Kyiv residents are buying military gear

Paweł Pieniąźek from Kyiv – 02/23/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny

The capital’s military store has been under siege since the threat of another Russian attack began to loom over Ukraine.

It’s hard to squeeze between hangers and shelves in the late afternoon. Customers and curious people browse winter jackets (one was recently bought by the Minister of Defense, and earlier also by the Minister of the Interior), thermal underwear, shoes, helmets and food rations. They ask for bulletproof vests, ballistic plates and tactical first aid kits, but these disappear almost as soon as they arrive in the warehouse.

“The crowds are like in a supermarket before Christmas,” jokes the 41-year-old Volodymyr Rudenko, co-owner of the Abrams military store in Kyiv. “Every national crisis is immediately felt in the store.”

The relatively small shop has been under siege for about two weeks, when the threat of another invasion from Russia, ongoing for several months, reached its zenith. Employees—some of them veterans of the war in Donbas—work with those interested in military equipment. Abrams is more of a luxury store because it houses the world’s leading brands that more discerning customers usually reach for. Rudenko says that in addition to the usual customers, higher-ranking military who have been ready for war for eight years, that is, a lot of civilians have now appeared. Some people literally equip themselves from head to toe.

“We can’t keep up with orders. We import most of our items from abroad, mainly from the United States,” says Rudenko. As much as we’d like to, we can’t speed this up.

There are complications at every step—the falling price of the hryvnia against the dollar, logistical difficulties caused by the pandemic and problems at customs. As a result, delivery time has increased from two weeks to one and a half months.

Once only veterans, now also women. Who wants to buy a helmet today?

The store has been operating for over a decade. Rudenko and his business partner began to import various airsoft equipment, which is a team game with replicas of weapons that shoot plastic pellets. Initially, people slapped their heads and asked Rudenko what people are supposed to do with these expensive helmets that no one was going to buy. Two years after the opening of Abrams, protests began in Kyiv’s Maidan. It would happen that one day officers of the Berkut special militia unit, known for its brutality, would come shop, and on the next day protestors. They primarily bought wool socks to endure the winter days and nights. Rudenko was afraid that the two groups would run into each other and fight in the store.

In 2014, a war broke out in eastern Ukraine between separatists & Russia and Ukrainian forces, as a result of which over 13,000 people died. At that time the shop was swarmed by groups of boys with whom sponsors (including deputies of the city council or parliament) would come and buy everything they needed. Or alternately the families of people who joined volunteer battalions would come to buy equipment for their relatives. Eight years ago, the Ukrainian army had virtually no equipment—there was a lack of uniforms, shoes and even food. Rarely was someone aware of what they really needed.

“Back then, nobody asked about the protection class. They just wanted a vest, a helmet and they ran off,” says Rudenko.

Over the years, however, customers have figured it out. The military people who come to the store no longer want just anything. They ask about specific brands, NATO-standard first aid kits, expiry dates on medicine. They show up regularly to complete their equipment—their gloves are torn, they have lost their ballistic glasses—not buying everything from zero.

There are also more women from last year. If they used to come mainly to buy a gift for a boyfriend, now they want military clothes and equipment for their own use. That is why women’s items began to appear in Abrams. Sometimes couples even come and stock up together.

In February, however, it was not soldiers, but civilians who started to buy everything out. Rudenko talks about over a hundred-liter military bags. They were selling poorly, but when everyone started talking about go bags, where the most important things are to be packed and at the ready, they disappeared in a flash.

“I don’t always know if people know how to use the equipment they buy. Will they learn? I have no idea,” says Rudenko.

Another trend he has noticed among his customers is the need for neutral colors. He guesses, these are preparations for blending in during potential clashes in the cities, and for the enemy to have a more difficult time spotting a target.

We end the conversation when customers again filter in to the store. That day I travel to Kharkiv to see how the city, 40 km from the border, behind which one finds large groups of Russian troops, prepares for a possible threat.