Amidst The War, Kyiv’s Leading Techno Club Reopens For One Night: ‘The Crowd Today Is Different’

KYIV, UKRAINE — “Respect my borders,” the large entry stamp reads, pressed in bold black block letters down my forearm.

Here, a massive courtyard is flanked on one side by a crumbly brick building well over a hundred years old and on the other side by the yellowing building’s new, stainless-steel addition. Techno is pulsating through the open door of the building — the leading techno club in Kyiv, Ukraine.

The space officially has no name. Located at the edge of Kyiv inside a former brewery, the club’s logo and de facto identifying mark is a mathematical sign, ∄, used in high-level calculus to indicate the value for a formula that does not exist. It also reflects the club’s interest in self-promotion — nonexistent. For pronunciation and reference, Kyiv’s techno community knows ∄ as “K41,” a moniker that combines the venue’s street name and building number.

And in keeping with the ∄ symbol’s meaning, team members at the club don’t want to insert themselves into the club’s bigger story — they prefer to remain anonymous and peripheral to their venue and community. “Instead,” several from this group explain to Billboard, “we are all just members of the ∄ team.”

Though initially intended to remind guests that despite the world of possibility inside the club, personal boundaries are to be observed and respected, my entry stamp’s commandment has taken new meaning since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. It is a reminder that Ukraine is in an existential fight for its existence.

The ongoing invasion ended ∄’s latest season, called Dance.Delivery, just two days before its scheduled opening weekend in this past February. But on Oct. 15, after nearly eight months of war, ∄ reopened its doors to Kyiv for the first time and revived the canceled season, in a defiant display of Ukrainian resiliency during the war.

At the Oct. 15 event, hundreds of club goers clad mostly in black revel on the dance floor. For many, their first time clubbing in nearly eight months provides an outlet for joy and the release that comes from dancing together. “The crowd today is different,” one of ∄’s team members says. A palpable lightness filled the space. “Less naked bodies,” she quips. “Maybe because it’s the first event, maybe it’s because of the music today; it’s calmer.”

Much of the building’s original texture is preserved. Dancefloors and soundsystems are woven into the brewery’s architecturally complex interior, which has been fashioned into nine separate dance spaces that can altogether host upwards of 15,000 attendees. Original 1870s-era logo mosaics are juxtaposed against glittering glass-and-tile DJ booths and pits that once housed enormous copper brewing vats are transformed into vast, pool-like seating areas.

The front lines of the war are hundreds of miles from the Ukrainian capital. And while the city is slowly removing the concrete-and-sandbag checkpoints and steel vehicle obstacles it had scrambled into place during the early days of the Russian invasion, the decision to reopen ∄ and revive its aborted season did not come easy.

On Oct. 10, just days before the planned reopening, early morning blasts shook the Ukrainian capital awake as Russian rockets and missiles struck civilian targets in Kyiv and other cities throughout Ukraine. The attack in Kyiv killed at least eight people and wounded scores of others. ∄’s team wrestled with their desire to revive techno in Kyiv. Could they kick off the canceled Dance.Delivery season? Should they go forward with the event?

All of Ukraine is currently under martial law, a response to the Russian invasion that provides the legal framework necessary for curtailing movement during the war. Military-age males are not allowed to leave the country and large gatherings like sporting events are forbidden.

Kyiv's ∄ club
Kyiv’s ∄ club

After deciding to move ahead, ∄’s team members opted to cap the first installment of Dance.Delivery at a few hundred attendees, opening just one of the venue’s spaces to keep the event intimate and out of concern for guest safety amidst potential Russian shelling. And rather than throwing a typical night event, the space opened in the afternoon and closed its doors before 10 p.m. in order not to run afoul of Kyiv’s city-wide nighttime curfew restrictions.

Practical hurdles had to be overcome as well. During the early days of the Russian invasion, ∄’s team members took advantage of the former brewery’s thick concrete and brick architecture, transforming the building into an ersatz bomb shelter and temporary housing for the displaced. Sound equipment and DJ booths were moved to make space for bunkbeds and cots.

One of ∄’s sound engineers voiced his worry that sound equipment might not work because of humidity exposure during its nearly eight months of storage. “If the electricity cuts out because of a blackout or any other reason,” he says, hinting at the slight but genuine possibility of an explosion somewhere in the city, “we have backup generators. We’ll be fine.”

The first installment of Dance.Delivery was thus undoubtedly far from typical — but it was a defiant and resounding success. As afternoon turned to evening, dancers gradually fill up ∄, with a mishmash of fresh, youthful faces mixed in with ∄’s veteran crowd all moving to sets by Ukrainian artists Cantrust and Human Margareeta. Three flavors of dress prevailed: blacks and whites, leathers and fishnets, and not much at all.

A Small But Growing Scene

Ukraine’s techno scene is smaller than scenes in other European cities, but it’s burgeoning — and no less fervent. Though relatively new, ∄ offers a space for the kind of easy abandon enjoyed by techno communities in Berlin or London. At the former brewery in Kyiv, clubbers and dancers enjoy the freedom to experience music, dance and community, restricted only by the boundaries other visitors make for themselves, boundaries that are scrupulously respected.

For Vlad Shast, an exuberant 40-something drag queen and one of the club’s wide ensemble of standout regulars, ∄ is a profoundly meaningful space — and not just because of the music. “Before K41 opened, I never felt like I had a place where I belonged,” Shast explains between stints on the dancefloor. Shast has been fixture at ∄ since the space opened in 2019 and is closely involved with ∄’s ХІТЬ, a word that translates to “lust,” and the name of a regular queer party series the club held before the Russian invasion.

“I can show my inner creator and be fully accepted by people around me. I can be truly myself, truly me,” he says of ∄’, twirling the edge of a translucent gossamer dress he made in February before the Russian invasion, specifically for the first installment of ∄’s Dance.Delivery season. “After the beginning of the war, I didn’t have time to realize how much [the club] meant to me,” Shast adds, brushing strands of an ornate, homemade headdress made of woven black zip ties away from his face.

But, he acknowledges, at first, after the rocket attacks, he couldn’t imagine going back to ∄. “I felt like I would be dancing on people’s graves,” he says.

After deep conversations with ∄’s organizers and friends, Shast concluded that reopening is a question of prioritization. Following the rocket attacks in the capital, “we were so focused on the dead,” Shast says. And while this is entirely understandable for a community so directly faced with the challenges of war, “we should be focused on the living,” he says.

The decision to reopen is one that Shast appreciates. It was only during the middle of the party, “when I had a moment by myself, that I fully felt what the Russians took away from me,” Shast says. The invasion, he continues, took away the “ability to share my art, my ability to connect with my people, my ability to connect with my community.”

For him, this night on ∄’s dancefloor was a celebration of life, not a commemoration of death.

A Tie to Berghain and German Ravers

The space has a deep connection to Germany. ∄’s founders tapped the same group that designed the world capital of techno — Berlin’s Berghain — for their space. In 2020 and 2021, Berliners took weekend trips to Kyiv en mass to escape Germany’s strict Covid lockdowns and Berlin’s shuttered techno clubs.

Cognizant of both the techno scene’s particular proclivities as well as the increasingly international audience that ∄ pulls into its orbit — international acts including LSDXOXO, Ben UFO, and DJ Stingray have all played there — the club passes out fliers to partygoers in Ukrainian and English that explain how various drugs can interact if taken together, how to prevent overdosing and hangovers, and how to navigate sexual consent while partying. Other cards carefully explain what to do if stopped by police, citizens’ rights, and how police in Ukraine are allowed to interact with people on the street.

Several of ∄’s team members sought refuge in Berlin during the early days of the Russian invasion. And though grateful for the initial support Germany offered Ukrainians fleeing war, many Ukrainians who came to Germany had what they call a profoundly frustrating, even maddening experience during their stay.

“Before the Russian invasion, I thought Europeans were very privileged,” a ∄ team member explains over a beer at ∄’s bar. “Affordable health insurance and a high standard of living” are certainly things to be admired, she says, draining her beer and setting it resolutely on the bar counter. “But now I know that Ukrainians are the ones that are privileged.”

When asked why, she stares me dead in the eye. In this war, “Ukrainians know that pacifism is not an option,” she says, voicing frustration with some European countries commonly heard in Ukraine — and with Germany in particular.

Kyiv's ∄ club - art
Kyiv’s ∄ club

Exasperation is felt particularly acutely towards the clamoring for the laying down of arms and calls for immediate peace — viewpoints many on the ∄ team call increasingly out of step with the reality of battlefields in Ukraine, where civilians are regularly targeted and where evidence of brutal Russian war crimes in recently liberated towns and villages is steadily mounting.

Though some of ∄’s approximately 130 team members are still abroad, many have returned to Ukraine, homeward journeys that brought them back to a country at war. Their reasons for returning are myriad, but the ∄ team member at the bar says that some of their security staff enlisted in the Ukrainian army and are now fighting at the front lines.

∄ is throwing everything it has behind its friends and family fighting at the front. This first Dance.Delivery event ultimately raised 150,855 Ukrainian hryvnia (nearly $4,100) through donations at the door. The money went towards the Hospitallers paramedic group, a Ukrainian organization of volunteer paramedics.

Just two days after the first installment of Dance.Delivery, another series of explosions ripped through downtown Kyiv, striking cultural sites, one of the city’s primary power substations, and other non-military infrastructure. The attack killed at least four people and injured dozens more — a stark reminder that despite the weekend’s semblance of normalcy, conflict elsewhere in the country has not ended.

“Our building survived two world wars,” one of ∄’s team members explains. “I hope it will survive this war too.” Yet, despite the air raid alarms and the explosions, for a single night, both ∄ and Kyiv were alive — and dancing.

Katie Bain