Rebuilding Without Government Help or Insurance Monies, the Progress is Striking
By Steve Richards
One visit to Jul’s Coffee and Peace (formerly Jul’s Coffee and Wine) tells you about all you need to know about Bucha – and Ukraine’s – spirit, and the reality of its economics.
When I was here in April, this shop was virtually destroyed except for its walls. The windows were shattered from a tank that exploded across the street and its turret that came through the roof a couple of stores down. When we met Tonya and two of her co-workers, they were piling up glass and wondering what to do next. All they wanted to do was serve coffee for free to workers trying to restore power and others that just needed fellowship. With no power or water, it would be months before the shop could reopen with plywood windows. Tonya had no idea if the owners had funds to reopen. It didn’t really matter. They were ready to work for free.
Well, Jul’s is open! And it’s packed. Power by generator is the norm throughout the day with Wi-Fi provided to the customers like a Starbucks. Blues music plays and food is served. I was curious all these months and am so glad to see them thriving.
Julia (the owner), her husband, and their five kids went to Cypress via Budapest when the green light was provided back in March. They all returned as soon as it was practicable in the late spring and immediately began the rebuild with their savings. They wanted to come home and knew others returning too. And if you didn’t know it, you would think she was a suburban mom from Anywhere, USA. Raised in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, she is like any Christian mom who just wants to raise her family in her home and is busy building a business as well. She thanks God and is certain He is watching out for her with a kind of umbrella shield over her house where shells fell all around. She also speaks excellent English, one of four or five languages she speaks fluently, which is not unusual around here.
Having lived through Hurricane Andrew and its aftermath, I can attest that even with big insurance payouts, FEMA, and a government with resources, it takes a long time to recover from disasters. Same with my experience in Nepal in 2015 after the earthquakes. Add to this that Ukraine is still at war and missiles are still flying – albeit few and far between for most people, though sirens are still a reality and power is shaky. Also, like hurricanes and earthquakes, the damage is uneven. There are parts of Irpin that are almost totally wiped out still. Estimates are that 70% of its infrastructure was destroyed.
What is most striking to me as I compare now to before is that kids are coming back. Women are coming back. Schools have reopened and art classes for the kids are popular. These folks are living with devastation all around and making the best of it – just like we did with Andrew. Shops are open and many high-rise apartments/flats/condos appear to be habitable. Grocery stores are open and stocked.
Earlier in the week, I went to the cargo airport at Hostomel with my intrepid driver and saw another aspect of the devastation here. An initial target for Russian helicopters, missiles, and paratroopers on February 24th, we meandered into the deserted outskirts of the airport where the damage went as far as the eye could see. Repairs have yet to begin. There’s no money to do anything anyway, I suppose. It’s a big economic driver laying fallow, part of the estimated 40% drop in GDP Ukraine is suffering.
A scrap yard has popped up for burnt-out passenger vehicles and the wrecks are piling up. It seems there is nowhere to take the hulks as the foundry has also been attacked.
The wrecks – and cash flow – will have to wait. But Ukrainians are not.
Six Hours a Day of Electricity Calls for a Bit of Planning – Especially if Your Home Is Still Blown Up.
By Steve Richards
They've come a long way in nine months...especially considering how far-flung the devastation is. It’s like a Category 5 storm blew through parts of these towns. It’s that big in Hostomel, Irpin, and Bucha.
I arrived on Monday after a half-hour Uber from Kyiv. That is HUGE in and of itself. In April I did an all-day hike to get here since there were no cars available to me or trains running – just lots of checkpoints to navigate.
What is also huge is the amount of reconstruction still to be done around here. In many places, it hasn’t started. Many are living in bombed-out neighborhoods with a modicum of the necessities of modern living. Many are waiting for their homes to be repaired, like the guy I talked with who is waiting for his 6th-floor flat in Irpin to have its artillery-damaged roof repaired. The five floors underneath are occupied already.
Rolling blackouts are a reality here given the repeated hits on the infrastructure by Russian missiles. Two-hour allotments, three times a day, with more or less certainty. Same routine for outages. The rest is a definite maybe. So that’s 12 hours of certainty, 12 hours of uncertainty. Typing by candlelight while my laptop is on battery power and connected to the internet via my iPhone/AT&T hotspot is something I hadn’t had to do when I was here in April. Back then the power was solid, once it was restored. So, in this way, the area has had to take a step back.
It’s a stark contrast to the relative norm of the capital I experienced.
The idea of anything other than 24/7 rock-solid power – and internet – is untenable for most of us, especially if it is ongoing. But as Ukrainians like to say, it is much worse for others. At least the missiles are flying at the substations instead of into homes here.
I’m here for a few reasons. Number one is to screen Trek to Bucha in Bucha, which we will be doing on Sunday, February 5th. Number two is to film Back to Bucha, which is the sequel. Number three is to reconnect with those in the film and see how things are progressing. I’m very happy to say that I have found most of them and all are in good health and spirits. And the rebuild has progressed in many areas…others not so much.
Fortunately, the best restaurant in town is at the Viktoria Park Hotel where I am staying, which is featured in the film. In case you are interested, $50 will get you a sweet room including a robe and plenty of hot water. We’re screening the film in its ballroom.
Sure hope they like it.
By Steve Richards
It's so pleasant here.
I arrived on Monday after a two-day/two-night “planes, trains, and automobiles” journey from Boston to Warsaw (changed planes in London and stayed a night) to Kyiv by way of a three-train overnight journey via Krakow and Przemyśl. Most everything is open, and not overly busy. People here appear to be getting along pretty well – going to work, shopping, eating out. The restaurants are open and varied. In fact, all of the closed restaurants on my list from April are open!
Kyiv has obviously adjusted to this war. It’s amazing how well they are coping given the occasional missile attacks, kamikaze drone strikes, power outages, water interruptions, etc. – all of which are documented on the news in real-time, the latest being coverage of the Interior Minister dying in a helicopter crash in an eastern Kyiv suburb.
I’ve been here close to a week and haven’t seen or heard a missile or an air raid siren. It’s downright quiet. There's solid power, cell service, and wi-fi. So far anyway it’s not at all what you might expect given the media coverage.
Ladies are back – both fashionable and otherwise. Children are being raised; Ubers are running. A ride to Bucha will cost me about $10 it looks like. The Metro is another option as the trains are running and Google Maps works great! Keep in mind though that there is an 11P-5A curfew.
What is most striking to me as I compare it to my visit in April is that soldiers and the ubiquity of their guns have largely evaporated. As are the checkpoints and associated sandbags and barricades. I saw one bombed-out building since I’ve been here. Bucha and Irpin, as with all the frontline towns, will be a different story though.
I’m staying at the Hotel Ukraine and have a GREAT room. Formerly the Hotel Moscow, it was built in the Soviet era in 1961 and is still state-owned. Rooms are most definitely available but don’t expect a hot (warm) shower until the morning since the water heater is turned off at 8 PM and the skeleton staff goes home. Power conservation is obviously in effect though it appears voluntary – no rolling or mandatory blackouts at this point. News junkies can still watch Sky News in English, though MTV is more fun and actually plays videos. At $43 per night, it can’t be beat. An extra $8 gets a huge breakfast including juices, unlimited coffee, bread, a cheese plate, three eggs, ham, apple pancakes, and powdered croissants (hot), all served at your table. This is Europe after all! Rooms are available nearby for half that if you don’t need the maid service, hair salon (I got a haircut), central location, or restaurant. On the other hand, the reopened Hyatt Regency, a short walk up the hill near St. Sofia Cathedral will charge a very American rate of $225 per night.
I have a particularly awesome view of central Kyiv’s Independence Square, the site of the Maidan Revolution in 2014 which led to the overthrow of the president and parliament after they reneged on joining the EU at the last minute due to pressure from Putin. This led to Russian troops invading in the east, the annexation of Crimea, and the current war.
The weather so far is like spring in New England. Thank God. The mild winter is a true blessing and an answer to many prayers. (See Europe's mild weather reprieve this winter may come to bite by summer | Reuters.)
Putting on my travel agent hat for a minute, for the adventurous traveler, Kyiv is a place to consider. And if you are on a budget, it would be hard to imagine any European city more affordable. Of course, you’ll need to go against the State Department – and your loved ones – advice to stay home.
You’ll certainly be helping the economy here, which for me is a prime goal, and part of the research that TheoEco is engaged in with these visits. A heightened sense of being alive and experiencing cohesion and unity of a people in wartime is a bonus. These are things I will walk away with and will be impossible to explain to my fellow Americans, especially those that are all too ready to throw Ukraine under the proverbial bus. But don’t take the media’s take on things without understanding that, generally, only the “messed-up” is newsworthy. This place is humbling, and its businesses can use the money. Just stay flexible, tuned in, and away from the front lines if you come.
And, as everyone will tell you, stay safe.
I write this post from an ultra-modern train in Poland on my way from Warsaw to Kyiv this afternoon, where I was unexpectedly served two little complimentary hand-crafted prosciutto sandwiches at my first-class seat! A far cry from the uneatable breakfast sandwich I received just before landing yesterday morning on the British Airways flight to London (the Brits aren’t exactly known for their food I suppose), from which I caught a connection to Warsaw. Unfortunately, I still have two more train rides to go – neither of which I expect to be this fancy – before I get to Kyiv tomorrow morning. All of this makes me a bit crazy that I can’t just fly to Kyiv yet, or even Lviv, after almost a year, but that’s a subject of a prior post (Back to Bucha With the Airports Still Closed).
This gives me plenty of time to spell out exactly why I am headed back to Bucha. The answer is obvious. I need a vacation…
Just kidding, though Kyiv was an awesome place for a vacation before the invasion, and will be again. I could tell that from the first time I was here in March. In fact, Kyiv is one of the most intriguing places to visit in the world given its exceedingly rich history, which I am just now beginning to really appreciate as I take the online Yale course of Timothy Snyder’s on YouTube (Timothy Snyder: The Making of Modern Ukraine. Class 1: Ukrainian Questions Posed by Russian Invasion). I even got the premium subscription so I could download the lectures to my computer as I’m not expecting super-reliable broadband in Bucha and Kyiv if last time is any indication.
No – the main reason I’m going, in addition to screening the film for those that are in it in Bucha, Kyiv, and Lviv, is I am on a hunt for Satanists. That’s right – Satanists, which will surprise me greatly if I find any unless I interview some Russian Orthodox spy-priests along the way. Which I don’t think is what Putin means when he says his reason for invading Ukraine is to de-Satanize the place, which has evolved from de-Nazifying the country, which is what he told his citizens at the beginning – but I guess they didn’t find many Ukrainian Nazis after all.
It appears that what he and the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church (not to be confused with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church) really mean are those in the LGBTQ+ community. This group I will most definitely look to find this time around, though I’m thinking Satan is not who they worship as just about everyone I’ve met in Ukraine is a bona fide, cradle-to-grave, Christian. But here’s a taste of what is going on in the theological arena, which is a HUGE component of why this war is taking place:
Claims of Ukrainian and Western Satanism are part of the media landscape in Russia. When Putin announced the illegal annexation of territory in east Ukraine, he accused the West of “outright Satanism.” In May, the Kremlin-owned news organization RIA Novosti claimed it discovered the remnants of a witches coven where Ukrainian soldiers consecrated weapons with blood magick. “A satanic seal was found on its wall, evoking associations with Hollywood films about evil spirits,” RIA said at the time. Russian Politician Calls for ‘Desatanization’ of Ukraine (vice.com)
As you can see, all of Europe and the USA, and presumably Canada, Australia, Mexico, South America, and all free peoples everywhere that tolerate individual liberties, are part of this rather large group of Satanists. Now, given that I am from the USA, and have never actually met any avowed Satanists, I'm thinking it’s going to be tough going trying to find one. But try I will, as well as look for a diverse group of interviewees, including mayors, Bohemians, academics, priests, professionals, workers, etc.
Fortunately, I have other reasons to go. Most of all it’s time to begin Trek to Bucha’s (Trek to Bucha - Tour Info) promotional efforts, and I couldn’t think of a better way to begin the promo tour than in Ukraine. Of course, missiles are still flying but I’ve convinced myself – and my loved ones – that it’s no more dangerous than living in the gun environment all Americans live with. That is to say, the chance of being killed is certainly there, but extremely remote. (See the post On this Thanksgiving Weekend Ukraine and USA Share Two More Things: Thankfulness and Violent Death Rates.)
I also want to see how recovery efforts are going, especially in Bucha and Irpin which I wrote about in Trek to Bucha Epilogue: Force Majeure (Act of God) – Part 1 (Economics). But what really sealed the deal for my explanation of going back to Ukraine now is to shoot the sequel: Back to Bucha, and to catch up with the stars of Trek to Bucha, lend support, and witness their Spirit.
Am I a bit nervous? Of course. I’ve never experienced missiles flying overhead, or kamikaze Iranian drones. But don’t worry about me. I visited Fr. Yaroslav at Christ the King UCC in Boston (Christ the King Church (christ-the-king-ucc.org) before I left, and he assured me my guardian angel is still with me!
TheoEco’s Director Steve Richards' 5-week Ukraine tour begins this Friday, January 13th. The tour begins as the long, cold, infrastructure-bombed winter moves in with screenings of Trek to Bucha planned in Bucha, Kyiv, and Lviv.
Bucha – Sunday, February 5th, 2023, at 6 PM (11 AM EST)
Kyiv – Late January – Exact date and time TBD
Lviv – Early February – Exact date and time TBD
In addition to raising awareness and answering President Zelensky’s call for support, we are also shooting the sequel Back to Bucha as we witness, and document Ukraine's Spirit one year into the war–helping in our own small way to help Ukrainians stay "Alive and Kicking" amid growing calls in the USA to withdraw American support.