Bar, bookstore or bunker? Kyiv residents wonder where to shelter in case of war
KYIV, Ukraine — Dozens of journalists clambered down flights of steps, deep under an administrative building in a residential neighborhood of Kyiv. The city had arranged a press tour of a 1980s bunker — a chance to prove Kyiv's preparedness in case of a scenario that, until recently, had been relatively unthinkable: a Russian invasion that could threaten Ukraine's capital city.
Yevhen Herasymov, the chief of civil protection in the district, pointed out all the ways the bunker had been updated over the decades, including fresh paint, new toilets and internet capabilities. It can hold up to 350 people and be completely stocked with just 12 hours' notice.
There are hundreds of these bunkers throughout the city. But they're reserved for essential workers who would need to keep working in the event of a possible attack.
For civilians, the varied shelter options are much more unpredictable.
A Google map compiled and updated by city officials lists over 4,000 shelters — largely built in Soviet times — but many have been taken over by private businesses. Some sit padlocked, the keys' whereabouts unknown. Others have been abandoned.
Walk around Kyiv and you'll see the vestiges everywhere: the word "shelter" written in Ukrainian, stenciled on the side of buildings, usually with an arrow pointing toward a set of stairs.
It's an endless, surreal scavenger hunt. Sometimes it leads to locked doors. Other times, it offers up an underground world of bookstores, cafes, bars, private apartments, a print shop — even a strip club. One business owner claimed a shelter he tried to rent was used as a studio where Ukrainian women danced for a Chinese livestream video app.
In the heart of the city, a 1950s Soviet building decorated with Communist symbols is now a palace of capitalism: a Zara clothing chain. It, too, is listed on the city shelter map.
Manager Oksana Delabrovits had no idea her Zara branch hosted a shelter. She figures it's probably in the basement, where customers aren't allowed.
"We are renting this place. The owner of the building should be the one in charge of this," she said, speaking in Ukrainian. "But I agree, the renters of the shop should know in case of emergency and the people need to go here and hide."
During the Soviet era, buildings didn't have many storefronts — private businesses had been illegal under Communism. Over time, the growing commercial sector of Kyiv has taken over the many of the city's basement rooms. The businesses are required by law to preserve the structure's sealing and waterproofing, and let anyone in during times of emergency.
But in the years since businesses took over shelters, Kyiv has not been under bombardment, so it's uncertain the city's shelters could be readied at moment's notice. The mayor has advised Kyiv residents to take shelter in underground Metro stations, but they wouldn't suffice for the whole population.
There is also a whole network of shelters not on the city map, abandoned decades ago after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union. Kirill Stepanets, who calls himself an urban explorer, has ventured into many of them, finding remnants of a bygone era, like a bunker under a decommissioned factory that made parts for the Soviet space program.
He says it's like traveling in a time machine. As for the city's designated shelters? He thinks they're no match for modern warfare.
"Times change and weapons change," he says. "I think we need to forget about bunkers."
If Kyiv residents do need to seek cover in the event of war, they would be wise to pick one of the cozy bars and clubs that have set up shop in designated shelters. Parovoz, a popular speakeasy underneath a cinema in the city center, retains its bunker history, a heavy steel, Stalin-era door welcoming visitors as they enter.
Others, like a small basement bar called Podshoffe (which means "slightly drunk" in Ukrainian) has just a small metal sign with the word "shelter" scrawled outside its street-level doorway. The bar is lined with several flavors of homemade vodka and taps of local beer.
Podshoffe's manager Yuliia Ponomarova was instructed by the owners to let people in an emergency. She laughs a bit and points to the alcohol at the bar. "Knowing our people, it wouldn't take a lot of time to drink it all," she says. Four days of sheltering, tops, she guesses.
It's that kind of levity that many Kyiv residents are embracing amid the uncertainty — a nervous laugh, and a hope these shelters won't need to be used for sheltering.
Olena Lysenko contributed to this report.
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