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Music and missile strikes: Ukraine rings in the New Year under Russian attack

Dozens of young revelers partied in a Kyiv industrial warehouse Friday, seizing the opportunity to briefly forget the warning sirens and explosions that dominated 2022.
Revelers at a party to celebrate New Years in Kyiv
Revelers at a party Friday to celebrate the new year in Kyiv, Ukraine.Mo Abbas / NBC News

KYIV, Ukraine — An industrial warehouse vibrated to the thud of speakers ahead of the new year as young revelers in the Ukrainian capital seized the opportunity to briefly forget the bitter tune of warning sirens and missile blasts that has dominated the past 10 months.

Dozens gathered in this dilapidated corner of Kyiv on Friday to party, determined to celebrate — if only for one DJ set — despite the destruction Russia continued to rain down ahead of 2023.

A number of smaller events were planned around Kyiv and other cities to mark the occasion as a show of defiance against Moscow’s bombardment and in some cases as an opportunity to raise money for Ukraine’s military.

“The main message of this party is that the war isn’t stopping and we shouldn’t stop, either. We should continue to do our thing, to work, to party, to be strong,” said one of the party’s organizers, who goes by the nickname Ugly Boy and declined to provide his real name out of fear for the safety of his wife, an active service member who also helped to organize the event.

Dressed in a skin-tight black vinyl top, hot pants, tights, platform boots and black contact lenses, Ugly Boy looked every bit a holiday partygoer. But the timing of the event — daytime Friday, the day before New Year’s Eve — was unusual.

Revelers at a party to celebrate New Years in Kyiv, Ukraine on Dec. 30, 2022.
The warehouse event offered brief respite from Russian aerial attacks.Mo Abbas / NBC News

He and fellow party organizer Tamara, 24 — who declined to give her last name out of security fear because she is an active service member — said that many of the revelers were military personnel on leave and that the event had been held early to allow them to celebrate the new year with their families.

The timing was also set to comply with a strict curfew of 11 p.m. local time (6 p.m. ET) that will be in place when the clock strikes midnight.

“The purpose of this event, first of all, is to let people rest a bit before the new year. It’s primarily for the servicemen and women to have a good time and also a form of gratitude to them,” Tamara said.

In a nod to the party’s patriotic underpinnings, the raving paused at one point for a blast of Ukraine’s national anthem.

Tamara said she was set to be deployed near the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have held up Russian efforts to advance in months of brutal fighting.

She bristled at the idea that she and fellow revelers were able to party while others fought on the front lines because the conflict had somehow become normalized.

“This war is actually not almost a year old; it’s actually eight years old,” Tamara said, referring to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and backing of breakaway forces in other parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014.

“For me and most of my friends, nothing changed drastically after the full-scale invasion, because we were fighting even earlier,” Tamara said. “I was always afraid of war, but there’s a proverb — if you want peace, you have to be ready to fight for it.”

Outside of clubs and private parties, New Year's celebrations will be largely set aside for a more solemn evening in Ukraine.

Russia launched a new barrage of missiles at the capital and other cities Saturday, killing at least one person, after weeks of attacks on energy targets that have forced outages and left millions without water or electricity through the winter.

"This time, Russia’s mass missile attack is deliberately targeting residential areas, not even our energy infrastructure. War criminal Putin ‘celebrates’ New Year by killing people," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter. Russia has denied targeting civilians.

People stand in front of damaged hotel at the scene of Russian shelling in Kyiv
People stand in front of a damaged hotel at the scene of Russian shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Saturday.Efrem Lukatsky / AP

The food stalls and gaudy lights of past celebrations were set to go dark by 11 p.m., plunging streets that would have been full of revelers in past years into blackness. The fireworks that once lit up the country’s glittering golden-domed churches are strictly prohibited.

Ukraine’s police chief said the curfew was meant to reduce criminality and opportunities for “saboteurs” to gather information on sensitive targets.

“I’d like to remind everyone that mass gatherings are prohibited … furthermore we will severely and strictly react to people using pyrotechnics or fireworks,” said Police Chief Ihor Klymenko, 50. 

Still, the silence may suit some who have little to celebrate this year.

Nelya Shestak, 51, said she had lost one of her two sons in the fighting and that the other was in Russian captivity.

“Holidays are not holidays for us anymore,” she said, cuddling her 6-year-old granddaughter, Alisa, on her lap on a park bench in Kyiv.  “My life was kind of broken on the first of April when my oldest son was killed. But I understand that I have to go on with my fight because I still have to save my younger son.”

Shestak is a member of a campaign group called Women of Steel, which pushes to raise awareness of missing Ukrainian service personnel.

They had last rallied a few days ago in a square where people usually gather for New Year’s parties.

Despite her loss, she said she would still have a modest celebration for the sake of her granddaughter and other family members.

“We will celebrate together. If there is no electricity we will celebrate with candles,” she said. “We have only one wish for the new year, and you know what that will be.”