‘We’re not getting paid’: the Kyiv businesses trying to reopen

Those remaining in Ukrainian capital attempt to adjust to traumatic new normal as Russian forces close in

Sixteen days after Russia invaded Ukraine, life in the capital is far from ordinary. Kyiv is a city under siege. Half of its inhabitants have left. Russian tanks and armoured vehicles are edging ever closer from the north and west, with some units just nine miles away. There are sandbags and tank traps.

And yet there were tentative signs on Friday that those who remained were seeking to return to a kind of normality, even as war raged around them. In a Facebook post, Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said it was time for the country’s economy to restart. Those displaced by Russian bombing should try to find jobs, he boldly suggested.

Over in Observatorna Street in central Kyiv, a 15-minute walk from the landmark St Sophia’s Cathedral, a group of Kyiv hipsters were heeding the minister’s call. City hairdressers had staged a muted reopening. There were few customers for now. The street outside was mostly deserted. And you needed an appointment.

“We only take people through word of mouth at the moment,” said Yulia Stets, the salon’s lead stylist and director. The business opened in October, soon after the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, began amassing troops on Ukraine’s borders. The salon slotted right into Kyiv’s burgeoning youth scene, so hip that it was widely referred to as the “new Berlin”.

Stets said she returned to work two days ago. So far they had cut the hair of seven people. Most of the staff have exited Kyiv but there were so many hairdressers without work that Stets proposed the salon become a cooperative. “We’re not getting paid,” she said. “Our last salary is all we have. People have to find a way to start working again.”

Air-raid sirens go off every few hours in Kyiv. The city centre has not been hit for more than a week, when two Russian bombs struck the TV tower, killing several civilians including a journalist. Residents have grown used to the warnings. Most carry on with their daily tasks.

The war, however, is never far away. A colleague of Stets went home to Kharkiv, a city which Moscow has remorselessly pounded. The employee sent Stets pictures of three dead men who had been killed when they ventured out for water.

Stets and her only remaining hairdresser, Taras Savchenko, have converted one of the salon’s rooms into a storage area. It is now being used as part of Kyiv’s – and Ukraine’s – ubiquitous volunteer effort. Restaurant owners have created a network of more than 100 kitchens. They are working in shifts to deliver food to hospitals, soldiers and to other key workers.

Savchenko said he had thought about cutting hair for the first time on Thursday. Previously he had collected generators from farmers and delivered them to the frontline as a volunteer driver. “After the war I want to get military training. I have none at the moment,” he said.

And what about Russia? Savchenko said he wanted to kill “orcs” – a Ukrainian term for invading Kremlin soldiers – but wasn’t yet in a position to do so. Before the war he was critical of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Now he is a fan. “What he’s doing as commander in chief is totally correct.”

Non-essential shops, bars and restaurants in Kyiv have shut, along with hotels and entertainment venues. The city’s Soviet-era underground network functions as a bomb shelter. There is a train every 90 minutes. Zhennya was sitting in a stationary train in Olimpiiska station, waiting to travel to his home in Teremky, in south Kyiv.

He said he came into town to buy some groceries. Usually an employee in the agri business, he said he was not working. “I have been out every day since the war began to do shopping,” explained Zhennya, who is in his mid 50s.

The Park Inn hotel – a looming glass tower – and the city’s Olympic stadium were both devoid of inhabitants. But a coffee stand next to the station had miraculously reopened. Ruslan, a barista, said he went back to work on Wednesday. On Friday he said he had served 50 people – a small sign that life was carrying on.

Back at the salon, a doctor working in Kyiv’s hospital number 17 came in to deliver supplies. He also brought bad news: one of his patients included a pregnant woman fleeing from Irpin, north-west of Kyiv. A Russian shell had killed her husband and she had lost her baby, Yevhen said.

Two other fashionable Kyivans turned volunteers also dropped by at the salon, to pick up dog food. They were taking it to a new dog shelter. It has so far received 49 dogs – and one wolf – all apparently abandoned by owners who had fled Kyiv for western Ukraine, Poland and other destinations.

When the war started, the Ukrainian government told citizens to stay at home and not go to work. But after several days of lockdown, supermarkets, petrol stations and pharmacies were told they could reopen. Many did. Now other businesses are considering starting to operate in this traumatic new normal.

In his latest video address on Friday, Zelenskiy said Ukraine and its capital had survived 16 days of Russian attack – longer than Moscow and many of the Ukraine’s western supporters had anticipated. He spoke of a “strategic turning point”. He even mentioned the word “victory”.

This may be wishful thinking, but whether accurate or not, the owner of Kyiv’s most famous Crimean Tatar restaurant, Musafir, said he was considering reopening on Saturday. Kemal Seitveliyev had been volunteering along with staff members. He said society needed to start functioning again even in these abnormal conditions.

Musafir used to have three branches in Kyiv, but Seitveliyev said they were only using one because, as with the hair salon, his employees had mostly departed. “A few people have called me to ask if we’re open. So there is some interest. But let’s see.” He acknowledged that a reopening may be short-lived, if and when the bombs resume.

“If they take Kyiv, well, that’s the end,” he said.


Isobel Koshiw in Kyiv

The GuardianTramp

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