May 21, 2024

Ukraine’s nightlife is thriving despite Russia’s war, even where it has had to rise from the ashes

Kharkiv, Ukraine — A summer’s evening, a sidewalk café, smiling friends. It could have been a scene from almost anywhere. But it’s not anywhere — it’s Kharkiv, not far from the Russian border in eastern Ukraine, and within easy reach of missiles and airstrikes.

While many buildings remain boarded up in Ukraine’s second largest city, the remote yet real possibility of dying hasn’t stopped many of its residents from living.

Among those who have refused to cower from Russia’s war, are 20-year-old student George Soldutenko and his friends, Nicolai and Andrei.

George Soldutenko, 20, (center) and his friends Nicolai and Andrei enjoy drinks outside a bar in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, in mid-July, 2023.

CBS News/Agnes Reau

“It can be scary sometimes to be honest,” George admitted to us outside a café in the city, which still regularly hears the loud booms of incoming and outgoing rockets. “But now, you know, it’s summer, and we are students. We are all 20 years old, and we are trying to enjoy our lives… Sometimes it really can be tough, because we live really close to the Russian border.”

Despite the missiles, Ukraine’s nightlife is rocking. Bars and clubs are full. We visited one and found the place jumping, with music pumping, drinks flowing freely and young Ukrainians dancing like there’s no tomorrow.

Here’s a fun fact: There are now more bars and restaurants open in the capital city of Kyiv than there were before the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion more than 17 months ago.

People inspect a building in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, that housed apartments and the popular Hemingway Bar before it was hit by a missile in the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion, in mid-July, 2023.

CBS News/Agnes Reau

Perhaps it’s an act of defiance. 

It certainly is when they have to quite literally pick up the pieces and figure out how, or if, to carry on.

That was the stark choice for the people who worked and relaxed at the Hemingway Bar. There isn’t much left of the building that previously housed apartments and the bar, which had been turned into a bomb shelter. It took a direct hit in the early days of the war, killing and wounding those inside.

Grim irony for a bar named after the legendary war author Earnest Hemingway.

Undeterred, the people behind the bar reopened it just a few blocks away as soon as they could.

“I had mixed feelings,” owner Konstantin Kuts told CBS News. “Because I lost my business, but I did not lose my life. People died, and I am alive, and that means I can carry on and do something.”

“Life always defeats death,” he said, adding a quote from his bar’s namesake: “The sun always rises!”

The Hemingway Bar is more popular than ever. Its fans say it may be a different bar in a different setting, but its heart and soul are still intact.

For Kuts, reopening felt like “a victory.”

“It’s very important when we restore normal life,” he told CBS News. “Because something has to be done if you are not fighting, continue living your life and hence helping the country.”

Hemingway himself would likely have been proud.

But the resilience doesn’t mean Ukrainians forget about the war, ever. We asked George if he and his friends manage to force it out of their minds when they’re out having fun.

George Soldutenko, 20, speaks with CBS News outside a bar in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, in mid-July, 2023.

CBS News/Agnes Reau

“Not really, not at all, actually,” he told us. “We always remember about the war. We always remember — that’s not what you can forget… But we are trying to make it work together. It’s hard, but it’s the most we can do.” 

He hopes others around the world will recognize their small act of defiance in the face of Russia’s aggression.

“I think that sends a message that despite everything, you can enjoy your life. Life is great,” he said. “You should be thankful for the opportunities to enjoy the little meeting, enjoy the smiles around you — just to be happy for a little bit.”

No one in Kharkiv is pretending the war doesn’t exist, they’re just trying to take life one summer’s evening at a time.

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