Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: Raving in Ukraine

This week, host Lale Arikoglu goes deep on the country's resilient rave culture.
Women Who Travel Podcast Raving in Ukraine

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For our last episode of the year, we’re diving into something we’re all doing a lot of around the holiday season: partying. And in Ukraine, where our two guests are based, rave culture has become a necessary vehicle for letting off steam, distraction, and finding joy. Back in November, Lale caught up with Kyiv-based journalist Anastacia Galouchka, who recently penned a story on the capital’s rave scene for Stranger’s Guide, and novelist Haska Shyyan, who lives in Lviv, about what raving means to them and the power of community and safe spaces during unimaginable turbulence and uncertainty.

LA: Hi, I'm Lale Arikoglu and welcome to Women Who Travel, a podcast from Conde Nast Traveler. This interview was recorded in the middle of November when Kyiv was relatively quiet, but with the war being an evolving set of circumstances, things have since changed.

For our last episode of the year, we're diving into something we're all doing a lot around the holiday season, partying. In turbulent times, parties can be a necessary vehicle for letting off steam, distraction, and finding joy, something that's particularly true in Ukraine right now.

Take the capitol Kyiv, where its rave culture, already established before the invasion, has become a surprising and vital part of city life in times of war.

Crowd: [cheering]

LA: It's inevitably changed and ravers have had to make compromises, but the scene remains as vibrant as ever.

Anastasia Lushka: You are on adrenaline all the time and then you get a point where that adrenaline inevitably drops, and now you have to live, but there's nothing left for because all the little things disappear, have disappeared during the first month of the war. So, now you have to get them back, and reinstate them, and open some bars, and open some restaurants, and give those little joys back to people.

I think in the party scene, you can see a lot of how this society develops. You can see the stagnation, you can see sometimes the boredom, but you can also see that driving force of youngsters and- and people who want change and are coming up with more and more out-of-the-box ideas of how to achieve that in their country.

LA: I'm talking today to two guests, both who know the scene well, a journalist ...

AL: It is dark. It is very, very gritty. It is packed with people. Like, you feel people's sweat as you pass by them, and there are women dressed in leather suits, uh, there are men in 12-inch heels and butt cheeks out and looking, you know, amazing.

LA: ... and a writer.

Haska Shyyan: I mean, it's a party in the context of war, it's very much this feeling of trance and the feeling of strong spirit.

LA: First, Anastasia Lushka, who reports from the front lines for newspapers like the Washington Post and the Independent. We first saw her work in the magazine, Stranger's Guide. With her reporting schedule, there's not a lot of downtime for Anastasia, but she did find time to party in the name of research for us at a popular Kiev venue.

AL: I realized that I haven't been to a rave in a while and K41, it's a famous club, uh, in Kiev, was having its fourth year anniversary birthday party where they were inviting a bunch of, you know, artists, uh, a bunch of DJs, and they are actually ... the club is in an old warehouse, an old actually kind of factory/warehouse that has been rebuilt internally. So, I was there wasting my hours away and enjoying it very, very much.

LA: Have you got any audio from that?

AL: I do. Can I play it now?

LA: Tell me a little bit about what it felt like, what it smelled like, what it sounded like, if it had changed since the last time you kinda went out to a rave in Kiev.

AL: So, everything is accepted, everyone is welcome, and it was loud, noisy. You've- you- you couldn't place the people around you. Everything was constantly moving. People were making out. People were, you know, they were these kind of walls that were like, uh, metal nets that people were pushing each other up against.

There are a bunch of quiet rooms in that place, I still haven't discovered all of them, where people just talk, chat, um, make out, drink, do whatever, and then there's the main dance floor, which is ... I don't- I couldn't give you the square meters but it was incredibly big. When I was standing at the back, I could not see the DJ at the front. In the middle of the dance floor there's a little, like, podia, little stages that are maybe 30 centimeters high, that people would jump on and then start dancing, start undressing, start screaming.

And it was- it was like stepping into a zoo. It just kind of felt like Ukrainian society was going ... it feels, right now, so contained and condensed in this war effort that once the okay is given for this kind of party, it just explodes to an even more extreme level. It's almost also kind of a defiance of we're still here, a middle finger towards Moscow, towards Russia.

My friend, Dima, his stage name is BadWars, used to be a Russian speaker, a Ukrainian but Russian speaking. Since the war started, he has switched completely. He despises his old music. He speaks Ukrainian now every day. Nobody pressured him. We're a very open, friendly, you know, group, but he just, himself, have gotten to a point, like, "I have to pick a side, and I don't want to pick that side."

You know, music playing during sets, they only pick Ukrainian songs now. It used to be Russian, and that doesn't get played anymore. That just gets, you know, and not even booed. It doesn't even get onto the stage, 'cause people don't allow it.

LA: And you were describing what it's like to walk into that rave, and I think about the raves that I've gone to, and there's nothing that makes you feel more alive than being sort of in the crush of thousands of people dancing.

AL: Yeah. Where have you been?

LA: I went to University in Glasgow, which had a big rave scene. So, there would be a lot of, like, massive warehouse parties. And then, in New York, um, Bushwick-

AL: Obviously.

LA: ... um, in Brooklyn has, like, a big scene. Um, but Glasgow was the place that I really, like, sort of discovered how to party, and I was watching this movie last night called Beats, which is set in Glasgow. It was made a few years ago, and it's about the, like, 90s rave scene, and, um, the tension that was taking place in Glasgow at the time and in the UK, where it was, like, this sort of ... the emergence of the UK rave scene, and then the government trying to shut down illegal parties.

And what you were saying about, um, the choice of music, um, and not playing Russian music also makes me think of the fact that these sorts of events can be political acts.

AL: I actually had, like, a very long chat about this with [inaudible 00:07:11], who's the advisor of the President of Ukraine, of President Zelensky. He's 42 years old, he's a longtime raver, uh, a very hardcore raver. Goes- every time I go to a rave in Ukraine, he's there. I don't know how he manages it, because there's a lot of raves all the time, and he's also very anti, you know, drugs and very anti alcohol, and supposedly always sober, but he's always there.

Like, these people are part of democratic development. The fact that they are organizing raves goes hand in hand with the democratic development of this country. It pushes and propels the democratic development forward, because you cannot have raves in autocratic and, like, authoritarian countries.

LA: Now, usually raves start at, like, midnight, but you've curfews to navigate. So, like, what- what time is it starting and when's it ending?

AL: At 12:00, everyone has to be home. You cannot be out on the street. You cannot be on the way home. There's checkpoints, police stops and checks you, and curfew lifts at 5:00 in the morning. So, what we do is we start a rave at 4:00 PM, and it's- it's a rave anyway in a factory that has everything walled up, and you don't have any sunlight coming in. So, it doesn't matter. It feels like nighttime when you're there.

LA: And I guess it's winter, so, you know, the days are shorter. [laughs]

AL: Yeah.

LA: So ...

AL: Definitely, that as well, and then it stops at, like, 11:00 usually, to give everyone time to clear, get out.

LA: Looking at the news over the weekend, I noticed that there were drone strikes happening over and around Kiev. How much are you or your friends kind of, like, thinking about that or making any sort of risk assessment when you're going out to a rave?

AL: Actually, while we were at the club, air raids did go off, and I think multiple times, even. Um, I have an app on my phone that jumps up, uh, so, whenever does an air raid siren, it's says ... it comes up immediately, like, it makes a noise, Luke Skywalker's voice booms out of my phone and says that there's air raids, um, and to please ... really, it's true, it's the actor's voice, [laughing] and to please evacuate to [laughs] a bunker or a basement.

Honestly, I haven't been in a bunker ... I don't even remember the last time, but it probably would have been somewhere at the front lines when I was working there. Obviously, afterwards, we heard the news that there were, like, drones flying in, but first of all, inside of the building, nobody heard it. Nobody really checked their phone, and I definitely don't ... haven't seen anyone responding to it in a way of, like, "Oh, my God, we should go to the shelter." The way that people think about it now is, "Well, if it hits us, we'll go out with a bang."

LA: What was it like on the dance floor when people's apps went off?

AL: People weren't looking at their phones, I'll tell you honestly. [laughs] First of all, people don't pull out their phones on these kind of events, 'cause your cameras have stickers over them. You're not allowed to take photos, selfies, whatever, but in that moment as well, think about it. You're surrounded by hundreds of people raving to the same music, letting go of energy that has been pent up in you for so long. People are not looking at their phones. They, like, they just couldn't care.

And actually, I did have a conversation with a girl in the bathroom. We were kind of talking and she said at a certain point to me, "It's so weird to be here when there's such horrible things happening, and I feel so sad, you know, about this war that is ravaging our country, but I also feel so relieved that I can come somewhere to try and forget, you know, what we're going through, what we're living through every day."

But she was very worried about there's soldiers fighting at the front lines, and here I am, like, a horrible person, partying it up in Kiev, and she couldn't let go of that thought.

LA: Partying feels like ... it feels like an indulgence. Right? It feels like a selfish act.

AL: It does, and I get her, because I- I do have the same thing, and in that context, it seems over-indulgent to have these kind of parties, and I will never take a point of view on that. If a- if a military guy comes back from the front tomorrow and says, "This is outrageous, this is horrible that you guys are doing this," I will not fight him on it. But then, on the other hand, I do know, you know, of military commanders who have come back from defending the line in [inaudible 00:11:58] that was north of Kiev last year, and they came back to Kiev, and over the summer, they were playing at K41 or at Keller Club, and they were playing as a DJ. So, everyone has kind of their own vision on how to deal with it, the stress.

LA: Well, and I guess it's, like, you can't look at things it's- so two-dimensionally right?

AL: Of course.

LA: Like, if he was to function that way and do you think that there is an element of, you know, you said it's, uh, partying and going to raves is a tool for forgetting, but does it also feel like one for survival, at least when it comes to mental health?

AL: Yeah, that was actually the next point I was going to make. It is ... it's survival, and I feel it now more than ever, because it has become almost so animalistic.

LA: Coming up, how raves in Ukraine are creating safe spaces that encourage mutual respect and tolerance, and of fostering a sense of community that goes well beyond that moment in the warehouse.

Crowd: Cheering.

AL: Everyone's just so nice and relaxed and having a good time and getting rid of their pent up energy. So, it's nothing but good vibes.

I was dancing with my fiance, we were just going wild, and I'm looking over and there's a gay couple with shirts gone, very, you know, extrovert. Like, I think someone had pink hair, someone had yellow hair, and they're making out passionately in the middle of this total chaos with smoke screens and lights and everything, and everyone around them is jumping, and they're just, like, having their little ... these people do not get to even hold hands in a public space. They cannot. They will be beaten up, let alone kiss or hold each other.

LA: In Ukraine today?

AL: Yeah.

LA: Yeah.

AL: It's just not ... unless it's a gay bar, it's ... I've talked to gay friends about this, 'cause I find that actually the most horrible thing to go out to the store with your partner and not be able to just grab their hand. How absurd is it that people have to live that way? But here in that space, they're hugging each other, they're holding each other, they're kissing each other. They're ... they're living their best life and no one will tell them anything except for, "Oh, my God, you're so- you're dressed so great. Like, you look so awesome tonight." That's the only kind of feedback they will be getting.

Crowd: [cheering]

AL: This party last weekend where I was at K41, they are very tightly related to a certain brigade that's fighting at the front, and their entire winnings go to donating money for drones, for protection, for anything for that brigade. So, when you come in, you have to pay an entrance fee, but the entrance fee is a free donation, and I- we actually know people, me and my friend, Luke, we know people from that brigade. They will come to the club themselves sometimes when they're on leave because they know the owners so well, and the owners are so helpful.

A lot of bars and clubs and, you know, owners of establishments, during the first days of the war, just gathered all their manpower to just get work done to help the military, and they still continue that work til this day. So, a lot of clubs are, you know, with all their winnings, they raise, like, donations, they buy stuff for the military, because Ukraine still isn't on the same military level as Russia. Obviously, we need a lot more.

So, there's this Ukrainian organization called Repair Ukraine. What they do is when certain houses or certain places in Kiev or around Kiev, in the vicinity, have been bombed, they did this in [inaudible 00:15:42], they did this in [inaudible 00:15:44], um, they organize a sort of trip with a bunch of volunteers. They get to the place of impact, the place that has been shelled, this can be a house, a- an apartment building, a warehouse, all- a- a farm, anything.

They will setup, uh, speakers, they will set up a DJ booth. A DJ will play, you know, techno, all kinds of EDM, basically, and while the DJs playing a set, all the volunteers are going through the rubble and cleaning it up. So, they're getting all these, like, you know, leftover bricks or the roof that has fallen down, they just clean it all up, clean it out, get it into garbage bins, get it, like, moved off the property, under, you know, the music, and, like, several DJs are invited to do it.

They all donate their time, and obviously, they just can't do it in, like, East Ukraine. It's a very different setting. You cannot do it 20 kilometers from the front line. Another rocket might hit you while you're doing it.

LA: Mm-hmm.

AL: But, um, yeah. Here they're doing it a lot, and it's actually very great to see. It's amazing and inspiring.

LA: Given that there has been such a level of destruction, have raves been moving into some of these spaces that have been damaged by bombing, or is that purely seen as something to be restored?

AL: No, that would be in bad taste.

LA: Yeah.

AL: It sounds funny that I say it that way, but, um, I haven't heard of it, because it's one thing to, you know, do a cleaning rave, where you help, you know, restore kind of, or clean up a farm that has been hit. It's completely different to just, like, come into a destroyed house or, you know, a property that someone once owned that has been burned to the ground and-

LA: And take.

AL: ... and just organize a party there. That's ... that's a very different, you know, ball park.

LA: That's really interesting.

You described everyone as exhausted, and yet, people are finding ways to be creative.

AL: I know, people are way more, uh ... I- I sometimes look at it, and I'm like how do you do it? Like, I just ... I can't, but they- they do. I think it's because, partially, it's an outlet. Right? At certain points, I think it gets so much that you need to get it out somewhere, but I think it also comes and goes in waves. When there's more, you know, there's certain emotions keeps building up, and at a certain point, has to get out, but then, once it's out, I think it becomes harder to draw inspiration from, you know, every day things.

You kind of have to wait for that adrenaline to hit again. That's, at least, that's how I feel in my work.

LA: Outside of the people who are going to the raves or are involved in rave culture in Ukraine, what's it sort of like in the wider community in Kiev right now? How are people gathering and finding that sense of connection as we go into the second Christmas?

AL: It's hard. I- I know for myself, that I've become a lot more isolated, and I have a hard time, you know, being around ... I used to be such a social butterfly, and now I'm just constantly socially and emotionally depleted, and I know that a lot of my friends feel the same way. And everyone's just like, "We get it." Like, nobody- nobody has the energy to reply or come out and meet up for drinks.

It does still take place. It happens, it just happens at a much slower pace. People find their ways to bars and restaurants that are open, parties. You know, people hang out at homes. With my girlfriends, I do a lot more sleepovers now, because sometimes you're not finished talking by midnight. So, you just stay the night, and you find these little things that still bring you joy.

Kiev in winter is exceptionally hard because it's so cold. I mean, there's gonna be snow covering the streets all over pretty soon, and as stupid as this sound, 'cause I said it last year and someone laughed at me and said, "I can't believe that there's a war and this is what you're worried about," but the fact that these problems with electricity also persevere.

We haven't had them turn off the lights yet, but if they'll happen again this year the way that last year, it was not enough electricity. There were, you know, power outages, controlled power outages, but still. You get electricity in shifts, which means there's no Christmas lights. There is no, you know, Christmas decoration.

There's no ... there was no Christmas tree or Christmas market, and it sounds funny that I'm worried about this when there's, you know, a g- almost a genocide going on in my country, but at the same time, the winter does drag out long, and aside from us, you know, being here in Kiev, there's soldiers, like, in trenches that are freezing in -20 temperatures, that are holding their positions just so we can be calm and, like, have a nice evening in Kiev, and that's something that stays with you.

It also carries, I think, it- it passes on a feeling of guilt, no matter what you do. As much as you can accept that internally, it's still always there. Like, I'm enjoying this because of them.

LA: Someone is sacrificing something in order for me to be able to have this level-

AL: Yeah.

LA: ... of safety or comfort or sense of normality.

AL: Yeah.

LA: And I also imagine with the Christmas lights, much like the raves, it's like a little glimmer of being human and what it is to feel joy.

AL: Yeah, it definitely is, 'cause it's- eventually it is the small things. Right? As much as, you know, these raves are artwork or, you know, of a violinist who's playing on the street. As much as those are all small things, they are kind of what make the day pass by and make it a pleasant experience.

People are also just tired of living in fear. They're tired of constantly being afraid and constantly being worried. When you're surviving in the first months of the war, you are surviving. You are on adrenaline all the time, and then you get to a point where that adrenaline inevitably drops, and now you have to live, but there's nothing left to live for, because all the little things disappear, have disappeared during the first month of the war. So, now you have to get them back, and reinstate them, and open some bars, and open some restaurants, and give those little joys back to people.

And I think that's something that is being fought for right now, but it's not- it's never an easy discussion to have in a public sphere. It's always going to be criticized by people who feel that it's not appropriate.

LA: In a minute, a novelist in Lviv who's incorporating rave culture into her new book.

Poet and author, Haska Shyyan, is talking to me from her hometown, Lviv, in western Ukraine.

HS: I tried to make this mixture of family novel and historical novel. There is a mother and a daughter, and their generational differences, but also generational unity, and also I really tried to show this how much we were, like, dragged into this Russian context, like, as empire, as colonial empire, how we- like, they tried to have control all the time. Uh, parties are not that much a central part of it, but it's important part of it. [laughs]

LA: Parties often get described as frivolous or an indulgence, but it seems they serve a greater purpose. Right?

HS: Yeah, I do think they- they serve a greater purpose because I don't know, I mean, it's still, like, a lot about trust and feeling of community. Like, uh, when you think about so many people, like, having fun together, it's a lot about trust. Like, you know, like, to relax, you have to- to trust people around, and it's also this feeling of community and, like, you know, not doing harm to the others, and, like, respecting the way others have fun.

I mean, to party in the context of war, it's very much this feeling of trance and the feeling of strong spirit. In my next novel, I really tried to describe this, uh, last decade of, uh, Ukraine, uh, a bit of Lviv, a bit of [inaudible 00:24:19], a bit of [inaudible 00:24:20], uh, but mainly Kiev, because for me, somehow, I understood it- it was this- this [inaudible 00:24:26], this golden era. The last 10 years, it was really super dynamic.

The parties were really amazing. You know, like, wives and there was also this quiet, interesting movement of kinky parties, like, also, like, this one- the feeling that sex revolution finally came for us. [laughs] I didn't know, like, what 60 years later, 70 years later. [inaudible 00:24:47]

LA: [laughs] It was your 1960s.

HS: So, um, there was this very, like, uh, conscious moving of, like, you know, sexual freedom, but also was all kind of consent and, um, and acceptance and body positive, uh, component in it. So, it- it was really like, um, basically shaping this new, uh, new generation, and also somehow, like, I do think that a free approach was something that, uh, actually detached us from, uh, both Soviet and Russian context, uh, a lot.

LA: How much do you think that was a conscious choice, or was it happening organically and sort of claiming a- a modern Ukrainian identity?

HS: I think it was more organic and, uh, kind of instinctive thing that was happening in a natural way. You- you're really right. I see it more in retrospective, that, um, that it was really important and, uh, influential.

LA: As far as you're willing to reveal, could you describe any of those parties?

HS: I really remembered the date, because it was the last weekend before the lockdown in Kiev, and it was, um, it's a very, like, famous and important collective, um, from Berlin. It's called Pornceptual. So, these parties are, like, um, basically you have to come there almost undressed, like, all this kind of, like, you now, black tape on the nipples thing. Like, many people were, like, almost undressed, but no one felt threatened or, like, being harassed or, um, unrespected.

So, uh, there were some back rooms, but, um, it was not that much of, like, you know, sex party and ...

LA: It was more a space of liberation and freedom.

HS: Yeah, and they really have this very conscious, um, approach, as I said, to consent, for example. For example, when people entered, they were to select a bracelet. It was, like, red, yellow, or green. So, basically, if you're interested in any kind of interaction, it's green. If you're, like, doubting, it's yellow. If it's- if you s- just, like, came to explore, um, without any contact, it's red.

There was a big festival, um, called [inaudible 00:27:18], uh, that is, like, um, happening, uh, every year. This year, they had this festival, and, um, they usually, like, during the festivals, they always gather a lot of money for, uh, for the army, and to buy things for the army. So, it's like, somehow, it's, uh, even like if the places where people have the most fun and they're the most chill, it's still this conscious of war going on is still very present.

Whenever I go to these raves, I always make a point of trying to talk to the bartenders because they see it all. They see, like, you know, the aggression, the ... you know, at every party, there's this one asshole that will try-

LA: There is always that one asshole. Always.

HS: [laughs] That- there's always that one asshole who's, like, at the bar, trying to make the rounds, like, you know, hitting on girls, being absolutely just his most horrendous self. You just don't have that at these raves.

I actually talked to a bartender, I think it was at a certain festival, uh, last summer where I actually asked, like, "So, you know, how's it going? You know, you have probably having a busy night." And he was like, "I love these nights because everyone's so friendly."

LA: We're taking a break for the next couple weeks and we'll be back on January 11th with a brand new episode. While we're away, we're revisiting one of my favorite episodes, with best friends Nicole Byer and Sasheer Zamata. We'll also be dropping into your feed an episode from The New Yorker's smash hit podcast, Critics at Large, about Brittney Spears' new memoir. And we're working on an upcoming show about traveling for art obsessions.

If you have a story you can share with us about a trip to experience something you are truly obsessive about, DM us on Instagram @WomenWhoTravel or shoot us an email at WomenWhoTravel@CNTraveler.com. See you in the new year.

I'm Lale Arikoglu, and you can find me on Instagram @LaleHannah. Our engineers are Jake Lummus and Gabe Quiroga. The show's mixed by Amal Lal. Jude Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer.​