Karma bar owner Gleb Kovalev says it was never meant to be a 'travelling' bar

Refugees from Belarus find a home in a “traveling” bar

Karma bar owner Gleb Kovalev says he never thought of it as a mobile bar – Copyright AFP Wojtek RADWANSKI

Anna Maria Yakubek

A bar hidden under a bridge in the center of Warsaw is unlike any other. Over the years, Karma moved from Belarus to Ukraine and Poland, facing repression and war.

Along the way, the watering hole has become a home away from home, where tattooed young men drink beer, smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, and converse in their own language.

“This bar never wanted to be a mobile bar… It was just there to bring our community together,” said co-owner Gleb Kovalev, with a dark, unkempt beard and head-to-ankle tattoo.

“After things got a lot more political, we had to move and stay together,” the hyperactive 31-year-old told AFP over a hot dog, whiskey and Coke.

In 2020, the Belarusian regime brutally cracked down on historic protests.

More recently, the country has served as a springboard for an attack by its ally Russia on Ukraine.

The events have resulted in thousands of Belarusians and Ukrainians taking refuge in neighboring Poland, which is a vocal critic of both the regime in Minsk and the Kremlin.

Some of the new arrivals end up in Karma.

Kovalev, who speaks seven languages, sits in a makeshift living room on the sidewalk at the bar. There are a couple of armchairs, tattered carpet and potted plants.

It’s a weekday and the night is still young, but already about a dozen Belarusians are standing with drinks, their laughter mingling with traffic overhead.

“I’ve been to every Karma bar,” said Anton Lutsevich, a 3D artist from the central city of Bobruisk, noting familiar faces from the original location.

“Many of them are here now, many were in Kyiv… Karma is like a sitcom. You come here and you see the same characters,” the tall 23-year-old told AFP.

His friend Andrei Makarevich once drove him from the OMON to the Minsk cemetery.

“You know, your homeland is not a place, it is people from your country,” said Makarevich, a 27-year-old quality assurance engineer from the northeastern city of Vitebsk.

“So I feel at home here.”

– The police “smash faces” –

Karma first opened in the Belarusian capital at the end of 2017 as an art bar with music and free tattoos given away every Monday, a place for “parties,” as Kovalyov put it.

Then came August 9, 2020, when veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko cracked down on protests that erupted after accusations of electoral fraud for his sixth term.

“It was a night that changed everything in our lives… My bar was attacked by riot police,” Kovalev said.

“I was inside, hiding people, and I saw the police go out of control, just smashing faces,” he added.

“I was two meters from the arrest. So yes, I decided to leave absolutely.”

Kovalev opened another karma in the Ukrainian capital last year before having to pack his bags again after the Russian invasion.

The Warsaw edition of Karma has been running since June and attracts mainly Belarusians, but also Ukrainians, Russian oppositionists, other foreigners and occasionally Poles.

“Now this is a bar for migrants… We welcome everyone who shares our values,” Kovalev said.

“Like art, music, tattoos, a certain democracy and freedom that we didn’t have in the places we fled from, as well as peace.”

Alexey Chekonov, a regular, describes Karma as a safe place where “everyone will help you.”

“It is always happiness, always joy. It’s always fun here and everyone is beautiful,” the 32-year-old IT man told AFP.

– ‘Russian roulette’ –

Even though they are young and cheerful, many in the crowd have a traumatic story or two from home.

“I won’t go back because yes, I’m afraid,” said Veronika Lindorenko, 32, who wore white and carried flowers at women’s protests after the Belarusian elections.

“There is a high risk of being jailed since I was quite active and it’s like Russian roulette – you never know,” she said, firing her thumb and forefinger like a pistol.

The startup consultant has reason to be scared: she spent 10 days locked up after one tense run-in with the police, supporting striking factory workers in court.

“I don’t want to remember all this because it’s quite painful for me,” she told AFP.

Lindorenko left for Ukraine when she heard that those in power wanted to interview her — and then started again from scratch in Poland.

Kovalev has a theory that he is an immigrant.

“You know, it’s very hard to lose everything just the first time. Then the second time is fine. And the third,” he said.

“Now it will be even easier because there are so many people who have lost everything like me.

“You just have to come together and recreate it.”

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