Opinion: In Ukraine’s deserted restaurants, I find a light amid the darkness

Editor’s note: Michel Bociurkiw (@WorldAffairsPro) is a global business analyst currently based in Odessa. He is a senior researcher at the Atlantic Council and a former spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He regularly contributes to CNN Opinion. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more notice at CNN.


For more than 125 years, one of the oldest vineyards in Ukraine – Prince Trubetskoi – has occupied magnificent lands on the southern slopes of the Dnipro River. Its old castle survived the First and Second World Wars. Its internationally recognized wines have been attracting oenophiles and tourists for decades.

Then, on February 24 last year, the full-scale invasion of Russia happened. When Russian forces entered Ukraine to occupy the Kherson region, the winery found itself in the bullseye of the aggressors.

Over the next nine months, the owners say, soldiers destroyed much of the property, even taking away much of its priceless collection of 50,000 bottles, some dating back to when the winery was founded in the late 19th century. . (At its peak, Prince Trubetskoi produced around 600,000 bottles a year and was one of the few Ukrainian wineries to reach distant export markets).

“We didn’t 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 is not alone. A few hundred miles to the north, a similar fate befell Vitalli Karvyha, whose award-winning cider house, Berryland, near the town of Irpin, was almost completely destroyed at the start of the war. The company has only been around for six years.

Whether it’s losing their businesses completely due to Russian bombing, having reduced business hours due to lack of customers, or not being able to grow produce due to the presence of landmines, Ukrainian entrepreneurs feel the economic consequences of the conflict.

Walking through the capital kyiv, the economic damage is fully visible. Virtually empty malls, deserted bars and restaurants, and sidewalks so bare that dogs take pride of place.

During my visit there last month, I often found myself the only customer dining in restaurants in what was once one of Europe’s most vibrant capitals. Until the war, Kyiv was seen as a favored post for foreign diplomats or a destination where candidates for election observation missions fiercely competed for long-term assignments.

But after more than a year and the reopening of most diplomatic missions and major foreign businesses (McDonald’s began reopening restaurants in Ukraine in September), Kiev still strikes me as a city in an artificial coma.

The envelopment of the capital’s many historical monuments, frequent air raid sirens, checkpoints, barriers and curfews only add to the perception that this is a city under siege. I found kyiv’s central luxury department store, Tsum, to be almost deserted.

An empty restaurant in Odessa, a sea port on the Black Sea in southern Ukraine.  Before the war, it was a popular vacation spot.

Elsewhere in Ukraine, countless billboards display either expired concert announcements months old or the words: “This ad space could be yours.”

According to the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, 31% of its members had their factories and facilities damaged and 19% had their employees killed in the past year.

Winemakers, restaurateurs, and even beauty salon owners have told me they have to implement expensive and heartbreaking workarounds just to stay afloat. But their stories rarely seem to be part of the official war narrative. “Nothing should be overlooked to put these stories of misfortune on the agenda not only of government decision-makers, but also of all international conferences on rehabilitation,” Kira Rudik, an MP and leader of the Golos party, told me.

The war – and with it the frequent missile barrages and drone attacks – means that many foreigners and tourists are nowhere outside Western cities such as Lviv.

The violence has also led millions of Ukrainians to flee to safer havens. And this has reduced not only business customers, but also the availability of staff, in turn forcing businesses to close.

Yevgen Gusovsky, a business partner with three popular restaurants in Kyiv, told me the unpredictability of traffic had been the main problem, especially when attacks are expected. Some ingredients such as seafood can be hard to come by and some kitchen staff have left for military service.

A soldier shops in a mall in kyiv, December 2022. As the war continues, Ukraine's economy continues to suffer.

In the southern port city of Odessa, Nika Lozovska, co-owner and chef of popular contemporary bistro Dizyngoff, said amid falling business and power outages she had used various strategies to keep doors of his restaurant open. This included shortening the work week and drastically reducing the menu.

However, with warmer weather, fewer power outages, and city lighting restored to historic Katerynyns’ka Square, things are looking up again. “We predicted that it would be the hardest winter. It used to be, but now we feel it’s all behind us,” she told me.

For locals, with inflation approaching 30%, going out to restaurants is considered a luxury. Or as a resident of kyiv, Olga Moloko, told me, something to postpone after the war. “We’ll celebrate once we get the win,” she said as we rode in a taxi through the suburb of Obolon.

Ironically, in some ways, the war boosted sales of Ukrainian products. Winemaker Eduard Gorodetsky says the falling Ukrainian currency has made it more expensive to buy imported wine – and at the same time, buying Ukrainian is seen as more affordable and patriotic. “In a way, it helped us,” he told me in his “My Wine Bar” tasting room in the suburbs of Odessa.

Ukrainian winemaker Eduard Gorodetsky with a selection of regional wines at his bar and wine shop in Odessa.  He says

“The war has made our business very, very, very healthy,” said Alina Kacharovska, CEO and co-owner of heritage shoe brand Kacharovska, saying it was an opportunity to cut unnecessary costs and make the lighter and more competitive company.

She told me that the hardest part of the war was losing personnel to Russian aggression. “We can handle it all: power cuts, loss of income, no light for months, no water or connection, some turbulence in sales. But the loss of people, I can’t bear it.

The Ukrainian government has also taken advantage of the bravery shown by its soldiers in a brilliant new marketing promotion of national products and services. Labeled “Be Brave Like Ukraine”, it has stimulated the creation of a wide range of products – from fashion products to coffee mugs and works of art.

“Bravery is our mark,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address last April to kick off the campaign. “That’s what it means to be us. To be Ukrainians. To be brave.”

The battle for Ukraine is not only taking place on the front line, but on all the main streets, from Kherson to Kharkiv, from Odessa to kyiv. From small entrepreneurs sending part of their profits to the armed forces, to consumers deliberately buying Ukrainian to support struggling local businesses, their show of resilience has been nothing short of astonishing.

Of course, the best way for the West to help Ukraine’s economy get back on its feet is to help Kiev end the war as soon as possible, especially by giving them the opportunity to close their skies to Russian missiles that target critical infrastructure and propel small businesses into the dark ages.

The reward 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 the owner of the Odessa beauty salon, Dasha Fedoronchuk, told me while I was helping her carry a 100-pound generator: “In winter it was quite cold, the power was cut off often and for a long time. , and removing the generator was difficult and uncomfortable as there are only women working here.

“But we are strong Ukrainian women, we can do anything!”


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