An inside look into Repair Together, the collective raving and rebuilding villages in Ukraine

An inside look into Repair Together, the collective raving and rebuilding villages in Ukraine

Jul 20, 2022

Amongst other things, war has completely altered the auditory landscape of Ukraine. The chirping of birds lost in the echoes of bombs exploding near and far. The rhythm of everyday life disrupted by abrasive air-raid sirens. And music — other than the occasional playing of national songs — seemingly disappearing overnight.

But in some rural towns destroyed by Russian forces and later liberated from them, music we associate with celebration has returned far sooner than one might have expected — and with it has come mass efforts from young Ukrainians to rebuild homes there.

We’re talking about the work of Repair Together, a volunteer collective organizing bus trips each weekend that transport hundreds of young adults out of Kyiv to ruined towns in the Chernihiv region. Here, they clear debris and build new homes for families who cannot do so themselves — and often, when a weekend’s work nears a close, they throw a little music festival with the villagers.

“Right now everyone needs some fun, but it’s ethically questionable today to have fun without being useful,” says Dima Kyrpa, one of the founders of Repair Together. “That’s why we combined cleaning and building with fun. It’s important because we need volunteering, and in order for that to happen, volunteering must be something social and there must also be some fun, which is something we had before the war and now we want to have again.”

In the years leading up to the war, Dima worked in the field of information technologies, most recently as a product manager for startups in Germany. Over the phone, he describes being shocked — like most everyone — during the first month of the war. He found it impossible to do anything, so he decided to return to Kyiv. One day, just after the Chernihiv region was liberated, Dima and his friend Alex — a DJ — drove north to see if they could help out. Amongst burnt structures and endless rubble, it became clear that the best way they could help was to rebuild houses.

“That was the first event that inspired Repair Together,” said Dima. “The second was at a dog shelter where another friend, Victoria, had organized a cleanup. It was really a nice time, and it was obvious that these types of community events really help people to focus on something else other than war. So we combined these two things — the need for homes in Chernihiv and the need for community events — into one organization: Repair Together.”

The collective’s four core members work daily to coordinate with a wider circle of around 40 active members who all have organizational tasks. Since May, they’ve managed to get an estimated 3,000 volunteers to participate in Repair Together events — and in the process, clean up debris in 16 villages. It’s an essential task; if the rubble isn’t removed before the Ukrainian winter, then the cold will damage the old foundations and surviving walls beyond the point of repair.

Early in the morning before each cleanup event, hundreds of volunteers come together in the Kyiv city center and pack into a peloton of north-bound busses. Upon arrival, they’re split into teams, provided equipment, and assigned to a homeowner in need of helping hands. While the teams shovel away debris, Repair Together orders for tractors to come collect the garbage and transport it away. It’s not particularly easy work, but it goes far faster when hundreds of people work simultaneously.

“And if we can’t manage to finish before the event ends, we keep coming back till it’s finished.”

In articles about Repair Together’s work, publications such as DJ Mag and Resident Advisor give the impression that each cleanup event involves a DJ playing for raving volunteers. Speaking to Vinci, Dima said this isn’t true. The reality is that a typical village cleanup event involves dispersing everyone across several different sites, meaning there’s no central focal point for the music to be played from. And in any case, blasting techno as volunteers work closely with devastated homeowners may be counterproductive, if not a bit insensitive.

But when the cleanup involves all the volunteers working together to fix up the main cultural center of a village, that’s when they’ve rolled out the turntables and speakers to soundtrack the debris-clearing work. At the collective’s first rave, which they call a Rave TOLOKA, Dima saw for himself how much joy the music brought out in not only the volunteers, but also in the villagers.

“There was a moment when a guy in his late 30s decided to come to the party with his small daughter who was perhaps 3,” Dima recalled in his soft, calm voice. “When he arrived the music playing was just techno with loud bass, but he wasn’t afraid of that. He didn’t care because when the daughter saw the whole crowd dancing, she started to dance too. She was laughing.”

Not just raves

Beyond the raves, Repair Together has also been programming more acoustic cultural programs on Sundays to boost the spirits of local villagers, with bands coming in from Kyiv to play folk, rock, and national songs.

“People felt very lonely during the occupation, so they finally felt attention being paid to them. That’s very important to us. We want people to feel they’re not alone.”

One of such Sunday events took place in an old theater where the mayor gave a speech to thank the volunteers for their work and for bringing life back to a theater that had been abandoned since 2006. For Dominik Bibko, a Slovakian volunteer who traveled all the way from the Netherlands, it was special to watch an accordion player follow up the mayor’s act and play to such a decrepit backdrop.

“The feeling was strange being in this space that was huge and amazing but completely neglected,” said Bibko, who is one of several foreign volunteers to have joined the group. “It was a nice moment though. Everyone was dancing to village folk music and singing national songs, and that made me realize something, which is: even though I don’t like nationalism, it’s amazing how much it can unite people when it’s necessary — when the circumstances of life are harder.”

Dominik’s view during the TOLOKA within the village’s abandoned theater; image by Dominik Bibko

Though the response to Repair Together’s music-infused construction work has been overwhelmingly positive, some have criticized the group’s decision to party in times of war. For Bibko, this is too much of a “black-white perspective.”

“Of course it’s dark here. Everyone knows someone who’s fighting or has died. It’s dark, it’s saddening, but you can’t just live thinking only about that. You have to go on.”

Dima said his team anticipated some backlash from Ukrainian society regarding the raves, but decided to go on with them anyways.

“Our country needs mentally-healthy people, not people who sit at home depressed. It would be one thing if we were only partying and getting wasted, but we think that lacks sense now. That’s why we’re experimenting with new forms of partying to attract young people to useful activities that are much-needed in this modern world.”

Dima also mentioned that people in Europe and South America have been throwing parties in a useful way, with all proceeds being donated to Repair Together.

“It just shows you how young people can unite and show solidarity, no matter where they live.”

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