The center of Slovyansk, after the first lockdown, June 2020. Photo: Nika Perepelitsa

Berlin-style coffee shops, youth activism, and a Ukrainian-language bookstore in a post-conflict city in the Donbas.

The center of Slovyansk on a Friday afternoon. A first-time visitor walking around the city would notice nothing out of the ordinary: office workers going to lunch; trucks delivering regular batches of bread to the shops; old ladies on the streets selling flowers and the last fruit from the harvested crops in their gardens; young people strolling with take-away coffees in hand.

Slovyansk has, however, come a long way in a short period of time. This is a front-line city of 120,000 residents in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. Nearly seven years ago, after the 2014 Ukrainian “Maidan” revolution, armed conflict broke out, and Slovyansk was the first city that fell to Russia-backed separatists. The occupation of the city lasted 52 days before Ukrainian government forces pushed the separatists out.

Since then, the city has been living a full and peaceful life, and, locals say, things have changed a lot – and for the better. Hipster coffee shops opened, bookstores with Ukrainian literature started to appear, urbanism and local civil society activism are developing, and youth centers and free, shared community spaces appeared.

The transformation is even more dramatic when one considers how Slovyansk looked before the war: a small, unremarkable industrial city with just one major factory still in business. After finishing high school, most teenagers left for Kharkiv, Kyiv, or other big cities for university studies. Almost none returned home.

Activists from the Teplytsia youth center. Photo: Nika Perepelitsa.

New opportunities have emerged, but young people still leave, and approximately 70 percent of the city’s population is aged 50 and older. Some young people are staying or returning to Slovyansk, however, and launching new initiatives in the city, Anna Avdiyants says. She has been managing Teplytsia, the largest youth center in Slovyansk, for the last six years.

“Slovyansk was a gray and inert city until 2015,” she says. “We didn’t have places for entertainment, good cafes where you could spend time with your friends after school or a busy workday, cozy parks for walking with your kids. Locals were not active, let alone the public sector. It was after the end of the occupation when activists began to appear. Local authorities didn’t help us in any way. We all gathered through social networks and started to do various interesting things together.”

Teplytsia opened as the first youth center in the region, just 10 months after the separatists departed.

“I remember that time, summer 2015, when youth activists from Lviv came to us to help rebuild the damaged houses after the war,” Anna says. “They were joined by local young people and activists, and that was the start of the Ukrainian volunteering camp ‘Building Ukraine together.’ We didn’t know anything about volunteering and that was a time for starting a volunteer community in Slovyansk and in Kramatorsk [another industrial city in the Donbas region], and we decided to open a free youth space, making cool projects together with partners from Lviv and other cities.”

Another local activist, Kapitalina Pasikova, concurs that the local mood has changed.

“I remember when I was studying at university in Kyiv and thought I wouldn’t return as long as Slovyansk remained occupied. After the liberation, I came back and decided to spend my life here. Although lots of my friends moved to big cities, I see great potential here, compared to life before 2014–2015, when no one wanted to stay here. There were no jobs, no entertainment, and no places for youth development. Now my friends from Poltava, Kremenchug, and Vinnytsia [cities in central Ukraine] are so surprised at how progressive our city has become.”

Teplytsia hosted a local forum for youth leaders from the Donetsk region.

Filling The Gap

In five years, Teplytsia has grown from a small free space for teenagers to a full-fledged civil society hub with national reach. You can take photo courses for beginners; join international and national media literacy or volunteering forums; incubate your urban planning projects or develop your IT skills.

“Six years ago, people were confused and trying to troubleshoot after the war; many lost their jobs, connections with family and friends,” Anna says.

“So Teplytsia became a free space for us, where you can find friends, soulmates, and support. Now we are a strong community, united to make our city a better place.  We want to tell the world what we have achieved and that we can do even more.”

I am sitting with Anna over a cup of delicious espresso at the Prostokava coffee shop in the heart of the city, near Soborna Square.

The coffee shop opened at the same time as Teplytsia, almost a year after the occupation. The founders were two young women who were forced to move from the city of Horlivka, to this day still controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

Often touted by locals as the coziest place in the city, Prostokava features Lo-fi chill background music and the smell of delicious coffee percolating through a small, candle-lit room full of vintage books. It evokes the ambiance of a cafe in Berlin and not one in a front-line city, 70 kilometers from the contact line.

Co-owner Yulia Cherkasova says six years ago, running from the war in Horlivka, she had no thoughts of opening a coffee shop. “I wanted to calm down after all that stress, move away from memories of the war. But unexpectedly my business partner Julia and I found information about international grants for small businesses; we decided to apply and we were successful. So there was no time to think about the past and take a step back.” Nowadays they run two coffee shops in the city center.

Yulia Cherkasova (center), one of the owners of Prostokava, with two baristas. From the Prostokava Facebook page.  

“We are glad and so proud that foreign visitors remember us, associate the city with Prostokava, and tell their friends about us,” Yulia says. “There’s a nice story involving a French foreign correspondent who had come to Slovyansk for the first time. A few months later he sent a message to our Facebook page saying he tasted one of the best cappuccinos in his life at Prostokava,” she laughs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit all local initiatives and businesses very hard. During the first nationwide lockdown all these gathering places and hospitality businesses had to close for several months, and businesses suffered large losses. Now, with a second lockdown set to begin on 8 January, the situation is no better. People are afraid to go to cafes and restaurants, and they stay at home. So the economic and social losses mount again.

During the pandemic, local entrepreneur Viktor Razzhyvin, who opened the first Ukrainian bookstore in Slovyansk and in the Donetsk region two years ago, has also faced difficulties. He has taught for the past 25 years at the local pedagogical university as a lecturer in Ukrainian language and literature. His shop, the local branch of the national Knyharnya Ye chain, offers books by classic and modern Ukrainian writers, children’s books, and business literature in Ukrainian.

Viktor Razzhyvin at his bookstore. Photo from his Facebook page.

“I remember that before the Russian occupation everyone went to Donetsk to buy books. There was not much to buy here and there was no large selection of Ukrainian books in Slovyansk. And now people from all over the region come to us. There are people who come every month or two just to buy Ukrainian books – more and more of them. We have an entire department of children’s literature in Ukrainian. There is a high demand for it.”

Viktor says he is doing everything possible to minimize the pandemic’s negative effects on sales. “Of course, the pandemic and the first lockdown hit our business very hard, and it will be difficult to predict what will happen next. But we continue to work, constantly updating our inventory with new books, because it’s our native city and native region. Who, if not us?”

Nika Perepelitsa is a freelance journalist and podcaster in Slovyansk. Her podcast “How do you live there?” looks at the lives of young people and youth initiatives in small cities of eastern Ukraine. She also works as a public relations manager at the Drukarnia civil society center.