Kiev’s Hipster Nightlife Scene Feeds the Resistance

“Ukraine is a frontier society and I have a frontier mentality. I thrive in this kind of chaos.”Max Leonov (45) enjoys a double espresso at Buenavista’s bar 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.

Leonov pours yet another round of drinks for his customers. Encircling Russian forces are consolidating their positions outside Kyiv. They use artillery to target residential blocks, hospitals, fleeing refugees, and even food storage depots. Leonov does not fear the war because nothing is sacred. “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.”

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.

Kiev's Hipster Nightlife Scene Feeds the Resistance

Miguel Arrias at Buenavista

Johnny O’Reilly, Photograph

Buenavista was an area of bustling bodies before the war. Tapas were available throughout the evening, but the main course was served by a live band who performed salsa and bachata until the early hours. It was the go-to venue for Kyiv’s African and Latin American diaspora, whose steamy moves set the rhythm on the dancefloor. When other bars were closed, local Ukrainians and European expats found their way to the bar. The lively atmosphere was enhanced by the low ceilings, arched exposed-brick walls and raucous music. The multi-coloured drinks bar was the most popular, with a swarm of trinkets and icons, as well as dozens of different brands. 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. Streets became clogged by the throngs of basement taverns and speakeasy cocktail bars.

These streets are now deserted. Street lights go out at 8 p.m. and a dark silence descends on the city. The distant sound of artillery or the sudden wailing sirens break the stillness. The cobblestones of vast areas glow in the moonlight and give shape to the concrete blocks of checkpoints and rusting tank traps. 

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 looking back at two customers standing at the bar. “It’s all down to the stupidity of one guy. Even the Russian soldiers don’t want to be here.”Arrias grew up in Zaporozhye in southeast Ukraine and fell in love instantly with the capital. “People in Kyiv are open-minded. There are so many opportunities here. I never ever want to leave,”He said. “No matter what happens with the war, I’m staying right here.”

Kiev's Hipster Nightlife Scene Feeds the Resistance

Buenavista chef Vadim Chaikovsky

Johnny O’Reilly, Photograph

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. These same principles are replicated in Kyiv by other restaurants that have been repurposed to serve humanitarian food. With its retro-chic wooden furniture and vinyl turntables, Kosadka is a hangout for Kyiv’s hip film and fashion crowd. It is now a canteen that serves 900 meals daily. Manager Liza Kovalenko oversees the operation. She explains Rolling Stone How she rescued a looter, who had broken into her home during the first night before curfew. This was 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,”Victoria Khasina (36) is a makeup artist and folds cardboard lunch boxes. “Our army is smaller than Russia’s, but we’re much more motivated.”Lilia, her friend, is 27-years old and has arrived with Ruslan (30). “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. Their lives have been ruined twice. “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.” 

Kiev's Hipster Nightlife Scene Feeds the Resistance

Roman Jirnih at TCPizza

Johnny O’Reilly, Photograph

Everybody here has heard of someone who was directly affected by 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. Borodyanka is a small town just outside Kyiv where a neighbor of Kovalenko was murdered. In nearby Bucha, acquaintances of hers — a couple in their sixties — were abducted by the Russians. The Russians took their phones and money. They managed to escape into the forest, where they walked miles in near-zero temperatures. These Russian attacks against civilians have caused wounds that can take a long time 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.

TCPizza employees have found a sense of purpose in transforming into a DIY humanitarian operation, which has provided them with a valuable distraction from the horrors and cruelty of war. Max Tiernivsky, 26, is the managing director of TCPizza’s sister bar, The Cinematographer’s Party, located a few blocks away. His thin, short hair makes him look like a young David Bowie. Tiernivsky and his girlfriend spent the first days of war in a cabin in the country. “There was nothing to do except sleep and look at war videos,”He said. “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. These beds are made of benches that have been pushed together. Video games are projected onto the wall. During the day, employees are busy buying food, cooking, packing, and delivering sandwiches throughout the city. The game console turns on when curfew is over. 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,”Denis Strashuk is 26-year-old bar manager. “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.”

Kiev's Hipster Nightlife Scene Feeds the Resistance

Natalia Dunar at TC Pizza

Johnny O’Reilly, Photograph

TCPizza is owned 31-year-old Ukrainian cinematographer Anton Fursa and 40-year old tattooed Roman Jirnih. Jirnih is a muscular man who walks around the kitchen area and the chillout zone in a relaxed, carefree manner but is determined to solve problems. He seems to love his employees, which 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 stops for a moment, before continuing. “Yes, I can say this is my land as well.”

Jirnih, a Russian-born American, has a complicated identity due to war. “It’s definitely fucking with me inside,”He said. “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. Jirnih, despite his Russian heritage, is very clear about his sympathies. “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, who has been living in Kyiv full time for three years now, was able 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 fled the city quickly. “I just wanted to get back home, to my dog, Gaspar, to the boys who work with me,”He said. “I felt I had to be with them through all of this.”He made the journey through Istanbul, Warsaw, Plzen, East Poland, and back. He crossed the border to Lviv and was on a 20-hour train ride from Kyiv. It took him three days to complete the trip, which gave him plenty of time for thought. 

“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”Anton Fursa, the co-owner, said that it was. “It’s mostly a mix of Italian and British cuisine and was inspired by a pizza restaurant I came across in Barcelona.”  

Fursa, a Kyiv native has a new plan to TCPizza as the country becomes closer together. “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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