Ukrainian war veteran Oleksii Kachko, 25. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.
Those who have been to war never truly leave it. Even in peace, the war is always there, like a chasing moon you can’t outrun. For some, the inescapability of war’s aftereffects leads to their destruction. For others, like Ukrainian veteran Oleksii Kachko, it leads to new heights they might not have otherwise achieved.
“My dream was never to be a soldier, and I never imagined there’d be a war in my country,” Kachko, 25, says as we share a coffee in the back office of one of his six Veterano coffee shops in Mariupol, a port city about 10 miles from the entrenched front lines where Ukrainian troops have weathered Russian rockets, artillery, and sniper shots since 2014.
“But war changed how I see life,” Kachko continues. “Before, I was just a normal guy. Now, I see that life is not black and white. I have so much experience now, and I understand that I have the power to change things and fix injustices. I feel different now. I feel important.”
It’s a rainy October night. And, as if on cue, the low rumble of thunder rolls in from outside. For a second, a dark thought crosses my mind.
Is that a storm of wind and rain we hear? Or, is it one of steel?
As if sensing my thoughts, Kachko says, “It’s very difficult to enjoy civilian life and have a normal psychological state with the war so close.
“But life goes on,” he adds.
Tall and lean with close-cropped, fair hair, Kachko wears a thin beard that traces his jawline — a popular style among many Ukrainian soldiers and veterans. On this day, we converse in Russian while Kachko’s fiancée, Christine Khancha, 21, is on hand to translate when my language skills fall short, as they often do.
“He’s always so excited by what he’s doing,” she says when Kachko steps away to take a phone call. “He’s very emotional about his work. It’s so cool to see when he’s smiling and so happy.”
Kachko returns and pours me a fresh cup of coffee and explains how he “caught the American dream” when he was kid.
“I’d fantasize about driving a Harley Davidson down a desert highway at sunset,” he says. “Now that I’m older, I understand that America isn’t paradise. But it’s still my dream to go there.”
Kachko is an undeniably affable and easy-going guy. But from time to time, his eyes narrow a touch and his cheek muscles flex, denoting a serious center to his outwardly laid-back demeanor. Like most young men and women who’ve spent the formative years of their youth in war, Kachko possesses a wisdom far exceeding his years.
“When I achieved what I wanted with my business, I understood that making money wasn’t everything and I wanted to grow more as a person,” he tells me, nodding with the words as if to make sure they find their target. “I really like the story of John McCain, and I’d like to leave a mark on history no less than him.”
After Russia invaded in 2014, there’s been a sea change in the way Ukrainians regard military service. Due to persistent Soviet stereotypes, before 2014 many saw a military career as a fallback plan for young men with no other options in life. Now, military service is a badge of honor. It’s not uncommon to see veterans still wearing items of military uniform with their civilian clothes. And across the country, veterans groups are spreading like wildfire. That evolution in thinking reflects a broader awakening of Ukrainians’ national pride, as well as a bolstered self-confidence in their country’s enduring independence from Russian overlordship.
“The status of Ukrainian veterans is much higher than it used to be,” Kachko says, adding that the culture of America’s post-9/11 generation of veterans has inspired many of his former comrades in arms to leverage their wartime experiences to achieve success in pursuit of what Kachko calls the “Ukrainian dream.”
“American veterans are a big influence and an example for veterans in Ukraine,” Kachko explains. “We are trying to do things like the Americans.”
An avowed fan of the parent company of Coffee or Die Magazine, Kachko wears a Black Rifle Coffee Company hoodie. In his car, he’s got one of the company’s baseball caps, as well as an American flag air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror.
Kachko describes Black Rifle Coffee Company CEO Evan Hafer and executive vice president Mat Best — both of whom are US military veterans — as “mega cool” guys, underscoring how their success stories spurred him to achieve his own “Ukrainian dream.”
“They inspired me a lot,” he says. “They are an example of a veteran business that formed the right image of a veteran. Unfortunately, in my country this isn’t always appreciated. But I want to change that.”
For many older Ukrainians, whose mindsets were shaped by life in the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet chaos of the 1990s, the ongoing war with Russia is the latest trial in a lifetime of hard times. For those older generations, it’s hard to believe things will get better.
When it comes to the country’s millennials, however, the Soviet Union is a secondhand memory. And they were too young to truly comprehend the perils of the 1990s, when law and order broke down and mobsters took over. Consequently, the younger generations retain an expectation that their lives will improve. They also wholeheartedly embrace Western culture.
Having turned their backs on Russia, most young Ukrainians now look toward Europe and America as blueprints for the kind of country in which they want to live. Many of them dress like hipsters and enjoy Western movies and music. They hang out in coffee shops and speak-easies. They prefer whiskey drinks and craft beer — leave the vodka for the parents, they say. They study English and can quote Hemingway and Bukowski as easily as Shevchenko and Bulgakov.
Perhaps most striking, especially to an American outsider who’s just barely old enough to remember the waning days of the Cold War, is the way Ukraine’s millennials talk about democracy and freedom. Their resolutely patriotic passion is reminiscent of the mood in the US in the days immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, when America was at its finest. Discussing their country’s war effort, many young Ukrainians have a matter-of-fact attitude toward service that often sounds like a line from an Ernie Pyle story.
“Russia invaded my country. What choice did I have? We were at war, and so I had to fight,” Kachko tells me. He smartly nods his head and adds: “It was my duty.”
As a teenager, Kachko wanted to be a computer programmer. But that life path was forever changed in the winter of 2013 to 2014 when pro-European street protests in the capital city of Kyiv escalated into a full-blown revolution to oust Ukraine’s pro-Russian president at that time, Viktor Yanukovych.
More than 100 Ukrainians died during the revolution — many gunned down by snipers during the uprising’s final days in February 2014. After Yanukovych’s ouster, Russia struck back, invading and seizing Ukraine’s Crimean territory the following March. Then Russian intelligence operatives and Spetsnaz (Special Forces) units orchestrated an irregular warfare invasion of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region that April.
In short order, Russia’s “hybrid” invasion was on the march, taking town after town in the Donbas. Across Ukraine, fears spread of all-out war. In Kyiv, local officials began stocking the city’s metro (which the Soviets dug extra deep during the Cold War to survive a US nuclear attack) with humanitarian supplies to serve as a shelter in case of a Russian bombardment.
At the time, Ukraine’s armed forces, which had been decimated by decades of corruption in the post-Soviet era, could only muster a few hundred combat-ready troops. So, to fill in where the government fell short, legions of civilian volunteers took up arms and joined ad hoc paramilitary units, mainly formed from protest groups active during the revolution, and set out for the Donbas with little or no training.
It was this grassroots, volunteer war effort — prosecuted by the will of the Ukrainian people, not government diktat — that ultimately turned the tide in Ukraine’s favor. By July 2014, just three months into the conflict, Ukraine’s cobbled-together armed forces had retaken 23 out of 36 districts previously under Russian control. It looked, briefly, like Ukraine might win the war and get back all the territory it had lost in the Donbas.
Then Russian regular forces outright invaded eastern Ukraine, and a sack on Mariupol looked imminent. Residents dug trenches, laid barbed wire, and constructed tank traps on the city’s outskirts. Soldiers trained old men and boys to fire Kalashnikovs and bazookas.
In Mariupol at that time, the sounds of tank shots and artillery reverberated through the streets. The people of the city, who weren’t yet used to the sounds of heavy weapons as they are today, wore their fears on their faces. The names of “Grozny” and “Stalingrad” were frequently invoked to predict what was soon to come. In a word, it felt apocalyptic.
A last-minute cease-fire in September 2014 froze the war along its current front lines, sparing Mariupol from disaster. And although a recent round of peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow have reduced the war’s level of violence to a mere shadow of what it once was, the fighting has never truly stopped. It’s now simply quarantined to a static, roughly 250-mile-long front line and fought according to the cease-fire’s rules — a long-range battle not unlike World War I trench warfare (albeit on a much smaller scale). Soldiers hardly ever see at whom they are shooting.
At some places, no man’s land can be several kilometers wide. At others, the Ukrainians and their enemies are close enough to shout insults at one another. It’s like two boxers agreeing to spar at half speed to save themselves for the big fight. And still, every so often in Mariupol, the war roars in the distance and rattles the earth like some Jurassic Park dinosaur, reminding citizens to not take their peaceful lives for granted.
After participating in Ukraine’s 2014 revolution in Kyiv, Kachko returned home to Mariupol. Not long after, when Russian-backed separatists briefly took over, Kachko joined a territorial defense battalion — a partisan force composed of civilian volunteers — and fought to liberate his hometown.
“I was inspired by the Maidan,” Kachko says, referring to Kyiv’s central square, the Maidan, which was the epicenter of the 2014 revolution. “After the Maidan, many of my friends went to war. And that inspired me to be a soldier.”
By June 2014, Mariupol was back under Ukrainian control. To this day, Mariupol’s former police station and City Hall remained burnt-out ruins, offering enduring evidence of the street-to-street fighting that took place more than six years ago.
As the fighting continued into 2015, Kachko joined a volunteer battalion and deployed to the front lines near the embattled beachfront town of Shyrokyne. Formerly a popular beach vacation spot, Shyrokyne sits on the Sea of Azov coastline just east of Mariupol, effectively marking the southern terminus of the front lines. Despite years of static trench warfare, neither side ever seriously attempted to outflank the other with an amphibious assault. So the fighting in Shyrokyne simply devolved into a daily indirect-fire slugfest.
The grinding trench war tested the Ukrainian soldiers’ grit and slowly eroded their civilian sensibilities. Sometimes in the night, enemy soldiers would get drunk and crawl up to the Ukrainian lines and challenge them to one-on-one, single combat duels to the death. Like ancient gladiators, or something.
That was the crucible into which Kachko plunged at the end of his teenage years. In some ways, there was never time for him to become a man before he became a soldier. Like a jump-cut in a film, he simply went straight from adolescence to war.
In December 2016, Kachko suffered hypothermia while serving in the trenches; it was so bad that doctors eventually had to remove part of one lung. His fighting days were over, but the war wasn’t. No longer able to serve, Kachko says he felt “lost.”
“Walking in Mariupol, I could hear the war, but it felt a million miles away,” Kachko explains. “After the war, I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I couldn’t find a job. I felt lost. It was very hard to restart normal life.”
Ultimately, a fellow veteran suggested that Kachko, who was then 22 years old, travel to Kyiv to meet up with members of the Veterano Group. Founded by a Ukrainian veteran named Leonid Ostaltsev, the Veterano Group is a branded franchise that has coffee shops and pizza joints across Ukraine.
“Our values immediately clicked,” Kachko says, describing his first meeting with Ostaltsev. “I knew I wanted to work for his organization.”
Similarly, Ostaltsev decided then and there that Kachko had the right stuff to be a successful businessman.
“Oleksii is a man who does things. He doesn’t only talk, he does,” Ostaltsev later says, recounting his first impression of Kachko. “And that’s why I liked him so much when we met for the first time. He was very young, and he came recommended as a very motivated guy, who will do the best he can, maybe even more. So, I knew he’d have success.”
To educate himself, Kachko took business classes offered by USAID, the American foreign aid and development assistance organization. And with a franchise agreement from Ostaltsev in hand, he used a government loan available to veterans to open his first Veterano coffee shop in August 2017.
Yet right out the gate, Kachko faced a dilemma. The Veterano brand celebrates Ukraine’s warriors with an overtly military motif, and he wasn’t sure how that would fly in Mariupol, where the war casts a constant shadow — occasionally with deadly consequences. Such as in January 2015, when a Russian rocket attack hit a civilian neighborhood, killing 29.
“Many civilians here have seen war,” Kachko tells me. “So I didn’t know how they’d react to all the guns and grenades and all that.”
For his company flair, Kachko ultimately ditched the guns and grenades and opted for a “war cat” holding a coffee mug. On his coffee cups, there’s a simple Veterano logo — a “V” flanked by two wings.
“We’ve subdued most of the military stuff to not draw any unwanted attention,” he says, adding that Russia’s operatives still lurk in the city’s shadows.
“We haven’t had much pushback,” he says. “Still, we should be careful.”
Now the proud owner of six Veterano coffee shops and a pizzeria, Kachko currently has 50 employees on his payroll, mostly refugees displaced by the war. He also employs several veterans but not out of any automatic or unconditional solidarity with his fellow former comrades in arms. Rather, Kachko tells me, “In my company, if you are a veteran, you should be the best and work the hardest. I hold veterans to a higher standard.”
During our meeting, I ask Kachko what was harder — going to war or starting a business. His response is decisive and immediate.
“Definitely opening a business,” he answers, adding: “In the war I followed orders. It was simple. The decisions I have to make here, running a business, are much tougher. But the main reason I’m a good businessman is because I went to war. It made me more driven.”
“He’s an example of how veterans should act after war,” Ostaltsev later says of Kachko. “But I understand that not everyone can do what Oleksii does. Because business, it’s not so simple. It’s about self-discipline, it’s about motivation […] it takes everything you have.”
Ukraine’s war veterans live under the specter of a conflict that hasn’t ended. That’s a challenge familiar to many American veterans from wars spanning the gamut from Iraq and Afghanistan to Vietnam. Ukraine’s veterans, however, live with the additional burden of knowing that they could hop on a train or get in a car and be back on the front lines of their war in a few hours if they wanted to. Plus, there’s always a chance the war could get worse and spread beyond its current geographical boundaries. Consequently, Ukraine’s war veterans are often reluctant to let down their guard and go on with normal life. After all, faith in enduring peace is hard to come by under the long shadow of Russia’s military threat.
“Many Ukrainian veterans who’ve returned home think it’s their duty to help the soldiers,” Kachko says. “They still want to help their brothers on the front lines. And we are ready to go back to war at any moment if something starts again on a large scale.”
For his part, Kachko is no stranger to the war zone, even if he’s not officially a soldier anymore. Twice a month he delivers pizzas and coffee to Ukrainian troops on the front lines. It’s all for free, paid for by donations from local civilians.
Kachko tells me he got the idea after watching an episode of the HBO miniseries Generation Kill in which US soldiers in Iraq order pizza delivery. He also remembers his own combat experiences and how badly he missed the trappings of normal life.
“When I was at war, I dreamt about pizza, sushi, and Snickers bars — I was so tired of porridge and canned food,” Kachko says.
Yet the Ukrainian war zone is a dangerous place, even if you’re only delivering pizzas. On his semimonthly delivery runs, Kachko has dodged Russian rockets and mortars, as well as sniper fire. Not to mention the ever-present threat of improvised explosive devices.
“It’s totally worth it,” Kachko insists. “It has a huge morale-boosting effect on the soldiers. It reminds them that they’re not alone and that they haven’t been forgotten.”
The COVID-19 lockdown shuttered Kachko’s businesses for three months. All locations are now back up and running, save one — he had to permanently close one of his pizzerias, leaving him with one exclusively takeout location.
Undeterred by the coronavirus-induced economic headwinds, however, Kachko has plans to open a new coffee shop in the Ukrainian city of Uman in the near future. He shows me a computer mock-up of the design on his smartphone. Leaning forward and speaking slowly for the benefit of my complete comprehension — and with a broad smile on his face — he proudly explains the concept.
“Oleksii’s success did not surprise me because I knew that he would do the best he could,” Ostaltsev says later. “And if you do the best you can, you’ll have results.”
Kachko is clearly passionate about his business career. And now he’s got a wedding to plan, too. But the war is always there, never quite willing to release its grip. Despite a recent lull in fighting, Kachko doesn’t think the war will end anytime soon. He particularly laments how the war has become an unequally shared burden in Ukrainian society. The soldiers fight and die in it, he says, while most of the rest of the country goes on about their normal lives, relatively unaffected.
“Now the mood in the army isn’t very good, and the population is tired of the war,” Kachko explains, the smile now faded from his face. “It’s very important for our soldiers to understand that there are still people who want to fight and not surrender and who want to support the army.”
Before we part, I ask Kachko about his future. He’s only 25, after all, and despite his swift and early success, he has a lot of life left to live. “Where do you go from here?” I ask.
Kachko listens to my question and thoughtfully nods as he formulates his response. Speaking slowly and clearly for my sake, he says his business success is a steppingstone to running for political office one day. The war for his country’s future is not only being fought on the nearby battlefields, he explains, but also in Kyiv’s government halls where a new generation of Ukrainians, innocent of memories of the Soviet past, who have come of age in war and revolution and have personally suffered for their freedom, will soon take charge and fulfill the promise of their country’s democratic dream at last.
“In the end, going to war made me a better man,” Kachko says, “and I’ve got a lot of big plans for my future.”