Locals are devising new schemes to fund the war effort
Reaching the Ukrainian city of Dnipro from the Donbas front, five hours drive to the east, the sense of culture shock is absolute. Suddenly, you are back in the jarringly familiar, peaceful world of modern Europe, a haven of hipster coffee shops and trendy cocktail bars, and patisseries crammed with well-dressed locals.
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A charming, sunny city of nearly one million people, Dnipro seems more sophisticated than a British city of the same size: far more urbane than Birmingham, say. It’s only when the lights shut out at the 11pm curfew, and the stars are suddenly visible over the now ghostly city centre, that you remember the war really isn’t that far away. Dnipro itself was targeted with missile strikes earlier in the war, mostly against infrastructural targets, killing small numbers of civilians.
“It’s really such a strange thing,” Denys Doroshenko, owner of the achingly trendy Smena NFT cocktail bar told me. “I walked home on Saturday, and saw mums just walking with babies, people playing tennis in the park and it was really strange because 150 kilometres from here it’s just war.” At first, they used to huddle in a basement whenever the air raid sirens went off, Denys added. Now they just ignore them, and carry on with normal life.
Like many other Dnipro business owners, Denys and his business partner Yurii Dobrovolskyi have rallied to the cause, preparing meals from Smena’s kitchens for a local shelter of refugees from the war-battered city of Kharkiv, and acting as a hub for local volunteers driving to Donbas to evacuate civilians. In addition, they raise money for drones, night vision goggles and sniper scopes desperately needed at the front.
Denys nodded at a customer sitting at the bar, saying: “Yesterday he gathered about $100,000 for volunteers. It’s like, ‘Hey Sasha! How are you?’ And he says, ‘Good, I’m just trying to earn money to kill Russians.’”
Their latest wheeze is selling NFTs of cocktails, with exclusive embedded recipes, to raise money for volunteer aid organisations. Named after the Ghost of Kyiv myth, Zelensky, and the defiant “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” that has become a national catchphrase, their cocktail NFTs are available on the trading platform OpenSea (though the crypto market being what it is, none have actually sold so far).
Opening up his laptop, Yurii showed me the latest NFT he’s working on: an animated Boris Johnson, waddling out of 10 Downing Street followed by a stream of Western-donated heavy weapons, to accompany their Boris-themed, berry-infused G’n’T recipe, a curl of yellow cheese standing in for his trademark shock of hair. “Boris Johnson in Ukraine is like Her Majesty the Queen, or like Winston Churchill,” Denys explained. “We just love him because of all the support that we got from Great Britain.”
A carefree, bustling city living through an abnormal nightmare, Dnipro, like Smena bar, displays a side of Ukraine that’s easy to forget. People here just want to live normal, middle-class European lives like mine or yours, but instead they’ve been dragged into a brutal war. Because they are so similar, because their tastes in music and food and decor are so recognisably part of a shared culture, the war’s horror seems a more visceral assault against the Europe we have known all our lives. We feel, on a subliminal level, the nagging fear that this could be us.
If the war drags on, and if the Russian advantage in materiel continues to win out, the Russian firestorm may yet come closer to Dnipro. But for now, the city’s people, and its business owners like Denis and Yurii, are resisting Putin’s war through dark jokes, fundraising for the war effort, and through their defiant commitment to living a normal life.