A start up business in leather goods in Lviv
Ukraine, Lviv, December 2017
Natalya teaches at University and gives language lessons online. She was my teacher from whom I learned the basics in Ukrainian. Teaching, however, does not bring enough to sustain a reasonable living. Vitaly has done many things and is very creative with his hands and started making leather goods. This is an old craft from the Karpatians where he was born. Since a year he has a workshop on the other side of the street and makes very stylish and good quality bags, wallets, rucksacks. Before he was a cook earning 300 hrivna (10 Euro) for a 12-hour working day.
Natalya runs the commercial side of the leather business. They now sell their goods on markets in Lviv but as also as far away as Kyiv (6 to 8 hours by train) and have a growing sales on the internet:
It all starts to work now. The combination of their skills forms a sound basis for their enterprise.
The workshop is in another soviet style block that once housed a factory. They pay for rent and security but the office downstairs of the guards is empty. If there the guards are generally drunk. Some months ago their workshop was broken into using the duplicate key that was obligatory to hand to the security “in case of fire”. Tools were stolen as well as some inventory. Reporting to the police has little use and the guards denied all responsibility. There are now double locks on the door.
I am invited to their home and we enter through the stairwell. See that heating radiator? It is on day and night and we pay for it. Energy is a big expense here. In their apartment (small kitchen, toilet, little hallway and one sleeping/living room) the radiators are hot. They cannot be switched off there are no valves or thermostats. East block communist-style the hot water comes from block heating or from nearby industry through badly insulated piping. It is switched on somewhere in October and goes off in March. To compensate an electric heater is needed. Some even buy a small airco unit as it is just too hot and to open the windows at minus 20 was also impossible.
It is still as it was under the communist systems. The only option is to succumb and pay the bill to the oligarch that has his hands on energy supply. A one-room apartment is all they have but they are lucky, the rent is very moderate but when the emigrated owners come to Lviv they have to vacate the apartment for some weeks. Buying is way beyond their means, for this they would need 30.000 dollars or more.
The identical blocks, 20 or more have been built in the sixties for immigrant Russians sent here to Russify Lviv. Now they are run down despite some efforts to make the most of it. The majority of the immigrants still live here and are of age. They have nothing but broken promises. Natalya tells me they also do nothing. They sit at home and drink as they have learned to be passive. Natalya and Vitaly are exceptions here, they want to build a future with their own hands
They are not the only entrepreneurs in the flatblock. Do you see the small path in the snow? Natalya asks me. It’s from the alcoholic customers of our downstairs neighbour. He makes Samohon (“moonshine”, literally “self-run”), illegally produced Horlica (Ukrainian for Vodka, literally “burning”, short for burning water or burning wine ). We hear them all the time, knocking on the window, money is handed over and a bottle is passed through. This neighbour is not an exception in Ukraine, Samohon is good business. In shops sale of alcohol is forbidden in the evening but the neighbour is always open.
Often we see them passed out in the little park. Some die from the cold.
Vitalik cooks for us, a tasty dish with white mushrooms hand-picked in summer in Karpati. Originally they come from Dolena, an oil and gas town on the feet of the mountains. Lviv is however where it all happens.
Later the red Lada model “little bird” brings us back to the centre of Lviv. It has run over 600.000 km, no-frills, a tank, smelling of petrol and oil, always something does not work but one way or another it keeps on running. Vitaly is a master in improvisation and repair.
We look for a place to sit down and continue our conversation. I suggest StarGorod, a Biergarten, but for Natalya, this is too much: people go there to get drunk. Alcohol is one of the curses of this country, a way to escape though everyone knows it is a dead-end street.
They will not go that way, they plan to build a life together and the leather goods business is all their own making.