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Running a business in the shadow of war

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As I was flying to Kyiv from Odessa last month, I arrived at the airport and found a policewoman blocking an entrance to the terminal. A considerable crowd was gathered on the other side of the road. Apparently someone had issued a bomb threat.

Shocked at first, I looked around to see how the other passengers were reacting. Some people were on the phone, trying to rearrange their evening plans; some were simply chatting with each other or tapping on their phones.

At that time, the Russian military presence on the border was increasing, and the possibility of conflict was on people’s minds. But bomb threats like these have become routine.

I headed to a Georgian restaurant, the only place within walking distance to find warmth. The restaurant was buzzing – with airport workers, stranded passengers, overwhelmed waiters carrying trays with tea and snacks. At the next table, a group of strangers were sharing a meal and discussing how often these landmines – a term Ukrainians use for anonymous bomb threats – take place.

Shortly after, I heard walkie-talkies whispering under the green jackets of airport workers, and people started gathering their things. As I was leaving, I saw a handwritten note on the bathroom door that read, “The airport is not mined. Have a good flight.”

Everyone was free to continue their journey, and I continued to do my job.

I was in Kyiv at the end of January, a city both unsettling and familiar, to capture people doing their job and hoping that everything they had built since the last conflict would not disappear in another round of fighting.

Ukraine has never been a beacon of stability. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, an event that upended everything people knew in their lives, it has become a nation with “crisis” tattooed on its forehead.

I was born in Kharkiv, a city just 50 kilometers from the Russian border, in 1984. During my life I have seen: financial collapse following the ruble crash of 1998; the orange revolution in 2004; the 2008 global financial crisis; and the Maidan revolution in 2014. The annexation of Crimea and war with Russian-backed separatists in the east had followed, and now the coronavirus pandemic was being pushed back by the new wave of Russian aggression.

Over the past few years in the business world, Ukraine has presented entrepreneurs with crazy high-risk opportunities.

Andriy Fedoriv, ​​43, heads Fedoriv Agency, one of Ukraine’s leading advertising and marketing agencies, with more than 100 employees and multiple offices around the world. Ukrainians, he noted, had been living with some kind of Russian troop presence for years and had grown accustomed to it. “So we got used to it.”

“We are angry because we don’t want to start again,” he said. “We have done so much with so few resources. We would like to continue to create value and not fight. But if needed, we will. »

Ievgen Lavreniuk, 34, is one of the founders of the Dream House Hostel network. An avid backpacker and traveler, Mr. Lavreniuk saw a gap in the market in Kyiv and opened a 24-bed hostel in 2011. Business took off and the hostel moved to a larger space on St. Andrew’s Descent. , a quaint old street. which connects two parts of old Kiev. Mr. Lavreniuk still operates this place, which has more than 100 beds, a small cafe and a bar. As of 2019, it had hostels in 12 cities.

More than 60% of visitors to hostels in Kyiv come from abroad, Lavreniuk said, most from Germany, the UK and the US. At the end of 2021, there was a wave of cancellations, which Mr Lavreniuk initially blamed on the Omicron variant. But as coronavirus cases dwindled, cancellations continued.

On feedback forms, he began to notice people expressing fear of traveling to Ukraine.

“We might have these tensions with Russia for another month or two, but people will continue to think Ukraine is a dangerous place for two or three years,” he said.

ZigZag is the kind of trendy restaurant that Dream House guests might want to try when traveling to Kyiv.

Its owner, Liubov Tsybulska, 36, worked as a digital communications adviser to the Ukrainian armed forces, with a focus on Russian disinformation. She is still doing work in this area as well. Last year, she helped start an organization dedicated to countering Russian disinformation, a joint venture between government and civil organizations.

She tries to prepare her restaurant staff for the worst case scenario. “We distributed pamphlets on what to do in case of war,” she said. “Interestingly, this was a pamphlet I helped develop when I worked in government.”

One day at work, she and her employees decided to take a field trip: “We searched the Internet for the nearest air-raid shelter and went to see where it is,” she said.

Denis Dmitrenko, 30, said he was trying to stay in “don’t panic mode”. Mr. Dmitrenko is from Kyiv and managing partner of Roosh, a company that invests in artificial intelligence start-ups. (One of Roosh’s hits was the face-swapping video app Reface, which had some viral moments in 2020.)

“We believe in Ukraine and we want to build a global center for artificial intelligence here,” he said. At this stage, nothing had altered these ambitions. “If things get worse we will react, but at the moment there is no plan B,” he said.

Igor Mazepa, 45, expected an economic boom as the country emerged from the clutches of the pandemic. Now, Mr. Mazepa, the managing director of Concorde Capital, an investment bank, sees things differently.

“When you’re constantly thinking about invading Russians, you’re not going to buy a new phone or a car or a house,” he said.

Consumer spending was down and he said several deals fell through because one of the companies involved was too worried about the risks of a protracted dispute.

But at the end of January, one group was not withdrawing from the market: “Ukrainian investors are more resistant to these waves of external pressure,” he said. However, he did not want to bet on the future.

“Of course, I can’t predict anything, especially when the fate of the world depends on one person’s decision-making process,” he said.

Alik Mamedov, 53, is a fruit seller at Zhitnii Rynok, a Soviet modernist structure built on the site of the city’s oldest market, dating back to the 15th century. Mr. Mamedov had seen war come to his doorstep in Azerbaijan before moving his family to Ukraine. “I lived it and I wouldn’t want it to happen here,” he said. “It’s my second home; I eat Ukrainian bread and walk on Ukrainian soil. My children go to school here.

He still grows his pomegranates in Azerbaijan on land he owns and brings them to Kiev to sell. But as tensions with Russia mount, business has slowed. “Before, people bought a few kilos,” he says. “Now I only sell a few fruits to a customer.”

Elsewhere in Zhitnii Rynok, Valentyna Poberezhec, 63, a meat seller, said she had also seen a drop in sales – she blamed politicians. But she was also more optimistic than most. “Putin loves Ukrainians; he will not attack us,” she said late last month.

Iryna Chechotkina, 42, felt her experience running her business in past disputes could prepare her for another.

She is co-founder and co-CEO of Rozetka, an online retailer she and her husband started 17 years ago. Home delivery of parcels is not as common in Ukraine as in the United States, and more often than not, people ship their parcels to a local Rozetka store, which doubles as a retail store. Today there are around 300 stores across Ukraine and the company employs over 8,000 people.

She and her husband started the business amid an earlier crisis, Ms Chechotkina said, and it has helped them build resilience.

“We just became parents for the first time, the country was living in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution and the future seemed rather uncertain,” she said. “Born in a time of change, our business was branded from the start to be fast and flexible.”

She is not worried about the company adapting to ongoing tensions with Russia.

“Maybe it’s because we’ve all developed some immunity to this war,” she said.

But looking back, she sees Ukraine at the time of the annexation of Crimea and Ukraine today as two different countries.

This divide is particularly marked for Emil Dervish, 30, a Crimean Tatar from a village near Simferopol. He opened his small architecture office in Kyiv in 2018. Although his own house was occupied by Russians a few years before – and he has only traveled there once since the occupation, when his father had a heart attack – he refused to believe that Russia would advance further.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that here, in the heart of Europe, in the 21st century, there will be a total invasion,” he said. “I think what’s happening is a way of psychologically oppressing people and making them doubt whether they want to live here.”

Eno Enyieokpon, 34, from Nigeria, moved to Ukraine in 2017 after finishing university in Belarus and launched her fashion brand, Iron Thread, the following year. “I feel like I’m meant to be here,” he said.

For Mr. Enyieokpon, things are going well in Ukraine. His brand has grown in popularity and he now employs three people – although he still makes most of his clothes himself, mainly selling them to local artists.

“Right now all my energy is focused on my show in six days,” he said late last month ahead of Ukraine Fashion Week. “After that, I will think of Russia.”

Darko Skulsky, 48, was born to Ukrainian American parents and raised in Philadelphia. After graduating from George Washington University, he came to Ukraine in 1995.

In 1998, he and his partner launched Radioactive Film, a production company that worked on Samsung and Apple commercials and “Chernobyl,” the HBO miniseries.

“You have to have a certain mindset to do business in this country,” Skulsky said. “It’s more turbulent, and there’s more ebb and flow. ”

In December, Mr. Skulsky began to hear concerns from customers about the shootings in Ukraine. After that, one verbal agreement after another did not result in a signed contract, and work was canceled or postponed.

Radioaktive Film lost some contracts, and Mr. Skulsky and his partner moved some work to their offices in Poland and Georgia. But Mr. Skulsky’s life is in Ukraine.

“I still wake up here everyday, have my coffee and take my kids to school,” he said.