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.