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Kyiv's local businesses gear up for another difficult winter

by Dominic Culverwell November 6, 2023 9:59 PM 5 min read
Stalls in Kyiv's Zhitnii Rynok market were forced to work without any electricty during blackouts last winter. Many shop owners charged portable lights with power banks in the evening. (Dominic Culverwell/ The Kyiv Independent)
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Reflecting on last fall, Anya Selezen recalls the painful moment that Russia launched 84 missiles and 24 kamikaze drones at Ukraine on Oct. 10, the first of a long series of devastating attacks targeting the country’s critical infrastructure through the winter.

“It was very hard. We didn’t have electricity. I didn’t understand what was going to happen next,” the general manager of the pizzeria Avtostantsiya in Kyiv’s Podil neighborhood, told the Kyiv Independent almost exactly a year later.

She wasn’t the only one. Following major Russian losses on the battlefield, Moscow’s mass attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure caught the whole country by surprise.

The once-bright capital was plunged into darkness. To keep the energy grid from overloading, the government introduced scheduled blackouts from Oct. 20, limiting the time homes and businesses could use electricity.

By the end of winter, the strikes had caused $10 billion in damages across Ukraine and left 12 million people with no or limited access to power, according to the United Nations Development Program. Energy workers battled to repair the infrastructure as quickly as possible, with 22 out of 36 power generation plants damaged or destroyed by Russia.

Although Russia failed to freeze the country out and bring businesses to a grinding halt, it hasn’t stopped Moscow from trying again. Kyiv has so far been spared from strikes this fall, but front-line areas have recently been subject to Russian attacks on energy infrastructure, causing electricity and water supply cut-offs.

Businesses in Kyiv are preparing for the worst. The military on Nov. 6 warned that Russia is “waiting for the temperature to drop below zero" before launching mass strikes on Ukraine's energy system.

This winter, however, local businesses in the capital with whom the Kyiv Independent spoke say they are ready and know what to do to keep operations running when the lights go out.

Like many Ukrainians, Selezen initially believed the attacks last fall would soon pass. But by November last year, they became more frequent and the restaurant was forced to close its doors for seven days straight during a particularly tough period with no heating, electricity, and water.

“We were afraid of our food going bad so we gave it to our staff just to save it,” she said.

Unable to open during the power outages, Avtostantsiya began to suffer financial losses and couldn’t afford to pay the staff in full. Selezen knew they had to adapt to survive or shut down for good.

Securing a generator was the holy grail, but this proved a lengthy process as businesses scrambled to get their hands on a limited supply. In the meantime, the team purchased gas cookers and installed battery-powered fairy lights and candles to partially resume work. However, heating continued to be a problem for the old bare-bricked building.

The generator behind the Avtostantsiya pizzeria in Kyiv's Podil neighborhood on Nov. 2, 2023. (Dominic Culverwell/ The Kyiv Independent)

After waiting for over a month, the generator eventually arrived in early January, and worked in three-hour shifts twice a day during the scheduled blackouts, allowing Avtostantsiya to return to normal operations and salaries to be restored in full.

Selezen believes that the restaurant will be in a much better situation this year with the generator. As a backup plan, she also plans to install a wood-burning stove to fight off the cold.

Running a business during a war is already challenging enough, but with sudden power outages in the depths of winter, it becomes a test of creativity and resilience.

Unable to use a noisy generator out of fear of disrupting their neighbors, upscale cocktail bar Talkies in Podil resorted to connecting their lights to a car battery while customers kept morale high by breaking into song when the music cut out.

The bar saw a quiet period in the first few days after the attack, but it was soon flooded with guests even during blackouts.

“It's boring to stay at home when you don't have any internet access,” bartender Alyona Yankova said.

“People are tired, so they think, what the hell, I will go drink a cocktail and take a breath,” her colleague Maksym Bashtovenko added.

Many citizens left Kyiv last winter, choosing to move to safer parts of Ukraine or abroad. The outflow impacted Talkies — following their most profitable month of 2022 in September, the bar immediately suffered its worst month in October when the attacks started.

Fortunately, the bar was able to survive with help from the building’s landlord, who reduced their rent substantially for six months. All the bar’s employees have stayed on, despite the unpredictable situation.

However, not all enterprises found ways around the power outages, such as Yura Lyndiuk, and his wife Vitaliia Lyndiuk. The couple runs the clothing company Vyshyvanky by Vitaliia Lyndiuk, producing vyshyvankas, traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts.

The sound of dozens of automated sewing machines hammering intricate patterns into linen shirts generally fills their workshop in Podil, but during the blackouts the silence was deafening.

“We can’t connect the machines to a generator. Because if we do, there’s a risk they overheat. They are very delicate,” Yura Lyndiuk explained.

Machines sewing traditional Ukrainian embroidery onto vyshyvankas at the Lyndiuk workshop on Nov. 2, 2023. (Daniil Ukhorskiy/ The Kyiv Independent)

Instead, their team was forced to work three hours on and three hours off once the government introduced scheduled rolling blackouts. Keeping up with the orders was a challenge, and Yura Lyndiuk noted it was frustrating to wait around for the power to come back on.

Nevertheless, as vyskyvankas are typically a summer attire, demand was lower and the company was able to keep on top of operations. The duo are optimistic that this winter will be better than the last.

Kyiv’s businesses are remarkably positive about the coming cold months. For many, preparing mentally is more important than any physical preparation.

Inside the Soviet-era Zhitnii Rynok market in Podil, shopkeepers sit outside their stalls wrapped in large puffer jackets. They are used to the cold. The market never had heating, even before the war.

One shopowner tells the Kyiv Independent that those who work at the market managed to carry on working in the dark by charging small lights with power banks. Apart from that, she says she has no other plans to prepare for whatever might happen this winter.

Despite an uncertain cold season, some businesses in Kyiv say they feel the worst is over, and trust that the government and energy companies have gone to lengths to restore power.

“I think that if the situation will be similar to last year, we will survive,” Selezen said.

With winter approaching, is Ukraine’s energy system ready for renewed Russian attacks?
The specter of Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy system looms once again as winter rapidly approaches. Last year in early October, just as Ukraine’s heating season began, Russia launched a month-long series of missile and drone attacks against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, leading to blackouts…
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