Dining alone in a Kyiv restaurant, I find a light amid the darkness
Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw (@WorldAffairsPro) is a global affairs analyst currently based in Odesa. He is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He is a regular contributor to CNN Opinion. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
For over 125 years, one of Ukraine’s oldest wineries — Prince Trubetskoi — has occupied glorious grounds on the southern slopes of the Dnipro River. Its ancient chateau has survived the First and Second World Wars. Its internationally recognized wines have for decades attracted oenophiles and tourists alike.
Then on February 24 last year, Russia’s full-scale invasion happened. As Russian forces moved into Ukraine to occupy the Kherson region, the winery ended up in the bullseye of the aggressors.
Over the next nine months, according to the owners, soldiers destroyed much of the property, even carting away a good portion of its priceless collection of 50,000 bottles, some dating back to the founding of the winery in the late 19th century. (At its peak, Prince Trubetskoi produced around 600,000 bottles annually and was one of the few Ukrainian wineries to reach faraway export markets).
“We did not prepare for war,” winery manager Andriy Strilets said of the damage. “In the 21st century this is immoral. No one expected or believed it.”
He’s not alone. A few hundred miles to the north, a similar fate met Vitalli Karvyha, whose award-winning cider house, Berryland, near the city of Irpin, was almost completely destroyed in the early days of the war. The business has been in operation for just six years.
Whether it be completely losing their businesses due to Russian bombing, cutting operating hours due to lack of customers, or not being able to grow produce because of the presence of landmines, Ukraine’s entrepreneurs are feeling the economic toll of the conflict.
Walking through the capital Kyiv, the economic damage is on full display. Virtually empty shopping malls, deserted bars and restaurants, and sidewalks so bare that dogs command pride of place.
During my visit there last month, I often found myself the lone customer dining in the restaurants of what used to be one of the most vibrant capitals in Europe. Up until the war, Kyiv used to be considered a plum posting for foreign diplomats or a destination where candidates for election observation missions would compete fiercely for long-term assignments.
But after more than one year and the reopening of most diplomatic missions and large foreign enterprises (McDonald’s started reopening restaurants in Ukraine in September), Kyiv still appears to me as a city in an induced coma.
The shrouding of many of the capital’s historic monuments, frequent air raid sirens, checkpoints, barriers and curfews only add to the perception that this is a city under siege. I found the central Kyiv luxury department store Tsum was almost deserted.
Elsewhere across Ukraine, countless billboards either show expired concert ads from months gone by, or the words: “This ad space could be yours.”
According to the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, 31% of its members have seen their plants and facilities damaged and 19% have had employees killed in the last year.
Winemakers, restauranteurs and even beauty salon owners have told me they are having to implement expensive, heart-wrenching work-arounds just to stay afloat. But their stories rarely seem to be part of the official narrative of the war. “No stone should be left unturned to bring these stories of woe to the agenda not only of government decision-makers, but also of all the international rehabilitation conferences,” member of Parliament and Golos Party leader Kira Rudik told me.
The war — and with it, the frequent missile barrages and drone attacks — means many foreigners and tourists are nowhere to be seen outside of western cities such as Lviv.
The violence has also led to millions of Ukrainians fleeing to safer havens. And that has reduced not only the customer base for businesses, but also the availability of staff — in turn, forcing businesses to close down.
Yevgen Gusovsky, partner of a company with three popular restaurants in Kyiv, told me the unpredictability of traffic had been the main issue, especially when attacks are expected. Certain ingredients such as seafood can be hard to come by, and some kitchen staff have left to perform military service.
In the southern port city of Odesa, Nika Lozovska, co-owner and chef of the popular contemporary bistro Dizyngoff, said amid falling business and power outages that she had employed various strategies to keep the doors to her restaurant open. This included shortening the workweek and drastically paring down the menu.
However, with warmer weather, fewer power outages and city lighting switched back on in the historic Katerynyns’ka Square, things are looking up again. “It was predicted to be the hardest winter. It was, but now we feel it is all behind us,” she told me.
For locals, with inflation hovering at around 30%, going out to restaurants is seen as a luxury. Or as one Kyiv resident, Olga Moloko, told me, something to be postponed until after the war. “We will celebrate once we achieve victory,” she said as we rode in a taxi through the suburb of Obolon.
Ironically, in some aspects, the war has boosted sales of Ukrainian products. Winemaker Eduard Gorodetsky says that the declining Ukrainian currency has made it more expensive to purchase imported wine — and at the same time, buying Ukrainian is seen as more affordable and patriotic. “In a way that’s helped us,” he told me in his “My Wine Bar” tasting room in a suburb of Odesa.
“The war made our business very, very, very healthy,” said Alina Kacharovska, CEO and co-owner of a heritage footware brand, Kacharovska, saying it was an opportunity to shed unnecessary costs and make the business more lean and competitive.
She told me the most difficult part of the war was losing staff to the Russian aggression. “We can handle everything: power cuts, loss of profits, no light for months, no water or connection, some turbulence in sales. But losses of people, I can’t handle it.”
The Ukrainian government has also leveraged the bravery shown by its soldiers as part of a brilliant new marketing promotion of national products and services. Labeled “Be Brave Like Ukraine,” it has spurred the creation of a wide array of products — from fashion products to coffee mugs and art works.
“Bravery is our brand,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address last April to launch the campaign. “This is what it means to be us. To be Ukrainians. To be brave.”
Ukraine’s battle isn’t just being fought on the front line — but on every single high street, from Kherson to Kharkiv, from Odesa to Kyiv. Whether it be small entrepreneurs sending part of their profits to the armed forces or consumers purposely buying Ukrainian to prop up struggling local business, their show of resistance has been nothing short of astonishing.
Of course, the best way the West can help the Ukrainian economy get back on its feet is to help Kyiv end the war as soon as possible — specifically, by providing them with the ability to close their skies to Russian missiles that target critical infrastructure and catapult small business into the dark ages.
The payoff will be, like the Ukrainians themselves, a more resilient economy that will require less effort from the West to rehabilitate and integrate into the European Union.
As Odesa beauty salon owner Dasha Fedoronchuk told me while I helped her lug a 100-pound generator: “In winter it was quite cold, the power was turned off often and for a long time, and taking out the generator was difficult and uncomfortable since it is only women working here.
“But we are strong Ukrainian women — we can do anything!”