Kyiv's Nightlife Took Off During the Pandemic. Now, the Scene Is Feeding the Resistance

Kyiv's Nightlife Took Off During the Pandemic. Now, the Scene Is Feeding the Resistance

“Ukraine is a frontier society and I have a frontier mentality. I thrive in this kind of chaos.” Max Leonov, 45, knocks back a double espresso at the bar of Buenavista, his Cuban restaurant and venue in downtown Kyiv. He scrutinizes a group at a noisy table, his pale skin, thin unshaped ginger beard and darting eyes give the impression he’s fuelled on adrenaline. A quick instruction to a passing waitress shows he’s in command.

As Leonov pours another round of drinks for his customers, encircling Russian forces are solidifying their positions outside Kyiv, their artillery targeting residential blocks, hospitals, fleeing evacuees and even food depots. Nothing is sacred in this war, but Leonov is not afraid. “I took part in the Orange Revolution in 2004, the Maidan revolution in 2014, and the war in Donbass, so I’m used to these kinds of events,” he explains. “I know how to keep calm.”

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One week into Russia’s invasion, Ukraine banned the sale of alcohol. While most establishments adhered to the ban, Buenavista is defying it, extending a tradition established during the pandemic, when Leonov’s restaurant broke lockdown rules by staying open for those in the know. Now, it’s the only place in town where you can get a drink, an oasis for those needing a quick respite from the turmoil and gloom. Buenavista’s regular customers and foreign journalists mingle and swap war stories for a couple of hours every day before the city’s 8 p.m. curfew, their flak jackets and helmets flung on the wooden floor. Despite the encroaching Russian forces and the uptick of rockets hitting Kyiv’s residential blocks, Leonov stays around to serve them, ensuring they steal a few precious minutes of convivial normality from a city under siege.

With Russia digging in at Kyiv’s outskirts, the city’s residents have summoned an extraordinary resolve to join the battle for their country’s independence. It’s the same resolve manifested in the frontline troops whose guerrilla tactics decimated Russia’s initial blitzkrieg, in the political leadership which has rallied the world to Ukraine’s cause and in the legions of civilians who have volunteered for the country’s vast supply network or like Leonov’s Buenavista, simply kept their business open in defiance of the Russian threat.

Miguel Arrias at Buenavista

Photograph by Johnny O'Reilly

Before the war, Buenavista was a hive of heaving bodies. The tapas menu was available throughout the night, but for the main course a live band belted out bachata or salsa hits till dawn. It was the go-to venue for Kyiv’s African and Latin American diaspora, whose steamy moves set the rhythm on the dancefloor. Local Ukrainians and European expats stumbled in when other bars closed. The low ceilings and arched exposed-brick walls intensified the raucous atmosphere. The biggest scrum was around the multi-coloured drinks bar, cluttered with trinkets, icons and a hundred different brands of rum. For the older crowd, Buenavista was the final destination before bed, for those in their twenties, it was just another pit stop along the trail of Kyiv’s vaunted nightlife scene. 

Kyiv’s nightlife came of age during the pandemic. Ukraine’s relaxed restrictions meant the city was open for business while the rest of Europe was locked down. The city briefly became the new Berlin as 24-hour raves in converted factories attracted top-drawer international DJ’s and the revelers who followed them. Basement taverns, speakeasy cocktail bars, and all-night-cafes were packed, the streets clogged with traffic.

Now those streets are desolate. After the 8 p.m. curfew, street lights are turned off and an eerie silence settles over the city broken sporadically by the distant thud of artillery and the sudden wailing of sirens. With cars gone, acres of cobblestones glow in the moonlight giving shape to the rusting tank traps, sandbags, and concrete blocks of checkpoints, looming at crossroads like scenes from a World War II film. 

The war doesn’t faze Miguel Arrias, Buenavista’s stoic half-Ukrainian, half-Peruvian barman. “I’m not afraid at all,” he says, as he takes a break from mixing drinks in the restaurant’s cramped smoking room. “I’ve been relaxed every night since the war started. I’m a relaxed person. You have to be, to do this job,” he smiles before glancing back towards two customers hovering at the bar, “It’s all down to the stupidity of one guy. Even the Russian soldiers don’t want to be here.” Having grown up in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporozhye, Arrias came to the capital five years ago and instantly fell in love with the city. “People in Kyiv are open-minded. There are so many opportunities here. I never ever want to leave,” he says. “No matter what happens with the war, I’m staying right here.”

Chef Vadim Chaikovsky of Buenavista

Photograph by Johnny O'Reilly

Arrias’ uncle, the cheerful 51-year-old Vadim Chaikovsky, is the only chef left to work the restaurant. He admits he’s frightened by the nightly bombardments, but like his nephew is planning to stand his ground. “I was in the Soviet Army so I know how to fight,” he says, “If the Russians enter the city center, I’ll get a gun and start shooting them.”

By staying open for business, Buenavista is channeling the same resolve which is fuelling Ukraine’s entire war effort. This is replicated across Kyiv in other restaurants which have been repurposed as humanitarian food stations. With its retro-chic wooden furniture and vinyl turntables, Kosadka is a hangout for Kyiv’s hip film and fashion crowd. Now, it serves as a canteen where 900 pre-packed meals are prepared daily and distributed across the city. Overseeing the operation is manager Liza Kovalenko. She tells Rolling Stone how she cornered a looter who had broken in during the first night of curfew, three days into the war. “I felt sorry for him because he looked hungry, so I gave him some food.” She felt less sorry when he broke in again the following night — but it revealed to her how desperate people can become in war. “That was when we decided to open up the bar and make food for our troops.”

Since then, Kovalenko’s team has delivered over 9,000 meals. Instead of sipping cocktails, Kosatka’s customers now spend their days as volunteers — peeling carrots, stirring vats of soup and delivering meals to frontline troops, hospitals, and civilians cowering from bombardments in Kyiv’s metro stations. “The Russians are all going to die before they get to the city-center,” says makeup artist Victoria Khasina, 36, as she folds cardboard lunch boxes. “Our army is smaller than Russia’s, but we’re much more motivated.” Her friend Lilia, 27, who has come with her brother Ruslan, 30, agrees. “I know young soldiers who were injured at the front, and they all want to return there.”  

Lilia and Ruslan are both from Marinka — a town in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region which was engulfed in a Russian-backed separatist war following the 2014 Maidan revolution and the annexation of Crimea. This is the second time their lives have been upended by war. “I had no choice but to leave Marinka in 2014 because it was being bombed by both the Ukrainian and the Russian side,” Ruslan explains. “But this time, I’m not going anywhere.” 

Roman Jirnih at TCPizza

Photograph by Johnny O'Reilly

Everyone here knows someone who has suffered directly from the invasion. Khasina takes out her phone to show a video taken inside her friend’s apartment during a rocket attack. There’s a flash of light, followed by complete devastation – collapsed walls, furniture flung out the window, broken glass everywhere. A neighbor of Kovalenko was killed in Borodyanka, a town outside Kyiv that is almost completely destroyed. In nearby Bucha, acquaintances of hers — a couple in their sixties — were abducted by the Russians. Their phones and money taken away, they managed to escape into a forest and ended up walking miles to safety in near-zero temperatures without jackets. These kinds of Russian attacks on civilians have generated wounds that could take a generation to heal. “All our eyes have been opened and we now realize that Russia was never our friend,” says volunteer Tatiana Mamaisur, 29. “This war is the end of everything between our two nations.” 

A block away from Kosatka, The Cinematographer’s Pizza, known as TCPizza, has also been repurposed for mass food preparation and delivery. Tucked into a terrace of ornate pre-revolutionary residential buildings, TCPizza is located in the heart of the Zoloti Voroti district — Kyiv’s upmarket French Quarter, where hipster bars, trendy cafes and embassies coexist casually along leafy boulevards.

Transforming into a DIY humanitarian operation has given TCPizza employees not only a sense of purpose, but a much-needed distraction from the horrors of war. Max Tiernivsky, 26, is the managing director of TCPizza’s sister bar, The Cinematographer’s Party, located a few blocks away. Thin with short hair, he resembles a young David Bowie. Tiernivsky spent the early days of the war with his girlfriend in a cabin out in the countryside. “There was nothing to do except sleep and look at war videos,” he says. “Now I’m fulltime in the restaurant, the emotions are a lot more positive. I’m working all day and only have 30 minutes free for checking news updates.” 

About a dozen TCPizza employees, mostly in their twenties, have moved into the restaurant’s basement. Beds are improvised from benches, pushed together. Video games are projected onto the wall. During the day, the employees are busy procuring food, cooking, packing, and delivering lunch boxes across the city. Once curfew falls, the game console lights up. They relax, watch movies, play cards — anything to recharge before the bombing starts. “We all know each other, so we work well together. We help each other. We’re all calm, stable,” explains bar manager Denis Strashuk, 26. “When you decide to spend your time helping others, it helps you. It brings us together as a group. And that feeling has brought the whole country together.”

Natalia Dunar at TC Pizza

Photograph by Johnny O'Reilly

TCPizza is owned by Ukrainian cinematographer Anton Fursa, 31, and Roman Jirnih, a tattooed 40-year-old. Shuffling his stocky frame around the kitchen and the chillout zone, Jirnih commands the place with a relaxed and carefree attitude but is laser focussed on finding problems to fix. His employees seem to adore him, a feeling he reciprocates. “This group is like a family for me.” he says, “I love being here.”  

Jirnih is modest about his restaurant’s newly established humanitarian purpose. “It’s just our job. It’s our duty to do this. We have a kitchen. We have hands. We get food. All we have to do is cook it and give it to people who are protecting our land.” Jirnih pauses for a moment before continuing, “Yes, I can say this is my land as well.”

Jirnih is a Russian-born American, an identity complicated by war. “It’s definitely fucking with me inside,” he says. “Ukraine is where I’ve chosen to live and run a business. It’s where I’ve chosen to make friends.” In addition to running his pizza restaurant and the cocktail bar, he directs TV commercials, a job which frequently takes him to Russia — where he happened to be when the war broke out. Despite his part-Russian background, Jirnih is crystal clear about where his sympathies are “After what’s happened, I’m finished with Russia until Russia finishes with Putin. I feel blessed to be in Kyiv during this time and to share it with people I love.”

Jirnih has lived in Kyiv full-time for three years, long enough to start two businesses. When the war broke out, he was in Moscow to see his young son and his child’s mother before they flew back to Los Angeles. He quickly left the city. “I just wanted to get back home, to my dog, Gaspar, to the boys who work with me,” he says. “I felt I had to be with them through all of this.” The journey took him through Istanbul, Warsaw, and Plzen in East Poland. After crossing the border to Lviv he ended up on a 20-hour train ride to Kyiv. It took him three days, plenty of time to think. 

“On the journey home, I thought about my life and my future. About how Russian I was, how American and how Ukrainian. When I arrived back at the restaurant, I saw my team and I realized I was home. I was so happy to see them that when we embraced, I kinda broke down.”

Jirnih’s embrace of Kyiv and the city’s acceptance of him is emblematic of Ukraine’s unity as well as its modernity. It’s part of a new European identity which the country is now fighting for and which is epitomized by his restaurant. “TCPizza is a typical European restaurant”, according to co-owner, Anton Fursa. “It’s mostly a mix of Italian and British cuisine and was inspired by a pizza restaurant I came across in Barcelona.”  

As the country draws closer together and its redefined identity projected across the world, Fursa, a Kyiv native, has a new plan for TCPizza, “If you have something to fight for, it becomes a value,” he says, “Being Ukrainian is now a value, so after the war, we’re going to put Borscht on the menu.” 

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