Techno & lust in wartime Kyiv: No photos. No prejudice.

Techno & lust in wartime Kyiv: No photos. No prejudice.
Photo: Shutterstock

Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv had a thriving techno scene that rivaled Berlin in its hedonism and sex positivity. Underground raves brought straight and LGBTQ youth together, creating inclusive spaces where orientation and gender were irrelevant. As tanks approached Kyiv this spring, civilians fled en masse, and many clubs became refugee shelters. More than half a year later, techno is blossoming again as daytime parties raise money for the military.

Berlin is often considered Europe’s techno capital. Still, some European ravers felt that rampant tourism had washed the city of the post-Soviet grit that had made it exhilarating in the 1990s. Starting from the mid-2010s, Kyiv arose as an alternative and less commercialized space with fewer rules and concerns about respectability – as one raver put it, “Kyiv has the edge that Berlin pretends to have.”

This burgeoning underground scene soon caught the attention of the creative team behind Berghain, a Berlin-based nightclub widely considered one of the best party spots in the world. Berghain is notorious for its secretiveness, hedonism, and exclusivity. With a strict “no camera” policy, visitors often party from Friday night until Sunday – no mirrors or reflective surfaces are allowed inside, sparing everyone the sight of their messiness. In 2019, Berghain’s owners expanded into Kyiv, opening a mega-club they christened “∄” (the mathematical symbol for “does not exist”). Locals call it either “K41” or “Kyrylivska,” referencing the club’s address, 41 Kyrylivska Street.

I first learned of Kyrylivska in April while reporting on District #1, a volunteer group that repairs damaged buildings in the liberated zones north of Kyiv. Before pivoting towards wartime volunteering, District #1 was a business association representing Reitarska Street, Kyiv’s hipster mecca. Andrii and Masha were among the organization’s leaders. Andrii owned a clothing line, worked in marketing, and often spoke of his desire to illuminate communities with joy. Masha, a bisexual makeup artist, and model, was stoic and tirelessly productive. I often found her diligently processing repair-related paperwork. She confessed that she wanted the world to know she was “more than just a girl.”

One evening in April, they drove me back to Kyiv after a long day of clearing debris from a village kindergarten that Russian occupiers had ruined. They lamented that wartime visitors wouldn’t see the city in all its splendor and described Kyrylivska, then operating as a shelter, as Edenic. “You have to come to Kyrylivska when it reopens. Everyone there is so full of love,” said Masha, showing me her phone case, which was covered in frayed rainbow-colored stickers that, in prior visits to the club, had been put over her phone camera as a condition of entry. I asked if it was queer-friendly. Andrii, who looked like he’d lived a thousand parties, laughed. ”I’d say they’re straight-friendly.”

Most of the gay men I knew in Kyiv considered Kyrylivska an engine of Ukrainian LGBTQ life. It was the largest and most vibrant queer-friendly space in Ukraine, a hub for artists and bohemians. Some felt that the club, by facilitating mass contact between people of all orientations and genders, contributed more to LGBTQ acceptance than local civil society organizations. Yet Kyrylivska’s rampant success had unintended costs – a gay Nigerian man in his late 20s, John, said that he found it hard to integrate into Kyiv’s gay scene because of its incestuous relationship with the techno crowd. He preferred quieter nights playing board games.

After the first two months of the war, Ukraine bifurcated into two worlds: the frontlines and everywhere else. Around the frontlines, life is hellish. Water, food, and electricity are scarce, and shelling regularly brings death. However, many cities outside these areas have reclaimed some relative normalcy, preserving the nation’s economy and dignity.

Ukrainians living in peaceful areas feel mixed emotions – guilt for not suffering like their fellow citizens, relief for not being shelled, gratitude for the soldiers whose sacrifices keep the war in abeyance, and obstinate joy, which protests the misery that hangs over them all like a guillotine. Russia’s attacks on energy infrastructure have recently blurred the border between these two worlds, as missiles again fall into cities far away from the front lines and plunge them into darkness.

However, this compartmentalization allowed Kyiv to resurge quickly after the Russians were repelled from the region in April. ”Even in war, Kyiv is the best city in the world!” said one young man at a spring barbeque. But recovery has also been understandably cautious. It took until October for Kyrylivska to finally reopen its doors. Its first wartime party was promoted as a fundraising event for the military, open from 2 pm until 10 pm (an hour before military curfew).

I arrived at Kyrylivska that evening with a friend, navigating a city submerged in darkness that saved electricity and concealed strategic targets. The club was a five-story building of rotting brick. Only a small part of it was open. Inside, everything was black, ominous, and industrial – thick fog, people smoking. Black vinyl curtains flapped in the breeze of a vent. The tables at the coat check were lit with candles – rather than tickets, workers gave out pendants embossed with numbers. Nearby, a woman wearing a leather bikini and a net of chains tied her boots on a ledge. An androgynous person waiting in line adjusted their outfit: a veil and shinpads decked out in flaccid plastic spikes. Mesh, leather, and oversized sweaters were ubiquitous. Many people were painfully beautiful.

The dance floor was a nowhere land of fog and bursting light – steady, hypersonic thumps shook your bones. Sprinkled throughout the crowd: shirtless men oozing gay lust. But also more than that: a man and woman kissed, eating each other with youthful abandon. All desires were permitted in this cathedral. Joy and laughter. Pockets of self-consciousness and self-obliteration. A sweaty man with tattoos all over his arms and the most glorious mullet. Goggles and sunglasses. Pillars clad in chipped subway tile. Another man wearing a pink kimono. More sweat. Another shirtless man wearing bulletproof armor marked “PRESS.”

At the bar, a woman served drinks while wearing a black balaclava. Supermodel looks, from what you could see of her. Two naked women were tattooed on her back, one eating the other’s pussy. Some men made eyes at me. ”Sorry, I’m dating someone.”

I saw a man I’d met in Lviv (a city by the Polish border) back in April. At the time, he was a refugee, exiled from Kyiv by the war, and had messaged me on Grindr, ”Is that you eating at the restaurant?” We had gone for a walk – and then an air raid siren blared and he showed me the catacombs beneath a cathedral which, normally functioning as a museum, had been turned into a bomb shelter. Women often wept in front of that cathedral that spring as dead soldiers were brought in coffins. Priests sang. The catacombs ran deep. Now he was shirtless. We said hi, but the music stole our voices.

In the fog, I saw a straight war correspondent I knew from Instagram. He was dancing frenetically. The week before, he’d been in Lyman, a just-liberated village in the east, where he and his companions passed the corpses of Russian soldiers. I remember the photos: burnt ribs and a spine lying in a nest of damp ash. Bones beginning their journey towards disintegration. And the horse carcass, too. But now there was techno and forgetfulness.

I saw Andrii and Masha, whose fledging project had grown into a full NGO. They were still rebuilding broken buildings one by one, smoothing over other people’s pain. I shouted some questions at them, but there was no point – it was not the time. We separated and the crowd engulfed us.

In a dim smoking area, women lounged on a short pedestal illuminated by thin shafts of light. One reclined like a statue, her head tilted back in exhaustion. Upstairs, shallow pits were filled with people talking and smoking. Arms and legs brushed up against each other. Casual intimacy. For a second, the mass graves broke into my head. I shook my mind and filled it with music. It was easy. Not like that summer night in Toronto when, having just come back from Kharkiv, I imagined the car alarm that had blared after a shelling.

The night wore on – and then the lights turned on with antiseptic brightness. A mass exodus to the coat checks. Hands thrust across tables dangling those embossed necklaces, mutely pleading, “Pick me! Pick me!” My friend and I retrieved our coats and were expelled into the night, which, just beyond the courtyard wall, was bleak. No light at all. We walked through downtown in solitude, the stars dimly visible above the hibernating city.

The next morning, some kamikaze drones exploded by the train station, smothering a neighborhood in smoke. A few deaths, but no panic. A young man at the scene said he wasn’t afraid – he had become accustomed to these things. A woman who lived in a building by the explosion was similarly calm. She had left her apartment because it was filled with smoke she worried would poison her. In nearby streets, people jogged and commuted to work.

A few days later, five missiles were shot down before they could hit the city. Cafes shuttered for the afternoon. Some people sheltered in metro stations while others went about their day as if nothing had happened. I left Kyiv to report in the east and the attacks on the electrical grid continued. On Twitter, acquaintances reported blackouts and talked of working by candlelight. The darkness was thickening.

In a group chat, Kyrylivska announced that the inaugural wartime party had raised several thousands of dollars at the door – money that would go towards soldiers on the eastern front. More parties were announced. ”No photos. No prejudice.” By the end of the first month, $15,000 was raised, which was used, among other things, to purchase a car for a unit in Bakhmut. Winter continued to march upon the city, but light and intimacy reverberated inside that building. Gay or straight. Whatever gender. A memory from the spring, a voice: “Even in war, Kyiv is the best city in the world.”

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