DONETSK, Ukraine: Nestled in the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, a chocolate-themed cafe is serving up an authentically Ukrainian experience to rebels fighting pro-Kiev forces in Ukraine’s east.
With tables looking over Donetsk’s tree-lined Pushkin Boulevard, the Lviv Chocolate Atelier cafe is a Ukrainian oasis in the separatist-controlled city.
The staff in the cafe and shop speak Ukrainian, just as they would in the chain’s other outlets in Kiev or the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.
They serve handmade sweets that draw on historic traditions of chocolate-making from western Ukraine, separated from the east by a profound ideological divide.
The cafe’s doors have remained open despite rebels ripping down national symbols, like the country’s yellow-and-blue flag, and fighting a campaign against all things culturally Ukrainian
“I come here to relax, to have a coffee with my girlfriend,” explained one customer, a young man in rebel camouflage gear who asked not to be identified.
While the Ukrainian atmosphere is upheld, the cafe’s menu has been adapted to rebel tastes.
Unlike branches in western Ukraine, it does not carry chocolate figurines of Russian President Vladimir Putin wielding a machine gun or sporting the Devil’s horns – some of the chain’s most popular products in its other outlets.
Its selection is also more limited because of the restricted access of delivery trucks through Ukrainian and rebel checkpoints.
Darya, a 19-year-old medical student, exchanges a few words in Ukrainian with cafe staff as she waits for a friend.
“This cafe has the same atmosphere as in Lviv [Western Ukraine], in part because Ukrainian is spoken,” she said.
“I understand everything, I have nothing against Ukrainian.
“Although we are no longer close to Russia, we were once brotherly peoples,” she added, sipping from a cup with the logo of Lviv, a city viewed as the heartland of Ukraine’s culture and national ideology.
The cafe only accepts Ukrainian hryvnias although Russian rubles are now widely used in the region. A waitress said that if someone wants to pay in rubles, a money changer is summoned to make a deal on the spot.
Bank cards are no longer accepted in rebel-controlled territories, where the banking system has collapsed.
The customers’ outfits serve as a reminder that the front line is near, with several wearing camouflage gear bearing separatist insignia.
Rebel fighters “mostly bring their dates here,” an employee said on condition of anonymity.
“They are not overtly aggressive but demand that they are spoken to in Russian.”
In such cases the employees will speak to them in Russian just to avoid any trouble.
None of the employees was willing to say whether the cafe paid taxes or “protection” money to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic to stay open in a city where expressing pro-Kiev views can be life-threatening.
Nearby, across from the regional administration building controlled by the rebels, a souvenir store still sells traditional Ukrainian embroidered blouses, in vogue since Russia’s annexation of Crimea last March sparked a new wave of patriotism in the divided country.
The store was called “Ukrainian Souvenirs,” but the word “Ukrainian” has since been dropped.
The Russian national emblem now features alongside Ukrainian national dress and busts of poet Taras Shevchenko, considered the father of modern Ukrainian literature.
“When there were [pro-Russian] protests in front of our store, we were afraid our windows would be smashed,” said 56-year-old shopkeeper Svetlana, wearing a traditional blouse with embroidered poppies.
When some customers complained that the store sold Ukrainian items, the shopkeeper told them that Chinese, Russian and Belarusian goods were also being sold in the city.
“So why not Ukrainian ones?” she said.
But speaking Ukrainian and wearing traditional dress has become hazardous in Donetsk, said retired Ukrainian language teacher Galina Dyakova.
“Sometimes people look at me as if I were a dinosaur if I speak Ukrainian on public transport,” the 79-year-old said. “Television has been telling people for a year that all good things are Russian. This is propaganda, you have to think critically and learn history.”
“No one will force me to speak a foreign language in my own land,” she said.