, designers and musicians, as well as activists, journalists and expats like me.
In late 2013, Serhii Yatsenko, Serhii Vel and Timur Basha, a trio of party promoters opened a club in an abandoned factory in Kyiv’s Podil neighborhood, a one-time industrial hub. The club, named Closer, was a second home to the DJs and artists, both established and lesser-known, that they’d worked with over the years. At weekend-long parties, DJs at Closer played an eclectic blend of genres, including house, techno and hardbass. Its charm lay in its friendly “come as you are” atmosphere—a sentiment still foreign to a country that, for nearly 70 years, had suffocated under Soviet rule. Others soon followed in Closer’s footsteps: Cxema, Club on Kyrylivskyj, Keller Bar, Arsenal XXII and organizations like Veselka and Rhythm Büro. “Closer inspired people,” Vera, the cofounder of Rhythm Büro, told me. “We watched this cool project unfold and thought to ourselves—we can do this too!” By 2019, Podil had transformed into a vibrant artistic hub.
Like the forest rave, this was not an outwardly political environment. It was more a safe space where my peers could be themselves—even if, at times, that meant venting disappointment with a system some still felt was failing them. “There’s a lot of anger in the music we play during these raves. The rooms are dark, and the installations look threatening. They reflect the reality, despite the fact that people go there to forget all about reality,” Dmytro said.
• • •
During the summer of 2019, I was working grueling hours, which made me all the more prone to spending my nights meeting up with friends and partying to clear my head. Luckily for me, nights always seemed endless during the summertime in Kyiv, and it was never too late to make my way down to a party. Khreshchatyk—Kyiv’s main boulevard—would be filled with music, bubbly chatter and throngs of people maneuvering their way between the street performers.
As I strolled past the tall, static buildings with their sand-colored stone façades and baroque-styled balconies, I reached the Independence Square. From there, I made my way down a slope surrounded by greenery that led to the Dnipro River. Careless youngsters were scattered alongside the riverbank, watching the sunset while they drank beer and enjoyed the occasional cool breeze that disrupted the summer heat. Then, they headed further north into Podil, Kyiv’s party district.
Podil—or “Lower City”—sits on Kyiv’s right bank, embraced by the Dnipro River on one side and a pocket of green, rolling hills on the other. Historically, this was the city of the working class and craftsmen. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it gave birth to tile-, brick- and cement factories that were located on Kyrylivska Street. Later, during the Soviet era, it became home to a shipbuilding enterprise. In the 1990s, industry throughout Ukraine began to decline, and many of the factories were shut down and abandoned. For young people, the district’s main attractions were the low housing prices and the run-down historical buildings that were remnants from its nineteenth century role as the city center.
Tattoo artists, designers and musicians mingled with students, journalists and other free-thinking types, deep in shouted but cordial debates over art, LGBT rights and feminism. In a country where a woman’s worth depended on her beauty, where people threw Molotov cocktails through the windows of gay bars, and where the most important thing in the world (as my ex-boss would say) was green dollar bills, it felt subversive and thrilling to hear.
One night, some friends and I wandered into HVLV, or Hvylovyj, a bar founded in 2015 by a group of pro-Ukrainian students from Mohylyanka University. They named it after Mykola Hvylovyj, the Ukrainian revolutionary poet known for his writing that argued for the inherent connection between politics and art. Following his death by suicide in 1933, the Soviet Union banned his work. At HVLV, people hang out during the day or pre-drink in the early evening before hitting the raves on Kyrylivska. It’s a low-key, underground space. “Underground means non-commercial, not out for profit,” said Vasyl, a 29-year-old event organizer at HVLV. “We’re united in our common values and interests.”
Every night, the dark basement, lit by a neon-purple haze of lights, filled up with ravers downing HVLV’s infamous tequila shots. Layers of graffiti covered the bathroom doors (an example: “Why is Beyoncé singing ‘to the left’? ’Cause women have no rights.”) Tattoo artists, designers and musicians mingled with students, journalists and other free-thinking types, deep in shouted but cordial debates over art, LGBT rights and feminism. In a country where a woman’s worth depended on her beauty, where people threw Molotov cocktails through the windows of gay bars, and where the most important thing in the world (as my ex-boss would say) was green dollar bills, it felt subversive and thrilling to hear. “The first rule of HVLV: Don’t be a dickhead. That’s the main threshold for people to even enter this place,” Vasyl said with a grin. I laughed, but he was serious: a core tenet of the Podil scene is to create safe spaces—“a pretty new narrative in Ukraine,” Ihor, a co-founder of Rhythm Büro, told me.
Clubs like HVLV, Closer and Keller often hire security guards to man their doors—in itself, not that unusual. But they’ll often stop aggressive youngsters from going inside, as they might create problems for other party-goers, such as members of the LGBT community. In a country where it’s customary to pay off a bouncer to gain entry into a club, this the idea of making basic decency the coin of the realm—“How open-minded do you seem and how likely are you to start harassing girls or beating up same-sex couples?”—was a radical concept. This safe space has allowed people to experiment with self-expression without fear of judgment or risk of oppression. It drew in more and more people from Ukraine’s middle class, and organizers rapidly saw their public double or triple.
That’s what makes the underground scene in Kyiv so unique: none of the people who frequent it have a simplistic “fuck the system” in mind. Instead, they are more nuanced. They believe in a brighter future for Ukraine. And they seem to be building a foundation for it within the confines of this underground safe space, where they can be who and whatever they want to be. The Podil scene is instrumental in uniting these people, allowing them to express themselves and subsequently spread the liberal values they encounter here through all of Kyiv, a city that is now learning to thrive in this new sense of openness and creativity. It has coaxed Kyiv out of the memories of dictatorship and oligarchy into something more modern and open-minded.
• • •
What, then, are the politics of Podil?
Many members of the underground rave scene dismiss the very idea that the scene emerged as a response to the political turbulence that took place in 2014. The founders and organizers of Closer, Rhythm Büro and HVLV claim that the timing of their formation was purely coincidental. “Right after Maidan, there was chaos,” Ihor said. “And in this environment, it was more comfortable to develop nightlife than it was under an iron fist. But I wouldn’t say that there’s a direct causal link between Maidan and nightlife.”
HVLV also remains adamant about its apolitical stance. Being political, in their view, would imply supporting a political party or an oligarch, espousing opinions on gas prices or pushing for reforms in spheres like education, economic policy or the legal system. At HVLV, I noticed slogans on their courtyard walls: “Police should protect, not torture” and “Avakov has to go,” a reference to Ukraine’s previous corrupt minister of affairs. One of the beers they have on tap is called ACAB, for “All Craftlovers Ale Beautiful,” but that also mirrors an acronym for the English political slogan “All Cops Are Bastards.” “That’s not political activism, though,” Vasyl said. “It’s social activism.”
The assertion puzzled me. How could anyone in these spaces see themselves as apolitical? Yet given the history of this place, it makes sense. Generations of Ukrainians living under Communism only knew a one-party system, where personal and political thoughts could only be voiced, literally, underground: in the basements or private kitchens of their homes, in hushed tones. As a result, in modern Ukraine, “being political” is often conflated with the idea of “politically involved.” As Vasyl explained, concepts like human rights, tolerance, mutual respect and being pro-choice and LGBT-friendly occupy a separate realm from politics. They’re seen as distinct social issues.
But others dismiss the notion that the underground scene can be seen as detached from politics. “These people are lying to themselves. They are the products of political changes,” Serhii Leshchenko said. “Democracy and raves are synonyms. Raves embody the right to self-expression. There are no raves in non-democratic countries. Self expression isn’t possible in authoritarian communities.”
As the war with Russia rages on, I’m left to wonder how long this scene can maintain its apolitical stance. In Kyiv’s rave scene, most DJs and producers, finally working again since Russian forces retreated from the capitol, refused to play Russian music in their sets. According to Leshchenko, Russian EDM is canceled. “The future looks more anti-Russian. DJs won’t be using Russian producers anymore, but rather choose to mix Ukrainian patriotic songs into their sets.” “For many years, I tried to stick to the idea that I was apolitical,” Dmytro told me. “Until the start of the war, that idea remained untouched. But now I realize it’s infantile; you have to pick a side.”
• • •
August 27, 2022. More than six months after Russia’s full-scale invasion into Ukraine, Dmytro and I walk down Kyrylivska Street through the sweltering summer heat. Curfew in Kyiv starts at 11 p.m., so these raves can’t last through the night anymore. But in typical Ukrainian “to hell with it” fashion, clubs open their doors during the daytime.
The factory buildings appear to be crumbling. We take a sharp left and walk up a path surrounded by trees and bushes, in stark contrast to the industrialized feel of the street. A worn metal gate opens as we come closer. “No pictures or videos,” the ticket girl says as she covers my phone camera with a silver heart-shaped sticker.
Hidden in the depths of Podil, Keller Club was hailed as the underground place of the moment right before Russia attacked on February 24. I walk down the wooden stairs and make my way to a courtyard that has been turned into a makeshift dance floor. In the center stands a DJ, a big, steel cube adorned with ivy plants hanging over him. A loud, angry bassline thunders out of the speakers, demanding that we dance. No one can resist the aggressive beats blasting through the stereo. This isn’t just dancing; it’s jumping, sweating, screaming as if our lives depend on it.
“You’d think the DJs are sparing them, but they need it even harder,” Dmytro says as he gazes into the mad stampede that is unfolding in front of us. I sip my drink and nod quietly. Never have I seen such peace in the wake of such aggression. It’s like seeing a poison being drained from a wound. It’s exactly what Ukraine needs.