Wednesday, February 28

Running a Business Under the Shadow of War

When I was flying to Kyiv from Odesa last month, I arrived at the airport to find a policewoman blocking an entrance to the terminal. A considerable crowd was gathered across the road. Apparently someone had called in 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 just chatting among themselves or tapping away on their phones.

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

I made my way 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 over, a group of strangers were sharing a meal and discussing how frequently these minings — a term Ukrainians use for anonymous bomb threats — take place.

Before long, I heard walkie-talkies murmur under the green jackets of the airport workers, and people began gathering their things. When I was leaving, I saw a handwritten note on the bathroom door that read: “Airport is unmined. Have a good flight.”

Everyone was free to get on with their journey, and I continued on to do my work.

I was in Kyiv in late January, a city that felt both unsettling and familiar, to capture people who were doing their jobs 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 turned everything people knew in their life upside down, it has become a nation with “crisis” tattooed on its forehead.

I was born in Kharkiv, a city just 50 kilometers away from the Russian border, in 1984. In my lifetime I have seen: the financial meltdown following the ruble crash of 1998; the Orange Revolution in 2004; the global financial crisis of 2008; and the Maidan revolution of 2014. The annexation of Crimea and the war with Russian-backed separatists in the East had followed, and now the coronavirus pandemic was being pushed aside by the new wave of Russian aggression.

For the past several years in the business world, Ukraine has provided entrepreneurs with wild opportunities with high risks.

Andriy Fedoriv, 43, runs Fedoriv Agency, one of the leading ad and marketing agencies of Ukraine, with more than a hundred employees and several offices around the world. Ukrainians, he noted, had been living with some sort of a Russian troop presence for years and had gotten used to it. “So we got used to it.”

“We feel angry because we don’t want to start over again,” he said. “We have done so much with so little resources. We would like to continue creating value and not fighting. But if needed, we will.”

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Ievgen Lavreniuk, 34, is one of the founders of the Dream House Hostel network. A backpacker and an avid 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 picturesque old street that connects two parts of old Kyiv. Mr. Lavreniuk still operates this location, which has over a 100 beds, a little cafe and a bar. By 2019, he had hostels in 12 cities.

More than 60 percent of hostel visitors in Kyiv come from abroad, Mr. Lavreniuk said, most from Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. At the end of 2021, there was a wave of cancellations, which Mr. Lavreniuk initially blamed on the Omicron variant. But as coronavirus cases declined, the cancellations continued.

On feedback forms he started noticing that people were expressing fear of traveling to Ukraine.

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

ZigZag is the kind of hip eatery that Dream House guests might want to try on their trip to Kyiv.

Its owner, Liubov Tsybulska, 36, used to work as a digital communications adviser with the Ukrainian Armed Forces, with a focus on Russian disinformation. She still does some work in that field, too. Last year, she helped start an organization dedicated to countering Russian disinformation, a joint venture between the government and civil organizations.

She tries to prepare her staff at the restaurant for the worst-case scenario. “We distributed brochures on what to do in case of war,” she said. “Interestingly, it was a brochure I helped develop when I was working in the government.”

At work one day, she and her employees decided to take a field trip: “We researched the nearest bomb shelter on the internet and went to take a look where it is,” she said.

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

“We believe in Ukraine, and we want to build a global center for artificial intelligence here,” he said. At that point, nothing had altered those ambitions. “If things get worse, then we will react, but for now there is no plan B,” he said.

Igor Mazepa, 45, was expecting an economic boom as the country emerged from the grips of the pandemic. Now Mr. Mazepa, the director general of Concorde Capital, an investment bank, is looking at things differently.

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

Consumer spending was down, and he said that several deals had fallen through because one of the companies involved was too worried about the risks of sustained conflict.

But as of late January, one group wasn’t retreating from the market: “Ukrainian investors are more resistant to these waves of external pressure,” he said. He didn’t want to wager a bet on the future though.

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

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

He still grows his pomegranates in Azerbaijan on land he owns and brings them to Kyiv to sell. But as tensions with Russia mount, business has been slow. “Before, people would buy a few kilos,” he said. “Now I sell just a couple of fruits to a customer.”

Elsewhere at Zhitnii Rynok, Valentyna Poberezhec, 63, a meat seller, said she had also seen a decline in sales — she blamed politicians. But she also was more optimistic than most. “Putin loves Ukrainian people; he won’t attack us,” she said late last month.

Iryna Chechotkina, 42, felt that her experience operating her business during past conflicts might prepare her for another one.

She is the co-founder and co-chief executive of Rozetka, an online retailer that she and her husband started 17 years ago. Home delivery for parcels is not as common in Ukraine as it is in the United States, and most often people ship their packages to a local Rozetka shop, which also serves as a retail store. Now, there are about 300 stores across Ukraine, and the company employs more than 8,000 people.

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

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

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

“Perhaps, it is because we have all developed some immunity to this war,” she said.

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

That divide is particularly stark for Emil Dervish, 30, a Crimean Tatar from a village near Simferopol. He opened his small architectural bureau in Kyiv in 2018. Even though his own home was occupied by Russians a few years prior — and he has traveled there only 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 full-on invasion,” he said. “I think what’s going on is a way to psychologically oppress people and make them doubt if they want to live here.”

Eno Enyieokpon, 34, a native of Nigeria, moved to Ukraine in 2017 after finishing college in Belarus and started his fashion brand, Iron Thread, the following year. “I feel like I’m meant to be here,” he said.

For Mr. Enyieokpon, things in Ukraine have been working out well. His brand gained some popularity, and he now employs three people — though he still makes most of his clothing himself, selling it primarily to local artists.

“Right now, all my energy is concentrated on my show in six days,” he said late last month, in advance of Ukrainian fashion week. “After that, I’ll think about Russia.”

Darko Skulsky, 48, was born to Ukrainian American parents and grew up in Philadelphia. After getting a degree from George Washington University, he came to Ukraine in 1995.

In 1998, he and his partner started Radioaktive Film, a production company that has done work on Samsung and Apple ads and “Chernobyl,” the HBO mini-series.

“You have to have a certain frame of mind to do business in this country,” Mr. Skulsky said. “It’s more turbulent, and there are more ebbs and flows. ”

In December, Mr. Skulsky started hearing concern from clients about shooting in Ukraine. After that, one verbal agreement after another failed to materialize into a signed contract, and work was being canceled or postponed.

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

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

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