“None of the locals go here. The view is nice, but it’s too expensive,” said my friend from Kiev. Drink prices were triple, make that quadruple, what they were compared to my late afternoon beer near the city centre.
I slid the door open and stepped out into the harsh, cold night air; it was below zero degrees celsius, and I was standing on the rooftop of a posh Kiev local spy haunt. The view of the city and river was incredible but the icy air gave me BUD/S flashbacks and I was back inside within a few minutes. Inside, it was warm, but the scene was too weird. An Arab to my right was flanked by three prostitutes. To my left were two diplomats with English accents, and they looked like they were also sampling the local talent. I was on the dimly lit rooftop of the Intercontinental Hotel’s “b hush”.
You see, every city with an embassy has their spy bar hangouts. Wait one, it’s not what you’re thinking. I’m not talking about some bar where a clandestine meet-up takes place between some hot-looking Bond girl of a foreign asset and CIA case officer. These type of bars are where the case officers, analysts, and support staff go to drink when they get bored of pumping free drinks into foreign guests at the embassy or CIA base bar. It’s the kind of place they feel safe, however, it’s prime picking for any savvy enemy intelligence agent who has a network for local hookers and is prepared to buy information. More on that later.
Photo: Local Kiev drinking establishment. Author’s personal collection, all rights reserved.
It’s mostly Ukrainian and Russian spoken around Kiev tonight. During my spy bar hiatus later in my trip, I would find myself in an odd mix of the Queen’s English, American, French, and German speakers.
I had booked my ticket to Kiev in New York a few weeks back because one of our writers, Buck Clay, was having difficulty transferring video files to Nick Cahill, our media director. Buck was cruising the Ukrainian countryside reporting for SOFREP and trying to upload his video files from anywhere he could pirate a WiFi hotspot. It wasn’t working out very well.
“Screw it, I’ll meet you in Kiev for a hand-off. I’ve always wanted to go, anyway. How’s the 24th?” I asked.
“The 24th until when?” Buck emailed back.
“Three or four days?”
“That should work,” Buck said.
Buck would end up getting an invite to Switzerland and then he was off to Romania with the crazy idea to do a SOFREP Halloween post from communist Transylvania. Yes, it does exist, folks.
“Picture of post and tracking number enclosed. Likely the end of this week. We will figure out the Romania footage when I get home. Here’s the list of spy bars,” was his last transmission.
Buck and I had planned to hand off the video footage and then spend a night together bouncing through the spy bars of Kiev, but now I was on a solo mission, armed with a few local contacts Buck passed my way.
Every city that houses foreign embassies has their local covert spy haunts, and Buck had managed to get the full list for Kiev. That list was now in my possession and I had a non-refundable ticket to Kiev, Ukraine. To hell with it, I thought. Kiev was on my list of cities to see, and how much trouble could a former Navy SEAL get into in the capital of Ukraine?
The flight over from New York on Lufthansa was pleasant enough. After landing in Germany, I passed through European Union customs, then transferred planes in Munich for the short two-hour hop to Kiev. Kiev was far from the fighting in the east, but it was the birthplace of Ukrainian revolution and no stranger to violence. Anything could happen.
On final approach, the frosted windows of the Airbus reminded me that winter had definitely arrived in the 1500-year-old city. It was a good thing I packed my warmies. We have a couple cold-weather sayings in the SEAL teams: “Cotton kills,” and “Pack light, freeze at night.” I’ve been in enough cold, dark places to know that there’s no substitute for a good down jacket and a few pairs of wool shirts and socks. Anyone who has visited an Eastern Bloc country knows that there’s a reason Hitler’s army got its ass kicked in World War II: The combination of Russian resolve and their brutal winters is deadly.
I said, “Dobroho ranku” in my best Ukrainian to the woman scrutinizing my passport. She looked up at me briefly, annoyed, and then, WHOMP! She slammed down the stamp on my passport, and I was in. To be honest, I sighed in relief. But before I could get too comfortable, she gave me a blank stare that said I better get a move-on before she sent me to a secondary that would make an American TSA agent blush. I wasted no time getting the hell on with myself.
A friend from Kiev met me outside baggage claim and we sped off into the main city center of Kiev in his black VW diesel. He was not concerned with the Volkswagen software emission scandal, apparently; Ukraine has looser emission standards than the People’s Republic of California. Also worth noting: In Ukraine, seat belts are frowned upon. I went to buckle up and noticed the plastic seat belt hack—a small device inserted into the main buckle receiver that fooled the onboard alarm. I removed it and clicked in, and 20 minutes later we arrived at a small flat I’d rented. I personally prefer online rentals over hotel rooms and the prying eyes of staff, not to mention it’s common for Eastern European intelligence agencies to bug and monitor local hotels. In this part of the country, most anything goes.
I grabbed a quick, hot shower—about a minute-and-a-half quick once the small water heater ran its course—and finished my rinse cycle with ice-cold water. It was like Ukraine was reminding me that I was not in Kansas anymore. Note to self: I’m never bitching about my fucked-up New York shower heating system again. Once the goose bumps receded back to wherever goose bumps come from, I went over the list of bars that Buck gave me (below). These aren’t all of them, but most of them are listed.
Photo: Kiev at night, courtesy author’s collection, all rights reserved.
The Spy Bars of Kiev
- Irish Golden Gate Pub
- Vodka Bar
- T.G.I Friday’s (seriously)
- Hilton Kyiv H Bar
- Tarasa Shevchenko
- B Hush
- Velyka Zhytomyrska
- Old School Bar
- Mala Zhytomyrska
I wouldn’t likely end up sharing a martini with James Bond, maybe a sloppy diplomat or two, but it was shaping up to be an interesting night. I’d only end up hitting three bars (sorry guys, my liver isn’t what it used to be!) but, I discovered another bar entirely by accident another night out.
I was in Kiev, after all, and anything could happen. Have a look at part two…
This article previously published by SOFREP 11.03.2015