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Despite war, Ukraine’s nail bars uplift women workers and clients

Kyiv, Ukraine – You don’t normally expect to see a voodoo doll in a nail salon.

But here it is, surrounded by bottles of nail polish in southwest Kiev – with a derogatory term for “Russian” handwritten on a white piece of cloth sewn to a motanka, a traditional Ukrainian rag doll.

Every visitor can put in a pin – and many do.

“Customers love it,” says Antonina Krolivets, who in 2014 co-founded Bunny Nails with her husband Alexey, a network of nail salons in the Ukrainian capital.

The place is packed with customers talking to their manicurists, while more women wait patiently on a bench. A Pixar cartoon is playing on a TV.

Antonina Krolivets, founder of Bunny Nails, sticks a needle in a voodoo doll depicting a Russian soldier (Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera)

Everything here seems to defy Russia’s aggression and the bleak economic realities that followed.

But when war broke out in February 2022, Antonina and Alexey were on the verge of closing all five Bunny Nails salons for good – leaving Ukraine with their three young children.

Tens of thousands of Russian troops and long columns of tanks approached the city from the occupied northern suburbs.

The earth-shattering thud of explosions forced people into bomb shelters or out of town.

But then Antonina and Alexey realized that many of the 127 women in their jobs were in deep trouble – both financially and emotionally.

Some lived in the occupied suburbs and needed help to get out. Others were shocked by the shelling and called Antonina for comfort and reassurance at night.

Many had already experienced refugee life, having fled separatist-held areas in the Donbas region seized in 2014 and living in rented apartments they could no longer afford.

“We decided that the best thing we can do is to give jobs,” said Antonina.

After agreeing to stay, they temporarily settled in a house east of Kiev – turning their children’s fear into joy.

The basement served as an air raid shelter – and they left all kinds of goodies there.

A voodoo doll depicting a Russian soldier at a Bunny Nails salon in Kyiv
A voodoo doll depicting a Russian soldier at Bunny Nails (Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera)

So their children aged two to eight – along with their friends’ children who slept in the house – couldn’t wait to dive underground, because every air raid alarm heralded candy and chocolate.

‘When are we going to hide? Let’s hide already!” Alexey said to the children.

“When they asked us about the explosions, we said it was our military strike,” said Antonina.

In mid-March 2022, they reopened all five salons at what seemed like the worst possible time.

“It was scary, difficult, but there was a feeling that you are doing something, that you are helping, that every day (the employees) can buy bread, they have a job,” said Antonina.

Public transportation barely functioned as armed military and volunteers inspected every car at checkpoints that littered every road.

People emptied ATMs and supermarkets, and thousands of overcrowded cars clogged the main roads to the south and west of Kiev.

Meanwhile, displaced Ukrainians poured in from newly occupied areas.

Fleeing from Mariupol

On a freezing day almost a year ago, Margarita Popova heard a deafening bang that shook her apartment building in Mariupol.

The shock wave tore the tiles off the wall and damaged the door so much that the 16-year-old high school student couldn’t even open it to check on her parents.

They had just left to get some food – an almost suicidal mission in the besieged city where relentless Russian shelling claimed hundreds of lives every day.

Popova saw people running in the street covered in blood and thought the explosion had killed her parents.

Fortunately, they survived, and after living for a few more weeks without electricity and heating and thawing snow for drinking water, the family decided to leave.

They barely boarded an evacuation van that drove past dead bodies lying in the street in front of bombed and burned buildings.

Within days, they arrived in the capital, Kiev, with no work or shelter – their apartment building half burned down when a cruise missile hit the top two floors.

Popova was a certified manicurist and applied for a part-time job at Bunny Nails.

On a sunny day in early April, she shivered with excitement as she stepped into a spacious drawing room that looked like an oasis of pre-war life.

“It was a shock because many businesses were closing,” Popova said during a break between two clients.

For the first three weeks, she said she worked without days off because work made her forget.

Against all expectations

Within weeks of Bunny Nails reopening, more women were applying for work.

“We thought many were unqualified, but we should still give them jobs, we just need to train them first,” said Alexey.

They started training sessions – and also gave jobs to the spouses of some of their employees, hiring them as clerks, drivers or security guards.

From a business point of view, their decisions were right on the money.

Until late spring, Bunny Nails was the only network of nail salons in Kiev.

Women in bomb shelters showed off their freshly painted nails and word of mouth worked better than any advertisement.

In a salon of Bunny Nails in Kiev
Inside a Bunny Nails salon in Kyiv (Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera)

For many clients, getting their nails, toenails or eyebrows done allowed them to feel carefree, well cared for and forget about the war for a while.

“My pretty nails defy the d***head,” said Tetiana Gritsenko, a 29-year-old housewife and mother of two, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“My nails are fine and my head is clear of these endless thoughts about the war, survival, future,” she said as she left a Bunny Nails salon.

The network was well ahead of rival salons that began to reopen and had to hire or bring back old staff, reestablish contacts with suppliers – and adjust to the new, harsh business climate in Kiev.

Last summer, Bunny Nails opened a sixth salon – during a relatively quiet season, after the Russians withdrew from the Kiev area and northern Ukraine and hundreds of thousands of Kievans returned home.

An economic nosedive

Before the war, small and medium-sized businesses accounted for three-fifths of the Ukrainian economy and two-fifths of tax revenues.

Unlike larger companies such as steel mills or agricultural holding companies, they were focused on domestic demand – and were already hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

And since Ukraine’s economy shrank by a third in the first year of the war, these companies were particularly hard hit.

The government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy introduced programs to support them through loans, simplified bureaucratic procedures and lower taxes.

But for analysts, that’s not enough.

“These programs are limited in nature – apart from the tax cuts – and therefore lack the growth factor,” said Kiev analyst Aleksey Kuschch.

Millions of Ukrainians lost their jobs or had their salaries cut, became internally displaced or left Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of men were called up.

The service industry was gutted, especially after Moscow began launching Iranian-made cruise missiles and drones in October to target critical infrastructure and residential areas.

Each air raid alarm drove potential customers away, while the attacks caused blackouts and power rationing, leaving entire districts without electricity and water for hours or days.

Survive the winter

Power generators save the situation: quick-thinking Alexey bought them eight days after the raids began.

Gas alone cost $5,000 a month during the winter, but each brightly lit parlor attracted people who stopped by to warm up, drink a cup of tea, and charge their cell phones and their children’s gadgets.

“You can’t translate it into money, but you can certainly translate it into the inspiration for the people who work for us, because they understand that they also have a social mission,” said Antonina.

Bunny Nails survived the darkest winter in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history and the owners are now thinking about expanding their business to Europe, where many of their former employees settled.

They say that Ukrainian manicure experts are more attentive to the artistic side of nail polish painting, to the small, time-consuming details that make their nails. excel work compared to what their European competitors are doing.

So, Antonina firmly believes that nail polish is “the resource, the service that we can export to other countries.”