by Joe Lindsley
Kharkiv – A few hours after arriving for the first time, after a train from Kyiv, I stopped at Protagonist Bar for dinner and a drink. On a snowy Saturday night, just days after headlines of American officials evacuating, and just twenty miles from menacing Russia, the bar was full of conversation and laughter: far from a bunker mentality. The Ukrainians next to me, some of whom worked by trading in bitcoin, welcomed me as the unusual American in this strange time.
I’d arrived with a rule not to ask about Russia straightaway, but first to listen to what was naturally on people’s minds. We began to speak of the energy of Kharkiv, population 1.4 million or so, an energy which I had felt. This city moves fast, whether underground on the subway, or above on the wide free-flowing streets.
«We live and we work with the feeling that you can achieve anything with the fact that you work,» one of the Ukrainians at the bar, Andriy Tavrin, told me. At 23 he is the chief business development officer at Clicca, a Kharkiv-based tech recruiting agency focused on «delivering talent.»
Read more: Kharkiv: ‘Commercial, Multicultural, Tolerant, Russian-Speaking, … and Ukrainian.‘
Inspired by that short optimistic conversion, we arranged to talk more about the promise and potential of Ukraine a few days later, over a shakshuka breakfast at Shuk, a sleek Israeli café in Kharkiv’s center. Amid all the negative headlines Ukraine has faced in the global press the past several years, I wanted to gather the stories of entrepreneurial energy I have witnessed during my two years in this country.
«If you grind hard, you make your money, you become better and better every day, and you work in a climate that supports it, because of taxation,» Andriy says, referring to Ukraine’s tax laws that especially favor tech companies and IT sourcing. «It’s a huge competitive advantage that we have that we need to use.»
The Real Ukraine podcast: with Andriy Tavrin; you can also listen via Spotify.
A daily Russian-speaker like most Kharkivians, Andriy is proud of his city, and proud to be Ukrainian, a feeling that grows amid increased threats from Moscow.
«It’s so easy to make something if you actually do something with your life,» Andriy says of Kharkiv. «Being Ukrainian means you have the opportunity to do something great for others, for yourself….I can do whatever i want. And this freedom, freedom of being what you want to be, is something I don’t want anyone to take from me. This is something that I feel is under danger these days.»
There was a time, before Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, when he dreamed of moving to New York, London, or Paris. Now he’d still like to live in such a city, but only for a year or so, to make connections, and then return to Kharkiv.
From the café Shuk, Kharkiv
«Here, what we have? We have the perfect place where we have breakfast»–the café Shuk–»the perfect food»–quite amazing falafel, as good as the best I’ve had in Tel Aviv–»You have a bunch of places like this, you have Thai food, Indian food, anything, the level of service, the level of design that you have in this place is a very very decent level. Honestly, I wouldn’t afford this kind of place in Milan.»
Is there a unique Ukrainian business mentality?
The Swedes have logom – sort of a principle of equity in making decisions, the Israelis are blunt, direct, even harsh, but with no bad feelings after. Is there a Ukrainian business ethos?
«It’s being open,» Andriy says. «Everything that I see and everything I feel with my colleagues … is that we are very open to everything and we are eager to try everything that works. This is an attitude of Ukrainians. I don’t work like my father did or my grandfather did. I always reinvent myself.
«If I did something wrong yesterday I go on the Internet and I google some success-story of Swedish people or Israeli people or Chinese people and I try to adapt.»
But within the strive to excel, he says, the Ukrainians take time to be humane.
«We have a big influence of HR, we really care about people. This is something that is shared all over Ukraine.»
We spoke of a topic I’ve encountered often in Ukraine – the difference between the American «how are you?» and the Ukrainian version, yak spravyy. When a Ukrainian asks that question, they really want to know; they will take the time to listen. Here, you cannot say «how are you?» as a stand-in for hello and then keep walking.
After working often with Americans, Andriy said he has had to calibrate his mindset sometimes, back to the Ukrainian mode: a mixture of being driven and being humane.
«I think the Ukrainian way of making things is just collecting as much information as we can from different sources and trying it here. Experiment. It’s a kind of art, a kind of science to experiment with different business approaches. The Ukrainian way of making things is being open. We are very direct, we are not that polite»–yet «without bad language»–»we do not start a business conversation with far-fetched topics.»
From the Instagram page of café Shuk: «All the adults were children at first, but few of them remember it,» from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.
The one good thing, more or less, from Soviet rule ….
Andriy points also to Ukraine’s talent pool that is especially well-educated in technical matters.
«I’m a person that hates Soviet times, I hate Soviet times so much, because I know how many horrible and non-human things were happening,» he says. «At the same time we have this decent Soviet educational base, technical base. and we have a bunch of technical universities,» as a legacy of the Soviet days, when the USSR wanted a workforce that could build bigger and better than the West.
Now, by mixing that tradition of technical education with Ukraine’s current possibilities, Andriy says Ukrianians can achieve big things.
«Each year we have thousands of graduates coming out of the universities,» Andriy says. «What do they have? They have some knowledge of software development, or IT, they have a huge hunger to be something in this life. … They understand that if they study, if they work, … the sky’s the limit.
Kharkiv is especially a great place to try new things, he says.
«I don’t think many people in New York can basically afford opening a cafe or trattoria,» Andriy says, «but here in Kharkiv I can do that easily.»
A city that has long defied Russian threats
In 2014, the citizens of Kharkiv successfully defended the city from a Russian takeover. Now worries of a Russian takeover return, but the city is stronger than it was eight years ago, even though some, including Ukrainian President Zelenskiy, have suggested it could be Moscow’s first target in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the «Russia topic» does not come up readily in conversations unless an outsider brings it up. But the threats from Moscow and warnings from Washington are on peoples’ minds.
Read more: «In ‘Dire’ 2014, Ukrainian Citizens, with Few Resources, Defied Russia’s Might; Here’s What Happened in Kharkiv»
«A few nights ago I was trying to sleep and I heard noise on the street and I thought something is beginning, the war,» Andriy says. «Multiplied with the stress you have with work and relationships, it’s pretty hard but i don’t think its as bad as 2014. Maybe because the dollar is not rising that high, and that we don’t have people that are walking on the street with weapons [as it was in 2014] and you hear your president [Zelenskiy] saying calm down, everything is all right. I have my work, things to do during the day. During this day, I will not think about this one more time.»
It is this threat to their existence that makes people adapt and work hard, Andriy says.
«I see a lot of drawbacks in lives of people who get used to a [calm] way of living,» he says.
The dramatic events of 2014, when Andriy was only 15, were a catalyst for a stronger Ukrainian identity in Kharkiv, where most people speak Russian.
«We realized that we are [f-ing] Ukraininans, we are not east Europeans, we are not Russians,» Andriy says. «We want to be in this country. … we are here. … We don’t want the leader who is 20 years running the country. We want the manager, the person who comes to the power, manages the country in some way. If it works, he manages four years more. If not, thank you, next!
On LinkedIn, you ca follow Andriy Tavrin and Clicca Agency.
Find more stories about the Russia threats at our Defending Ukraine page.
Joe Lindsley, an American journalist (follow on Instagram or LinkedIn), is editor of Lviv Now.
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Lviv Now is an English-language website for Lviv, Ukraine’s «tech-friendly cultural hub.» It is produced by Tvoe Misto («Your City») media-hub, which also hosts regular problem-solving public forums to benefit the city and its people.