The hipster bar of Donetsk moves lock, stock and cocktails to Kiev

by @SabraAyres March 15, 2015 5:00AM ET

For those who left the fighting in eastern Ukraine, a new place where everybody knows your name

Ukraine Crisis
Donetsk native Yevgeny Vasili, 34, is the owner and manager of Spletni, a bar originally located in central Donetsk that was forced to close last year because of the war. It recently reopened in Kiev.
Joseph Sywenkyj for Al Jazeera America
A patron checks her cellphone outside Spletni (Russian for “gossip”).
Joseph Sywenkyj for Al Jazeera America

KIEV, Ukraine — A year ago, the Spletni bar in Donetsk’s city center was a trendy lounge popular with students, young professionals and the hip IT crowd of eastern Ukraine’s most affluent city.

It was a place where the owner, Yevgeny Vasili, mixed cocktails behind the bar and addressed his regular clients — of which there were dozens — by their first name. The bar’s laid-back and familiar atmosphere was a stark contrast to the more formal, expensive establishments that made up the bulk of Donetsk’s bars and restaurants.

In many ways, Spletni (Russian for “gossip”) exemplified Donetsk’s growing young middle class, which at the time was slowing making its mark in the economy of a region of Ukraine better known historically for its coal mines and steel mills than for its startups and software designers.

“By Wednesday night, all our tables were booked for the weekend. It was standing room only at the bar after that,” said Vasili, 34. “I wanted the bar to be like the bars I had visited in Europe and elsewhere, where people felt like everyone was their friend, including the staff.”

Things changed drastically in April 2014, however. Russian-backed separatists seized local government buildings across the region and declared the Donetsk People’s Republic independent from Ukraine.

Conversations inside the loungelike basement bar intensified as the rebel hold over Donetsk strengthened. The politics of the conflict started to divide friendships formed over hookah pipes and whiskeys. Those who favored Kiev’s choice of a European tilt left the rebel-held city out of fear of reprisal from the pro-Russian armed groups.

“One day in June 2014, not a single customer came in, and that’s when I decided to close for good,” Vasili said.

Fast-forward nine months, and he is sitting in an exact replica of his former Donetsk bar, relocated and reassembled in a similar underground space down the street from the Taras Shevchenko National University in central Kiev. He is surrounded by former customers from Donetsk, who slouch into the same black and purple leather sofas they once knew and eat burgers off the bar’s funky plates made of shellacked slices of wood.

Friends from Donetsk celebrate a birthday on a recent Saturday night at Spletni.
Joseph Sywenkyj for Al Jazeera America

The bar where Vasili mixes his famous cocktails has been rebuilt using the same stack of books that once made up the base of the centerpiece of his Donetsk hangout. Half his 20 employees are from Donetsk, three of them from the original staff.

Spletni, like Vasili and the customers he serves, is a success story that has risen out of the rubble of Ukraine’s yearlong crisis. Forced to leave their eastern hometowns because they disagreed with the pro-Russian rebels and saw their economic possibilities ripped out from under them, hundreds of thousands of eastern Ukrainians have managed — through sheer necessity — to reinvent themselves in cities across the country. For those who had unfettered ambition and a bit of luck, the move has been relatively smooth, although not without its challenges.

Vasili returned to Donetsk in October with a 50-foot truck. He packed up everything he could — furniture, wall decorations, kitchen utensils, beer mugs and plates. After securing permission from the rebel government to remove the items, which rebels had declared the property of the Donetsk People’s Republic, he took the bar’s belongings to Kiev and never looked back.

“What would I go back to if I went back? Our house has been destroyed. Only three walls are left, and there’s no possibilities for work there,” he said. “We’ve moved to Kiev. So far, business is good and getting better.”

Place mats at the bar read, “Gossip. If you need to chat.”
Joseph Sywenkyj for Al Jazeera America
Vasili at work in the bar. He packed up everything he could from the original site, and after he obtained permission from the rebels who held Donetsk, transported it all to Kiev to begin again.
Joseph Sywenkyj for Al Jazeera America

Vasili’s resilience is typical of a generation of young former Donetsk residents whose flexibility and resolve to restart and rebuild themselves in another city has pitted them against an older generation of Ukrainians, whose nostalgia for the Soviet Union made them receptive to the Kremlin-sponsored propaganda blamed, in part, for the separatist uprising.

Success stories like Vasili’s are in stark contrast to those of hundreds of thousands of other eastern Ukrainians whose evacuation from the rebel-held territories has been forced by a military conflict that has destroyed the regional economy and killed more than 6,000 people. Officially, there are more than 1 million internally displaced Ukrainians, many of them living in cramped temporary housing such as summer tourist hotels.

Hundreds of thousands of Donetsk transplants never officially registered with the Ukrainian government because the do not consider themselves refugees. In their words, they simply moved from one city to another under unfortunate circumstances.

Alesya Bolot, a communications director at Izolyatsiya, a cultural center that, like Spletni, was a popular venue for Donetsk’s creative community. The center occupied space in a Soviet-era factory’s sprawling campus, where it held master classes in the arts, hosted artists in residence and organized lectures and seminars on topics such as media arts and hacking.

In June of last year, armed rebels seized the center. They kicked out the remaining employees and destroyed much of the center’s art collection. The former center is now being used as a prison and storage facility for rebel battalions.

Bolot, 27, like Vasili, packed up her things from her Donetsk apartment and moved to Kiev. She and other employees of Izolyatsiya are re-establishing the arts center in a former shipbuilding factory on the bank of the Dniepr River in Kiev.

“For our generation, it’s been easy to find something for ourselves in Kiev, but of course, it’s harder for our parents,” said Bolot, whose parents still live in a small city on the border of rebel-held territory. “We weren’t as afraid to take risks as they were. It’s not as scary for us.”

Like Spletni, Izolyatsiya is a common denominator among the young Donetsk transplants, a position the center’s staff is trying to use to reconnect Kiev’s exiled eastern Ukrainian community. Last month they hosted an event with dozens of other former Donetsk and Luhansk residents and announced the opening of a Donbass studies center at Izolyatsiya. (The Donbass is the industrial eastern region comprising Donetsk and Luhansk.)

Anton Turupalov enjoys a hookah at Spletni. He is a Donetsk transplant in Kiev and goes to the bar to see friends from his former life.
Joseph Sywenkyj for Al Jazeera America

“It’s important for us to stay connected to where we came from and to share our experiences,” Bolot said about the Donbass gatherings. “Every day I’m surprised to learn someone else I know has also moved to Kiev, so we are all still figuring out who’s here now.”

In the front room of Spletni on a crowded Saturday night, Anton Turupalov, 28, is sitting at a table and slowly drawing on a hookah pipe. The sweet smell of the flavored tobacco fills the air as he exhales and describes the ups and downs of being a recent transplant from war-torn Donetsk to the capital.

Turupalov is now an assistant to a parliamentary deputy, and his days are long and tiresome. He lives outside the center but still goes to Spletni several times a week to see friends from his old life.

“Imagine leaving everything familiar behind — your home, your parents and grandparents and your hometown,” he said. “And then you come in here and see all these familiar faces, sitting in the same scene as they were last year in Donetsk. It’s just a fantasy.”