A Taste of Normal Life in a Ukrainian City at War
KHARKIV — Finding a slice of normalcy during war is a strong instinct for many people. Activists all over the world stress the importance of clinging onto shreds of ordinariness during extraordinary struggles.
Slavenka Drakulic’s 1992 collection of essays about women living under Soviet regimes, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, has become a feminist classic. Normal things can become small acts of resistance. Activist Zainab Salbi explained to Oprah Winfrey the symbolic importance of lipstick during the Bosnian war.
A few years ago a group of middle eastern and African women human rights defenders working in dangerous situations shared their experiences in a book called Yes, We Still Drink Coffee!
In Kharkiv, as in many other places during conflict, small coffee shops take on an outsized importance. This Ukrainian city is about 25 miles from the Russian border and has been shelled virtually every day since the Russian invasion in late February. There is a nighttime curfew here, most businesses remain boarded up, and buildings shattered by bombs are everywhere.
Hundreds of civilians have been killed in attacks on the city in the last six months in relentless bombardments of residential neighborhoods. Russian forces are using cluster munitions and scatterable mines, which are both subject to international treaty bans because of their indiscriminate effects.
Around 4 this morning Russian rockets again bombarded the central area. But by 9am the Lyatyusho coffee shop was open as usual. “We reopened again a month ago,” manager Kateryna told me. “It was a difficult decision because we want our team and our guests to be safe. But our place is not just about the coffee, it’s about offering some normal life to the city.”
Lyatyusho is a small, cozy, hipster shop. Vinyl records, an abacus, and an old typewriter are on the shelves next to a new range of Kharkiv-branded souvenirs with bags and T-Shirts carrying slogans about the war. “We work with local artists and designers to produce these things. We’re very much a Kharkiv brand,” she said.
Even the shop’s name is a combination of Kharkiv slang. “Not many tourists come this far east, and so we sell mostly to locals who take pride in the city’s strength.”
The coffee is good too. Today’s filter is from Bolivia, and supplies of coffee and the equipment needed to serve it are so far still available.
I’ve seen the political significance of coffee shops in wars and conflicts and revolutions in various places in the world. They’re alternatives to bars if alcohol is banned (as it was in Ukraine soon after the invasion), or places where people with similar political views can meet in safety.
Between 2018 and 2020, in Hong Kong (which has an excellent coffee scene, including the Coffee Academics shops) many cafes branded themselves with yellow signs if they supported the widespread protests for democracy, or blue if they sided with the police.
In 2011 I reported from Bahrain’s revolution on a social segregation that was taking place. While some coffee shop chains were known as places where protestors gathered (including Costa) others (including Starbucks) were seen as places where pro-government people were likely to meet.
But there is no such polarization in Kharkiv – it’s a city united in defiance against the Russian attacks.
“Business is difficult at the moment,” says Kateryna. “But people come here out of a sense of local pride. We asked our guests – and we insist on calling them guests, not clients – what they like about the shop, and they said it’s the special atmosphere, our attention to detail. When people step into our shop they find a taste of beauty, of familiarity, and a sense of solidarity.”