Kiev, Ukraine You don’t usually expect to see a voodoo doll in a nail salon.
But here it lies, surrounded by bottles of nail polish in southwestern Kyiv – with a derogatory term for “Russian” handwritten on a white piece of cloth stitched to a motanka, a traditional Ukrainian rag doll.
Any visitor can put a pin in – and many do.
“Clients love it,” said Antonina Krolivets, who founded Bunny Nails, a network of nail salons in the Ukrainian capital, with her husband Alexey in 2014.
The place is jam-packed with clients chatting with their manicurists, as more women wait patiently on a bench. A Pixar cartoon is playing on a TV.
Everything here seems to be defying Russia’s aggression and the gloomy economic reality that has followed it.
But when the war broke out in February 2022, Antonina and Alexey were about to close all five Bunny Nails salons for good – and leave Ukraine with their three young children.
Tens of thousands of Russian troops and long columns of tanks were approaching the city from the occupied northern suburbs.
The earth-shaking thump of explosions forced people into bomb shelters or out of the city.
But then Antonina and Alexey realized that many of the 127 women in their employment were in dire straits – both financially and emotionally.
Some lived in the occupied suburbs and needed help to get out. Others were horrified by shelling and phoned 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 lived in rented apartments they could no longer pay for.
“We decided that the best we can do is to give jobs,” Antonina said.
After committing to stay, they temporarily settled in a house east of Kyiv – and turned their children’s fear into joy.
The basement served as a bomb shelter – and they left there all kinds of sweets.
So their children, aged two to eight – along with their friends’ kids who bunked in the house – couldn’t wait to dive underground, because each air raid siren heralded candy and chocolate.
“When are we going to hide? Let’s hide already!” Alexey recalled the children as saying.
“When they asked us about the explosions, we said it was our military hitting,” the Russians said.
By mid-March 2022, they reopened all five salons at what seemed like the worst possible time.
“It was scary, hard, but there was a feeling that you’re doing something, that you’re helping, that every day [the employees] can buy bread, they have a job,” Antonina said.
Public transportation barely functioned as armed servicemen and volunteers inspected every car at checkpoints that studded every street.
People emptied cash machines and supermarkets, and thousands of overloaded cars clogged the main roads leading south and west of Kyiv.
Meanwhile, displaced Ukrainians from newly occupied areas were pouring in.
One frigid day almost a year ago, Margarita Popova heard a deafening blast that shook her apartment building in Mariupol.
The shock wave tore off the tiles on the wall and damaged the door so badly that the 16-year-old high school student could not 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 ceaseless Russian shelling was killing hundreds daily.
Popova saw people covered in blood and running in the street, and thought the blast had killed her parents.
Luckily, they survived, and after a couple more weeks of living without electricity and heat and thawing snow for drinking water, the family decided to leave.
They barely got into an evacuation bus that drove past dead bodies strewn on the streets in front of bombed-out and burned-down buildings.
In several days, they arrived in the capital, Kyiv, with no jobs or a place to stay – while their apartment building half-burned as a cruise missile smashed its two top floors.
Popova was a certified manicurist – and applied for a part-time job at Bunny Nails.
On a sunny day in early April, she was trembling with excitement when she entered a spacious salon that looked like an oasis of pre-war life.
“It was a shock because many businesses closed down,” Popova said during a break between two clients.
For the first three weeks, she said she worked without days off – because the work helped her forget.
Against all odds
Within weeks after Bunny Nails reopened, more women applied for work.
“We thought that many were not qualified, but we should give them jobs anyway, just need to train them first,” Alexey said.
They started training sessions – and also gave jobs to some of their employees’ husbands, hiring them as administrators, drivers or guards.
From a business viewpoint, their decisions were right on the money.
Until late spring, Bunny Nails was the only network of nail salons operating in Kyiv.
Women in bomb shelters showed off their freshly painted nails and word of mouth worked better than any ads.
For many customers, getting their nails, toenails or eyebrows done allowed them to feel free and well looked after, and forget about the war for a while.
“My beautiful 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 free from these endless thoughts about the war, survival, future,” she said on the way out of a Bunny Nails salon.
The network was way ahead of competing salons that started reopening and had to hire new staff or get the old ones back, restore contacts with suppliers – and get used to Kyiv’s new, harsh business climate.
Last summer, Bunny Nails opened a sixth parlor – during a relatively calm season, after the Russians withdrew from around Kyiv and northern Ukraine, and hundreds of thousands of Kyivans returned home.
An economic nosedive
Before the war, small and medium-sized businesses accounted for three-fifths of Ukraine’s economy and two-fifths of its tax revenue.
Unlike larger companies such as steel plants or agriculture holdings, they were focused on domestic demand – and had already been hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
And as Ukraine’s economy shrank by a third in the war’s first year, these businesses were hit especially hard.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government introduced programs to support them through loans, simplified bureaucratic procedures and lower taxation.
But to analysts, that’s not enough.
“These programs are of limited character – apart from the tax cuts – and therefore lack the growth [factor],” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kuschch said.
Millions of Ukrainians lost their jobs or had their salaries decreased, became internally displaced or left Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of men have drafted.
The service industry was gutted – especially after Moscow started launching cruise missiles and Iranian-made drones in October to target critical infrastructure and residential areas.
Each air raid alert shooed potential customers away, while the attacks caused blackouts and power rationing, leaving entire districts without electricity and water for hours or days.
Surviving the winter
Power generators saved the situation: quick-thinking Alexey bought them eight days after the raids began.
The gas alone cost $5,000 a month during the winter, but each brightly-lit salon attracted people who dropped by to get warm, have a cup of tea and recharge their mobile phones and their children’s gadgets.
“You can’t translate it into money, but you can definitely translate it into the inspiration for the people working for us because they understand they also have a social mission,” Antonina said.
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 have settled.
They say that Ukrainian manicurists are more attentive to the art side of nail polishing, to the little, time-consuming details that make their work stand out in comparison with what their European competitors do.
So, Antonina is adamant that nail polishing “is the resource, the service we can export to other countries.”