‘At least we die dancing’

Ada Wordsworth

‘Lots of clubs claim to be “safe spaces”,’ I was told by Anton Nazarko, the co-founder of Some People in Kharkiv, ‘but ours is probably the only one in the world that actually is.’ He was joking, but also not. The dancefloor is below ground level, with fireproof doors that have been there since the building was a refrigerator factory. This means that it could theoretically act as a shelter from the Russian missiles being fired at the city. The club, which also acts as a theatre, cinema and art gallery, was founded last summer, a year after the Russians were expelled from the Kharkiv region and the city was granted a brief respite from Russian attacks.

Over the last twenty months, Kharkiv has seen many of its restaurants, bars and cultural venues reopen as their owners returned to the city, and a number of new ones opening too. Some People is the only new nightclub, though. Before 2022, Kharkiv was the university capital of Ukraine, filled with students, but over the last two years most of the young people have left and not come back, the student accommodation given over to elderly refugees from frontline villages. Nazarko and his partner, Mykyta Demenkov, thought they had to open a club when there was still a spark of cultural life remaining, rather than waiting for peace: once the flame burns out, it’s over.

In other parts of Ukraine, people feel guilty for enjoying themselves while soldiers are fighting and dying in the war. In Kharkiv, twenty miles from the front lines, it feels like an act of defiance. As one person shouted to me over the music (which is so loud, you wouldn’t be able hear any explosions), ‘if a rocket hits and we die, at least we die dancing.’

Outside the club, in buildings across the city, plywood boards cover the holes where windows once were. Dina Chmuzh, a local poet and street artist, has been using the boards as canvases. On Skovoroda Street (formerly Pushkin Street, now renamed after the 18th-century philosopher), a missile strike earlier this year blew out all the windows in Makers coffee shop. Chmuzh decorated them, inside and out, with poems by Maksym Kryvtsov. One, ‘I will get my life back,’ describes the poet’s wish to return to the everyday life of bookshops and good coffee. He was killed in action in January.

At a recent talk at the Yermilov Centre, the artist Pavlo Makov pointed out that now is the first time in a century that three generations of Kharkiv’s artists and writers have been able to communicate directly with one another: many of the artists and writers who lived in the Slovo building in the 1920s were killed by Stalin’s NKVD or exiled to Siberia; other purges followed in later decades under Brezhnev. There is a very real fear that the current opportunity may not last.

DJs have come from a club in Kyiv to Kharkiv to perform at Some People. ‘We always refused showcases in Europe,’ Nastya, the manager of the Kyiv club, told me, ‘because as long as we couldn’t answer the question “what is the purpose of this collaboration?” we didn’t see any value in it. When it came to Kharkiv, we could answer that question very clearly.’