Before the Russian invasion Kyiv was the rave capital of Europe. That changed in a single night. Louise Callaghan joins a group of young artists caught in the chaos.
On the second day of the war, in a smoke-wreathed living room in Kyiv, Ira Nirsha, a film-maker and actress with a strawberry-blonde bob, sat at a table wishing she had learnt to use a gun before the Russians came. Her friends dashed around her. They had been drinking all day but couldn't get drunk. Adrenalin burnt off the alcohol as if it were being boiled on a hob. A bottle of cognac stood nearly empty on the table next to an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts.
In the kitchen, Alina Gorlova, a director who had been planning to study at Goldsmiths in London, was sorting through bags of supplies they had bought for soldiers on the front line — buckwheat, dumplings and six litres of vodka. Rita Burkovska, also an actress, was gathering up their empty wine bottles for petrol bombs. On the other side of the table Maksym Nakonechnyi — known as Max — a film-maker from Odesa who had brought me to the flat, was calling around trying to find a place where people were making the incendiary devices.
"I'm regretting now that I didn't do any training, that I didn't buy a weapon," Ira said. "If they invade fully it will be continuous terror. They'll kill patriots, people who speak Ukrainian, people who post about defence, about war, about protests. They'll rape us and kill us and torture us."
"Oh please," said one of her friends. "I'm so tired of talking, talking, talking. We need to find a bomb shelter."
They had tried to sign up to fight earlier in the day, but the Ukrainian soldiers had said that since they didn't know how to use a gun they'd just get in the way. Instead they were advised to donate blood, make petrol bombs and bring food to the front.
Less than 16km away, Russian tanks were massing on the outskirts of Kyiv. They were part of one of the most powerful armies in the world — one that had razed Grozny, the capital of the breakaway republic of Chechnya, in the 1990s — and they hated everything that Ira, Max and their group of friends stood for. As patriotic Ukrainians, their freedom and happiness meant failure to Putin, who saw in them a threat to Russia itself.
If the Russians took Kyiv, they all knew they might be killed. They could have left the city, like so many others did but they stayed because they wanted to fight — in whatever way they could — for their city and for the anarchic energy that it roiled with in peacetime.
"They can't win," Ira said. "They can slaughter us but they can't win." Max nodded, calm despite the chaos. I'd met him a few weeks before the war when he was working as a translator for another journalist. He had black hair swept off his face, a tattoo under his Adam's apple that referenced the American poet Walt Whitman and he looked as though he hadn't slept in days. We were the same age, 31, and I liked him straight away.
Back then the war seemed abstract, despite warnings from the West that it was coming any day. Every time I wrote a story I'd end up cajoling people into speaking to me about what they'd do if it started.
"But it won't," said wheat farmers, economists, people on the street, looking at me like I was crazy. At times I thought I was. Kyiv was calm, without the twitch of fear that you might expect before war begins. No one was queueing to take out cash, buying water, taping up windows, filling sandbags. All that came later.
As Max explained, there were a lot of other things to do in Kyiv. Since Berlin had been colonised by tech bros, the centre of gravity for European hedonism had shifted eastwards to the Ukrainian capital. Friends of mine from London went there for weekends, not bothering to book a hotel room, flying in on Friday and out on Sunday with precious little sleep in between.
There were warehouse raves in abandoned buildings, queer-friendly spaces with art installations and a club known only by the mathematical symbol ∄ (meaning "does not exist"), which had a dark room and wipe-down banquettes. Kyiv's underground scene was pulsing with life, with no VIP rooms, no dress codes or people posing for airbrushed selfies.
Like Berlin, whose nightlife had flourished after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kyiv had come alive through adversity, a fight for freedom against authoritarianism. Tens of thousands had fought for their city in 2013-14 during the Maidan protests that ousted President Viktor Yanukovyc. More than 100 people had been killed, some shot by snipers. Kyiv's freedom had been hard won, thought Max and his friends, and it shouldn't be wasted.
"Sometimes people say that it feels like Berlin straight after the [fall of the] wall," Max told me. "That's what I love — you feel things being shaped in the moment."
It was an electric scene and Max knew it better than most. Two weekends before the war began he told me about a party on the outskirts of the city. It was in a warehouse by a fairground and the taxi driver had got lost in the snow on the way there. When I arrived with a friend a bouncer taped over the cameras on our phones. Once inside, the bass hit me hard in the chest.
There was a light show shimmering in the air, undulating everywhere. In the main room people were crammed together, every age from teenagers to grey-haired old-school ravers, one group in crop tops and sunglasses, clearly out of their minds, others laughing, bouncing around sweaty and mad and free.
I was supposed to meet Max there but he was too hardcore for me. At 5am he still hadn't arrived, so I texted him to say I was heading home. "Why are you leaving so early?" he asked, completely incredulous.
The next weekend we missed each other too. The one after that — on February 25 — Max and his friends had planned to go to a night called Khit (meaning lust) at the club with the symbol for a name on Kyrylivska St. He had his outfit ready: a gold top with pinstripe trousers and a tiny handbag. But on Thursday the war began. Shortly before 5am on February 24, Putin announced the start of a "special operation" against Ukraine and soon after Russia bombed targets across the country, including in Kyiv.
Max told me he had been working late that night on a script, a comedy about a man who thought the Earth was flat. When the first bombs struck he and his housemates went to sit in their bathtub. Usually they didn't smoke in the bathroom, but this time they allowed themselves a dispensation.
Everywhere in Kyiv people were leaving. The roads out of the city were blocked with cars. At the railway station that morning I saw hundreds of people crowding to get on to the carriages, carrying children and pets, bags and bottles of water. One woman crashed into me while running on to the platform carrying her toddler. She didn't seem to notice, she was so intent on escape.
Some foreign journalists had already left, ordered to pull out by their editors, many against their will. My colleagues from The Times and I were among those who stayed. If the Russians took Kyiv, we reasoned, we'd try to negotiate our exit. Most military experts had warned it was just a matter of time before the capital fell.
For now tanks and troops were pouring over the border from Russia and Belarus, and at least one spear of Russian forces had penetrated the outskirts of the capital, pushing into the arterial roads leading to the city centre before being repelled by the Ukrainians.
I texted Max. So many people had left, or were trying to leave, and I assumed he'd be among them. But he was still there. It was on that Friday — the second evening of the war — that Max took me to meet his friends. It felt like everything was teetering on the edge. Society was beginning to slip.
As we walked up to the apartment, an older woman came out of her front door and grabbed us in the stairwell. She was terrified and reacting in the only way she knew how, by cooking. Her name was Olha and she ushered us into her living room to feed us paté on toast. She was crying because she didn't know how to escape, so we offered to call her daughter. She was crying too, asking us to help her mother get out. Max said he would and, later, he did, helping her arrange to go to the railway station.
Then we went upstairs, where I drank cognac with Ira and Max's other friends. It was dark by the time we left a few hours later. The city was tense but through the fear came a whisper. Kyiv was going to fight. A friend who had gone to the front lines on the outskirts of the city texted to say that the road was lined with people, men and women, holding assault rifles that were being handed out, box-fresh and gleaming. All you had to do was show your passport.
Right in front of us life was changing from peace to war. As we drove around, checkpoints were being set up on street corners. Wherever we went we saw men, some part-dressed in combat fatigues, carrying rifles that not everyone knew how to use. They were hunting for saboteurs, Russians in disguise who might have been sent into the city as a fifth column, authorities had warned. Everyone was under suspicion, especially outsiders.
Accompanied by a photographer and our security advisers, Max and I pulled up outside his office. We went upstairs to pick up one of his friends, wearing our blue flak jackets. When we got back to the cars the security advisers told us that a group of men with guns had appeared, clearly looking for us. They had been summoned by an older woman who had seen us go in, but had left before we came out.
It was becoming hard to know who or what to trust. We heard there was a petrol bomb-making workshop in the city centre, so we drove to the address. Max and his friend Kristina went in first to ensure we didn't spook the people running it. Within moments they were back, throwing themselves into the car on top of us.
"We have to go now," Max panted. "They said it's not real. Someone planted that notice online." The car skidded round and we sped off down the road, scared that someone had tried to lure us in.
Over the next few days Max and I kept working together. As the city crowded into subway stations and basements to shelter from the bombs, we drove and climbed and knocked to find them to hear their stories. All the time the sirens wailed and the explosions sounded.
Day eight came with a new threat, circulated by the Russians, that they were going to target the Ukrainian secret services. Their headquarters were right by the hotel where I was staying. When we heard the sirens, Max and I ran to the underground car park where everyone had been sleeping. We were so tired and the whole thing was so ridiculous (what were we still doing there? How had we not thought to move?) that we burst out laughing as the whole place tensed for impact. Then, and I don't know why, Max and I started singing a Lady Gaga song and twirling around under the strip lights.
"You guys are such idiots," another friend shouted, and we laughed even more.
The strike never came. That evening I left Kyiv for Odesa to report on fears that the city was going to be targeted by an amphibious assault. Max wouldn't come with me. He wanted to stay in his city, with his friends. This group of ravers and artists, they all needed each other.
All the world knows what happened next. Kyiv wasn't taken and nor was Odesa. Max and his friends stood fast in the city they loved. They held their breath, and they had won — for now.
Two weeks after we'd last seen him, Max came down to Odesa with Kristina and a few others. The sun was out, dreary winter had turned to spring, and we bought takeaway coffees and walked around the city for hours. Max was full of news from Kyiv and of what his friends had been up to. After those first desperate days they had all found a purpose. Max had been making a film at the city zoo, documenting the war's impact on people and animals there.
He had chosen to take on the war, and to create. Some of his friends had done the same. Others had signed up as volunteers, arranging supplies for frontline troops. Still more had decided to fight. One of his friends had changed his drag name to Callsign Britney and signed up for the territorial defence forces.
"At the beginning it was a very weird feeling of being lost and [my mind] being concentrated at the same time," Max later told me. "I was surprised at how these two states can combine in one mind. I would say each of us found what to do because we kept concentrating and kept being open."
Ira, the actress and film-maker, had started working with a special operations unit. She had moved into their base on the outskirts of Kyiv, near the front line, and started organising logistics. They had taught her how to use an assault rifle.
We talked about how Ukrainian society, splintered as any other, had been brought together by the war. Before it began the Kyiv party scene had been targeted by far-right, antigay thugs who had broken into nightclubs and beaten up ravers. Now, Max told me, one of his friends had put out a eulogy when the head of one of these groups had been killed in battle.
As the Russians rolled closer, the ravers had stepped up. The dark room at Kyrylivska became a bomb shelter, with families sleeping safely on the banquettes. In Berlin other ravers had taken in people who had been displaced and raised money for those still in Ukraine. Performers on the subscription-based online platform OnlyFans were selling nude photos to make money for the Ukrainian army.
Max was lyrical with happiness that he had stayed, risking his life for his city again, as he and his friends had done during the Maidan protests. "It felt important," he told me later.
I said goodbye to Max in Odesa and headed back to Kyiv, where he would return in a few days' time. The city was still quiet, its spark dulled, but it was much less tense. Men with guns at checkpoints had grown used to journalists and the hunt for saboteurs had quietened. It no longer felt as though you could be shot at any moment.
Life was almost starting to go back to normal. Then, at the start of April, just as the alcohol ban imposed in the early days of the war was lifted and some of the cafes reopened, a video appeared online showing bodies lying in a street in Bucha. The Kyiv suburb had been held by the Russians until they withdrew at the end of March.
The area was still closed to journalists, but we tagged on to a convoy of ambulances careering through the rural checkpoints. When we got to the forest to the south of Bucha, the scale of the Russian crimes started to become clear. A fighter sobbed as he told us about the mutilated bodies he had seen. An old woman told us her neighbours had been tied up and executed.
Over the next few days more horrors seeped out. A woman had been imprisoned and repeatedly raped in a basement. Another had been raped with a gun to her head. Summary executions, torture — it punctured the heart of the nation, shattered the strange sense of normality returning to Kyiv. Max and his friends knew that if the Russians had broken through the lines this would have happened to them too. It would have been easier, perhaps, to try to ignore the news but they felt as though they needed to go to Bucha, to understand.
Max, Ira and some of their friends started to work in the areas the Russians had withdrawn from, talking to people and filming. At the same time life was slowly coming back to Kyiv.
"This contrast is really painful and devastating," Max said. "But we should keep in mind that it's not our fault. What happened in Bucha and these regions, it's not the fault of all the people who keep living their lives ... the more our everyday life is frozen, the more our feeling of society is suppressed, the better it is for the enemy. So we have to be aware, we have to remember everything, we don't have any right to forget. But we have to make the biggest effort to come back and make our country again as soon as possible. It's also part of the fight."
In mid-April I met Max and Ira at a coffee shop in Kyiv. Both were strung-out from the war and from covering the Russian atrocities. They were dressed, like everyone in Kyiv seemed to be, in jeans and hiking boots, with big, warm coats. We talked about how things had changed since that day we'd drunk cognac in their friend's flat.
"The beginning was the worst because we were just unsure," Ira said. "We were panicking because no one knew what to do or what would happen. Would they occupy Kyiv or not? But we knew that we were in danger. I was so stuck by fear, and I was afraid of being inactive. Because when you're not experienced in war, it's easy to be stuck. That's the worst thing."
It was only when she began working with the military unit, she said, that she started to focus — concentrating on her weapons training, the first she had had, feeling that she was something other than helpless. At one point she had been at the special operations base and Russian troops had been close to breaking through the lines near by. Her commander had told them to get their guns and prepare to fight.
"I remember I woke up and said, 'Oh, this is the end,' " she said. "But the army taught me how not to be afraid."
If Kyiv had been taken, both she and Max knew they would have been targeted by the Russians. Their group had been vocal in their patriotism. Max even had a tattoo of the Ukrainian trident on his forearm. In the areas they held Russians had made men strip off to search for signs of pro-Ukrainian tattoos, then shot them.
Amid this they'd had the news that a film they had made before the war — Butterfly Vision, about a woman returning home after fighting in Donbas — had been selected for the Cannes Film Festival. As Max stepped out to take a call from a publicist, Ira and I talked about their plans. There would also be Russian film-makers at the festival and some Ukrainians had suggested Max and Ira boycott it on those grounds.
That, though, felt like giving up to them. They wanted to draw attention to what had happened, not to close themselves off. They would go to Cannes. "It's a big, big place to say something," Ira said. She showed me the dress she was planning to wear: in camouflage fabric, with ruffled sleeves.
I asked them how they saw their former selves. Ira said that she wished they had been more prepared. "That's what I'm beating myself up about, that we didn't do enough to train ourselves." The fight had changed them, just like it had changed everyone. Before the war Ira hadn't known if she wanted to have children. Now she did. She wanted them to continue the fight.
Max spoke of the banality of evil, about how ordinary Russian soldiers could turn in a few weeks from feeling shocked that they weren't welcomed as liberators, to raping, stealing and murdering on an enormous scale. "We just have to live [while] being aware that there's a big amount of people who don't want us to exist, or they don't want us to identify ourselves the way we identify ourselves," he said.
Yet with all that Max and Ira knew, with everything that had happened, they were adamant this wasn't the end. The Kyiv they had fought for was still there, growing stronger. "This wild energy that was present on the streets, in the raves, in the protests, it has just transformed into defending, into organising, into people supporting each other," Max said. "It's the same seed. It'll definitely be back but it'll be wilder, more open, more authentic. It'll still be there."