“This café welcomes those who love Ukrainian culture, those who love Tatar culture, and those who really, really, really hate Putin,” smiles Erfan Kudus, the owner of Yalta café in Kyiv.

Kyiv has several other Crimean Tatar cafes, but none brags a collection of war souvenirs, taken off the Russian soldiers killed attempting to invade Ukraine, like the one that adorns this restaurant’s bathroom.

“It’s a bathroom – you can keep things like that there,” continues the café owner, pointing out that the sunny café’s overall vibe is cheery and upbeat. The walls, lined with dozens of paintings, emphasize the beauty of the (temporarily Russian-occupied) Ukrainian territory of Crimea.

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“I used to have an art gallery,” laments the 55-year-old. Making ends meet vending art is a hard gig to break into and the physical location of the gallery has now been replaced by a Facebook outlet.

Surprisingly, given his palpable passion for Crimea and deep love of Ukraine, Kudus is not in fact from Crimea, nor indeed from Ukraine. Like many of his generation, he was born in central Asia.

Along with all Crimean Tatars, roughly 200,000 of them, Kudus’ family was deported by Joseph Stalin on May 18, 1944. The café reflects the influence of several decades of forced exile.

Though some of the food, such as Chibereks and yantiks, is undoubtedly Crimean Tatar, Kudus explains that how he learned to prepare other dishes during his time in Central Asia.

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“If you had lived for 45 years in China, you’d also learn how to make some Chinese dishes! We have a blend of several types of Central Asian dishes in our café.”

The first-floor acts as an art gallery for those keen to learn more about Ukrainian, Crimea Tatar art.

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Kudus’ father was the first to return to his native lands – the ones from which he was deported at the age of two – arriving in Crimea in 1989. Kudus followed his father in 1991 upon completing university. Over the years, Kudus worked in several different businesses, and around 2013-2014 he was manager of a Kyiv-based company while his family remained in Crimea.

“When you are [part of the] management of a company, like I was then, you need to give orders in the morning, check how things are going, but then you are pretty free.” This allowed Kudus to spend hours of his time at the Maidan protests of 2013-2014.

Carrying “the largest Tatar flag on the Maidan,” spanning a whopping five meters, Kudus called others to take part in the protests via social media posts.

Being publicly vocal, according to Kudus, is why he was forced to evacuate his family from Crimea when the Russian occupation began.

“We caught the very last train from Simferopol to Kyiv,” he recalls.

Arriving in Kyiv with his wife and four children, ranging in age from two to ten, Kudus’ friends initially assured him that the Russians would “leave” Crimea in a few weeks or months, leading the family to bide time, bouncing around the capital itinerantly.

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Realizing that the Russians were not going to go anywhere soon, Kudus struggled while trying his hand at art before starting-up the café to support his family, hoping that it would ease his anxieties.

“Can you imagine what it’s like to borrow money, invest all of your time and savings into a café, then COVID strikes?”

After the disastrous “lockdown period,” COVID-19 restrictions slowly began to be lifted, reinvigorating Kudus, who recalls that “It seemed that ‘now we are back on track!’”

“And then, can you imagine that the Russians started the full-scale invasion of Ukraine”? Kudus reflects.

Fortunately, his family was abroad when the full-scale invasion began, first living in a rural Swedish village, then in temporary housing, then on a cruise ship rented by the UK Government, before being invited to live in Scotland. “The Scots are really good guys,” Kudus asserts.

In those shaky early days of the full-scale invasion, Kudus says he was issued an automatic rifle but was eventually assigned to man a 27-story lookout tower along with retired NBA star Slava Mediniko and another friend.

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“We could see the rockets fly past us. If anything had hit us, we would have been destroyed,” Kudus says.

Once the attack was repelled from the Kyiv region, Kudus returned to managing his café, but remains active in several activities to support Ukraine’s troops – something evidenced by the many gifts, from various soldier-friends, displayed in the café.

Despite its small size, Kudus is keen to point out that the café has hosted “ambassadors of the UK, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and others, the Vice Speaker of the Polish Sejm, and Ihor Solovey who heads STRATCOM.”

Reviewing his Facebook friends is like a Who’s Who of democratic opposition movements across the former Soviet Union.

The café owner indicates that it is certainly hard to predict what will happen next in Ukraine, however his faith has not been shaken from one core tenant:  

“Russia will be defeated. Ukraine will win. Crimea is Ukraine.”

Café Yalta, featuring a taste of Crimea, is open 11:00 – 21:00, seven days a week and is located at 20 vul. Chykalenko (formerly 20 vul. Pushkinska). Yalta can be reached at +380635946368 and the owner, Erfan Kudus, on +380505946368, or via the Facebook page.

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