‘I’d rather die here’: coffee, flowers and defiance on the streets of Kyiv | Ukraine
Few countries can be quite as dedicated to a good, or at least a frequent, cup of coffee as Ukraine. Even war, with nightly bombing raids and Russian troops committing atrocities just a few dozen kilometres away, hasn’t shut down supplies of daily caffeine kicks in Kyiv.
Valentyn Kononeko, 22, offered to help out a friend at a stall in fashionable Podil district when he reopened on Monday. He is one of millions who stayed on in the city, by choice or by necessity, and is now trying to feel his way towards some kind of wartime routine.
“If I have to sit around worrying about whether a rocket is going to land on me, I would rather do it here,” he said after dealing with a 20-minute queue of customers. “You have something to do, taking up some of your time.”
Olena Osadcha, 51, an accountant, was picking up two espressos to go, determined to stay even though her employer has shut down. “I’ve always lived here, and I can’t imagine life without Kyiv,” she said.
Like many in the city, she talks lightly of the Russian missiles that rip into apartment blocks every evening, including one recently just a few kilometres away. “To hold your nerve during all of this, you have to try to live your normal life as much as possible.”
At least half of Kyiv’s population has left, its streets are dotted with roadblocks, offices are closed and pavements eerily empty. But those who have remained are often proud – and defiant.
The city’s trademark trams are running regularly, now free for anyone who needs them. “I can’t leave my mum for long, so it’s good to be able to stock up between curfews,” said one shopper heading home with bulging bags.
Many women were walking around with bunches of tulips, handed out by shops after flowers once destined for the city’s many florist kiosks were used to create a giant trident – the Ukrainian national symbol – in the centre on Friday.
“Some employers picked them up from the trident, and we have been handing them out to give everyone something to be cheerful about,” said Yuri Melnyk, 30, working behind the bar at First Point cafe. Outside customers are sitting in the sun, stroking a husky.
They even had a few freshly baked croissants left, made from dough frozen before the war, although it is likely to run out soon.
At a nearby restaurant specialising in pastries from the western city of Lviv, which has mostly been coordinating community volunteering but still makes pies to sell to hungry locals, handmade luxury chocolates on display are also selling well, says Victoria Patichenko, 20.
Customers now include armed men guarding the nearby roadblocks, but she looks as fashionable as she would have a month ago, when the streets were packed with drinkers each evening, not emptied by the nightly curfew.
“Where should I go if I leave? I’d rather die here than go and have to come back to a city occupied by Russians,” she said. “I recognise the sound of the anti-aircraft guns at night now, and I know they are working.”
Danilo Horlushko, 21, works at Rozetka, a Ukrainian chain of internet and real-life stores a little like Amazon. He’s still sleeping at home in an area of northern Kyiv which has suffered multiple attacks. He shares an apartment with his grandmother and grandfather, who refuse to go into a bomb shelter.
“When they started shelling Obolon, I asked them to at least come into the corridor, where it is a bit safer. My grandma agreed to come, but said ‘let me finish cooking my pancakes first’,” he says with a shrug. In their 70s, they have lived through a lot of turmoil, and simply don’t want to leave home.
“People are thinking more about their kids and pets, we are selling a lot of things for them, and also for soldiers. Things like torches, and memory sticks.”
Some people are still coming to work simply because they have to. Marina Pshenkovskaya now faces a commute of up to four hours, because the metro runs so infrequently from her home in the outer suburbs of the city to the tobacconist where she works.
She still has rent to pay, and a 13-year-old son to feed, so she is making the exhausting trek daily. She has been selling a lot of cigarettes, even after the popular brands sold out. “People smoke more when they are anxious,” she says.
But stock will only last another week and she doesn’t know what she will do after that.
Along the roadside leaving Kyiv, Tetiana Gudima set up a small stand to sell the tulips she grows herself. A landscape gardener, she used to own a flower shop in Kyiv but the war forced her to close.
“I had a good, profitable business, but now it’s gone,” she said, as a customer stopped to buy a flower to bring his wife a little joy. “(I’m doing this) because you need to live somehow and you need something to buy bread.”