Running a small independent business is already a challenge with small margins and the ever-increasing inflation. Try doing that under the constant shelling and outages of critical infrastructure.
Ukrainian business owners are showing real miracles of survival to the world, constantly adapting to the fluctuating reality of the war and still staying afloat. The harshest period came this winter, when attacks on critical infrastructure frequently left people without water, heating and electricity, in extreme winter temperatures.
As the winter is slowly subsiding, in the second part of my mini-series, I talked to the very inspiring Karina Kachurovskaya - an owner of the best Ukrainian private gallery coupled with a restaurant and a natural wine bar Avangarden - about her experience of living it. Her story below is told in the first person.
Karina, an owner of Avangarden gallery & wine bar
We just opened Avangarden, my life’s dream project, shortly before the war started. So when, after a few months of closing due to the war, we accumulated a lot of debt, I thought: “Ok, let’s try to reopen, and if I do not meet my financial goal by the end of the year, I will close it down, sell all the art, sit down on the floor and cry a river”. Reopening at this time is downright crazy. I will not lie - things are bad, things are terrible, but we are still in business.
The amount of problem-solving we have to do daily is bordering on the absurd. Power outages are not the biggest issue; we put candles all around and invite people to experience the “romantic atmosphere”. The lack of technical water is much worse. Without it, all of our business processes stop. The worst problem is the bathrooms. We are in the very heart of the city so there is nowhere to go when our bathrooms are closed! We jokingly tell people to come with empty stomachs and a lot of patience, and in the worst-case scenario, I still have some of my daughter’s diapers…Somehow we still have full seating on most days and secret bathroom spots became a hot conversation topic in the room.
I think our reopening has worked out because the atmosphere in Kyiv is very different from what it used to be in the early days of the war. People that left are more worried than those who remained. Everyone is very determined and prepared for everything. Our team had training in tactical medical help, an algorithm of action for a chemical or nuclear attack… All the things you never wanted to learn. We've already had six nuclear attack threats!
One day was especially scary. I got a call from an influential client that claimed the nuclear attack would definitely happen tomorrow. I had to gather a whole team and tell them the situation. I was leaving, we were closing the place, and they should leave too because I do not want them to wake up to a big bright cloud in the sky.
As a leader, it is a huge challenge to find a balance between encouragement and keeping spirits high, whilst also being realistic about the horrible, brutal reality of things happening around us. In the service industry, everything is about people and emotions so communication is extremely important. I feel that I can share the information and let everybody make their own decision.
In the end, the nuclear attack did not happen, and a week later my employees were begging me to reopen. Working is one of the only things keeping our sanity.
I understand that my hyperactivity is a way to suppress emotions. When I am always doing something, there is no time left to reflect on how bad things really are. However, I cannot live any other way. I spent the first few months of the war in the West of Ukraine which were objectively much calmer, yet I did not feel at peace there. I felt out of place, living a life that didn’t belong to me. I came back to Kyiv to work on my project, in my city, with my people. It is very tough but we are in this together and people understand and support each other by all means. When there is no power to call for a taxi in another part of town, I know I can hitchhike a police car, or any car, and people will stop and help me. I find it harder to look at the events from a distance than to be in them.
I stopped counting the days that we woke up to explosions. I am already able to tell which sound is a rocket, which sound is a drone, and which is the air defense system. It is a damn lottery. No way to tell where it will hit next. I know that we pep ourselves up but our mental state is very unstable. We jump up from every loud sound, we wear a million layers going to sleep. My husband bought a gas heater but then we saw on the news that these sometimes explode so now we are too afraid to use it. There is no possibility to relax for a few days, to breathe out. We are all condensed energy and determination. Reflection will come next, now is the time of pure faith.
People are coming to our space against all odds. No one was ready for this scale of aggression and violence but now we all understand what is important in our lives. We did not choose this war but we can choose a life-affirming outlook. Everything in Kyiv is soaked in this life force: love, freedom, creativity, self-education, and exploration are in the air.
This December, in Avangarden, we decided to have a manifesto of life. We had an event almost every day: a jazz concert, art exhibition, poetry evening, improvisational theater, yoga and meditation, and even a lecture on quantum physics. Each of them fundraised for a specific cause and initiative.
I do not want to create an illusion that war is far away and we are here enjoying ourselves and drinking wine. At these events, I am trying to build a mature dialogue about what is happening around us. There is a war in our country and our future depends not just on our army and politicians, but on each and every one of us. This time is about synergy. Everybody wants to help, everybody wants to do something. We find our power and use it to lead, or join an existing initiative. This approach brings us an endless flow of people with ideas. We are a real cultural hub - one of the only ones in Kyiv at the moment.
I think it is very important to support the artists and let them have a place to exercise their real passion. And for the visitors, these events are therapeutic. We gather together with people who share the same historical moment, and emotion. It is a collective experience and I have cried many times during our events. We also use a lot of humor. It is the only way to tackle these scary topics. Speaking about the scale of this catastrophe and the destruction in a serious way feels like a trap.
Sometimes I lay down, I look at my daughter, and I start thinking about death. These thoughts are inevitable. And I think: “Wow, I’ve lived a fantastic life”. And then I think that I should give access to my bank accounts to another person, in case I die today because I forgot to transfer the donations from yesterday. *laughs* I would love to go on holiday!