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Up past curfew, the party lasts all night at a basement dance club in Ukraine

A small group of men and women at a nightclub hold sparklers in a darkened room.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Patrons at a club in Kharkiv hold sparklers in the darkened room in eastern Ukraine. Despite the ongoing war, people are still finding a way release tension in nightclubs in the the battered city.

KHARKIV, Ukraine — Lights flash on and off, red, blue, green. A lumpy cotton ball-like material covers the ceiling. Feet shuffle and stomp across the dance floor moving to pulsing songs in Russian. People shout the lyrics alongside the songs. Others close their eyes and move to the music. Friends crowd in groups shouting over each other and laughing. Lovers kiss in the corner.

This is the scene that unfolds on a Saturday night, long past Kharkiv's 11 p.m. curfew. Despite more than a year of war in Ukraine, regular missile strikes, and power outages, here in Kharkiv, the party won't stop.

The back entrance to a club with battered double doors and a man in the foreground smoking a cigarette.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
The back entrance to the club takes the patrons down an uneven staircase and past the kitchen.

The club is underground. It's basements like this where people tend to shelter from shelling. But while these folks could be sheltering here, they're also putting back shots, smoking hookahs and generally enjoying themselves.

The tension that can be felt in the city above ground — with closed businesses, boarded-up windows and the obvious remains of buildings destroyed by shelling scattered all over — dissipates when you're inside. But inside, looking around, no signs of war can be seen, and after a few drinks perhaps one could even imagine walking out again to a normal city.

While Kharkiv region was liberated in the fall, the city is still near the Russian border, and the threat of war, like all over Ukraine, is ongoing.

People talk and sing loudly in a room bathed in red light.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
People talk and sing loudly as the party gets underway.
Two women with their backs to the camera stand at a bar in a dark nightclub.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Liquor beer and hookah flow from the bar through the night.

Just after 11 p.m., police came, and the patrons were told to go home. After milling about outside, people quietly moved to the back door, constantly shushing those who had already had too much to drink. Neighbors peered out their windows at the strange group in the dark alleyway where girls in heels and miniskirts tried to avoid stepping into holes in the cracked pavement.

Lights from a parked car illuminate a small group of people standing outside a nightclub.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Just after 11 p.m., people leave the club when police arrived, standing outside and waiting to see if the party will continue.

In under 30 minutes, the doors to the back of the club opened, and people walked single file down an uneven staircase and past the kitchen, returning to their same seats with drinks still waiting on their tables. The crowd needed time to warm up again after this interruption, but soon the party was back on.

People dance the night away.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
People dance the night away.

Like the champagne bottles delivered to tables — adorned with thick sparklers sending off smoke and crackling light — and the fake hundred dollar bills thrown in the air, the patrons were once again able to shed the tension of living in war, flinging it into the air like the sparks and bills, letting it settle like dust and crumpled paper on the floor.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Two people dance together and kiss amongst the crowd.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Two people dance together and kiss amongst the crowd.
A server lights a sparkler on a bottle of champagne as she delivers it to a table.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A server lights a sparkler on a bottle of champagne as she delivers it to a table.
A man eats a burger as he walks to his table, wearing gloves to keep his hands clean.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A man eats a burger as he walks to his table, wearing gloves to keep his hands clean.
A woman sweeps up fake hundred dollar bills and broken glass after a cocktail fell on the dance floor.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A woman sweeps up fake hundred dollar bills and broken glass after a cocktail fell on the dance floor.

Claire Harbage