Saturday night in Kyiv, and the streets are dark and snowy. After several waves of missile attacks on the electrical infrastructure of Ukraine over the past month, power is rationed and whole blocks are in blackout. In a hip former industrial area full of restaurants and bars, partygoers gather at the entrance to an underground club to be checked by bouncers.
The dress code being enforced is “Dress to Impress”. It’s 6:30 in the evening. Nightclubs start early in wartime; curfew is at 11pm. Thigh-high pink boots and a silver mini dress are hidden beneath a puffy coat against the cold. Downstairs in a vaulted basement, the crowd pulses, wreathed in smoke and lit with blue and magenta strobe lighting.
“At first I was a bit worried about partying,” says Vlad Putistin, the dj for the evening. “Is it the right thing to do? But it’s my job. I need to make money; I need to continue living.” Not long ago a partygoer thanked him for a great set. It turned out to be a soldier, on leave from the front, grateful for a good time. ‘”I didn’t know what to say,” said Vlad. “I told him, thank you."
Everyone knows it will be a difficult winter. Power cuts are planned in every region; temperatures can fall to -20°C (-4°F). Ukrainian defiance has both moral overtones (to carry on as normal is to raise a middle finger to Vladimir Putin) and economic ones (a beleaguered nation needs to keep working to keep eating).
Over the summer, away from the front lines, life had begun to return to normal. The mayor of Kyiv’s office has estimated from mobile-phone traffic that the population has fallen from a pre-war 3.7m to 3m, of whom roughly 400,000 were displaced from other areas. “In September, in general we had a rather positive picture,” says Hlib Vyshlinsky, head of the Centre of Economic Strategy.
But times are now tough. According to figures released at the end of October, Ukraine’s economy is predicted to shrink by almost 32% this year. Inflation will accelerate to 30%, largely because war has fouled up logistics and the currency, the hryvnia, was devalued in the summer. Unemployment is probably between 20% and 30%, though government data collection is much less thorough these days and economic indices can be “philosophical”, says Mr Vyshlinsky.
After the first big missile strike targeting electrical infrastructure on October 10th, businesses began to adapt quickly. The streets now hum to the chug of private generators. “Everyone doing business in Ukraine got used to the idea that every day can be different from the previous one,” says Ievgen Klopotenko, a chef with well-regarded modern Ukrainian restaurants in Kyiv and Lviv, in the west of the country.
His restaurant in Kyiv had already secured generators and a biological toilet before the power cuts. Now it stocks water in plastic barrels and a large supply of candles. In his restaurant in Lviv there is no space for a generator, so when the power is off he changes the menu, offering cold dishes, sandwiches or salads, and borscht kept warm in thermoses.
Dentists schedule visits according to the ever-varying electricity timetable. Cafés that cannot use their electric espresso machines switch to filter coffee, made with water boiled on gas stoves. Business owners say they are stockpiling supplies in their offices: sleeping bags, pumps to keep waste systems going, food and petrol. During the pandemic people got used to having a “home office”.
Mr Vyshlinsky jokes that now, when they commute to offices so they can work somewhere warm and electrified, they call it “office home”.
He reckons that power from his generator is about three times costlier than mains electricity. Only some businesses can afford that. Some boast of their generators to woo customers. Many it workers are these days using co-working spaces which have invested in generators and tout for business on ads in bus stops.
Some companies say they are doing better than they were before the war. Mr Klopotenko, the chef, says his revenues are up, in part because people are “looking to discover their Ukrainian roots. It’s a kind of society rebuilding, and my restaurant is a place where you can touch the roots of Ukrainian cuisine.”
Anecdotes suggest that the supermarket brands and petrol-station chains that stayed open throughout the battle for Kyiv continue to provide services even where it is risky and unprofitable, and have earned respect and won loyal customers.
But many Ukrainians now seem to be inclined to shun brands whose owners fled abroad or which were seen to have shuttered or profiteered.
Last week attacks destroyed more electrical and gas infrastructure. On November 23rd another wave of missiles blacked out most of Kyiv and several other cities. Water, too, was cut off in the capital. The power cuts will get longer. Inevitably it is harder to recover after each wave of destruction. But customers, Mr Klopotenko says, remain understanding.
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