Kyiv Diary 9/12/22: Soldiers Drink for Free

Kyiv Diary, Latest
A man stands behind an empty bar at Vermuteria, in Kyiv.

Moment is publishing regular updates from Helen, a Soviet American Jew living in Kyiv. Read all the diary entries here.

On Sunday, we visited our friends in their countryside house. For me, it was an adventure because many of the friends I used to socialize with are scattered across Europe. When we drove back home, we saw that Vermuteria, the chic bar next door to our building, was crowded, with customers spilling out into the outdoor seating. I was really surprised when I saw more than 20 young people drinking fancy cocktails and having a good time. Some of them were enjoying a week off from military service, or so I gathered. Some people, perhaps, are capable of living their lives in a state of permanent worry, but manage to put it in the background. They invent new dreams to replace the old ones, finding fresh reasons for contentment.

It was after 10 pm, and curfew time is 11 pm now, yet the guests didn’t look to be in a hurry at all. Yet from our balcony, we saw that by 10:30 pm the bar was closed. We saw the owner driving away ten minutes later, and it became very quiet. Before the war, we could hear the noise coming from outside late into the night.

I spoke to the bar owner, Svetlana, and she told me her story. When the war broke out, she was on vacation in Italy with her husband and kids. Many families are apart because women fled and husbands stayed—under martial law, men under 60 can’t leave Ukraine. Svetlana was in a different position because she was together with her husband in a safe place. Yet, putting their fears aside, they decided to come back to Kyiv after a couple of months in refuge. Her husband used to be a top manager of Ukrainian Railways before he started his own venture capital business and he felt it was his civic duty to volunteer for the army with his knowledge of logistics. “Our Motherland at war, it’s home where our heart is, where I want my children to grow and have a happy childhood,” Svetlana said. “I think each and every Ukrainian should see the Russian invasion as a personal war. My husband wanted to be where he is needed the most in such horrendous times and not be hiding in safety. Regardless of my concerns and fears, I fully supported him.”

Svetlana reopened Vermuteria shortly after they returned. “Before the war, we used to see our patrons quite often and the number of customers had been growing. Of course, it’s different now,” she noted, adding that they now only operate five days a week instead of daily and that many regulars are away. A profitable business before the war, the bar is struggling to break even nowadays. “Our goal is creating an atmosphere where our customers can feel relaxed and take their minds off the hardships, because this war has impacted everyone,” Svetlana stresses. “Especially during the summer and fall months when people can sit in the garden. Sometimes we have soldiers who are on break, and we serve them drinks for free.”

“I hear stories about the horrors of the war, and it makes my skin crawl,” Svetlana added. “I’m happy to see them at peace and not thinking about the front lines.”

It’s true that everyone in Ukraine has been damaged by this war. And the longer it lasts the greater the extent of this damage will be. Although many people are coming back from their refuge in the West, there are still many families that are torn apart.

Our friend Valentin used to travel on business to Lithuania quite often. Lithuania used to be an independent state, but after World War II it became one of the Soviet Union republics. It regained its independence in 1990 when the Soviet Union fell apart, although some political experts think that Russian President Vladimir Putin has intentions to reclaim the northern former Soviet Union republics after taking over Ukraine.

When Valentin married a Kyiv woman, he wanted to move the family to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. However, his wife refused to relocate; she loves Ukraine, and they had been arguing about where to live for years. Eventually, the family got separated. Valentin moved to Vilnius, and his wife stayed in Kyiv. He visited the family quite often, and occasionally his wife and children came to visit him in Vilnius.

When the war broke out, Valentin happened to be in Kyiv. He brought his wife and children to the border, and from there they escaped to safety at Valentin’s place in Vilnius. However, Valentin had to return back to Kyiv because due to his age he is draft eligible.

It seems ironic that they switched living quarters, and both live in the cities they are not attached to.

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