We continue exploring the ways of moving your business into exile in our new series of articles for “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow”
We’ve met with Gleb Kovalyov to talk about ‘Karma’ bars and ethical business
“Karma Crew” is a popular brand. Share a bit about yourself for those who haven’t heard about you?
Currently and right from the start, ‘Karma’ throws parties where you can just walk in without paying and enjoy a free bar.
Me, Gleb Kovalev, and my regular partner Sasha Kachan launched the ‘Karma’ brand originally, so we’re the founders. Sasha is now over in Gdansk, working on our project based there.
Think of ‘Karma’ as a cool social club. We’ve got these small bars all over the place that may look different but are all about keeping it chill, open-minded, and totally welcoming to all sorts of subcultures.
We are a casual, friendly, and easy-going community where everyone knows each other well and is more about soaking in experiences rather than pushing sales. So it’s all about vibes, social interaction, and embracing modern culture.
The ‘Karma’ brand creates its own scene. Immigrants from Belarus just keep coming to Poland, linking up with Karma, and meanwhile, we try to engage with locals and the Ukrainian community here in Poland.
We won’t come back to Belarus anytime soon. And it’s not just about the change of the current president. We’re not buying the idea that if someone else takes over tomorrow (for instance, another member of Lukashenka’s clan), suddenly it’s all good and everyone’s rushing back to Belarus. Nope, that’s just a naive childish view. The entire messed-up system should be ruined in its entirety.
Why’d you go with the name ‘Karma’?
It’s actually a pretty simple story. Back in 2016, we were hanging out at someone’s place, and the name ‘Karma’ just popped up in conversation. It kinda stuck from there. We threw our first ‘Karma’ party late in ’16, and the name just worked. And now, it’s everywhere, you know? There are coffee shops all over the world called Karma. So the name just stuck and that’s it. No crazy backstory or anything.
We even tried to change it at one point, but nah, we decided to keep it. People recognize it, especially among emigrants. So, ‘Karma’ is still ‘Karma.’
Honestly, I don’t buy into some mystical meaning behind the word ‘Karma.’ If you do something good, you expect good vibes in return from the people or environment you’ve been good to. If you mess up, you don’t get a brick falling on your head from the sky all of a sudden, but just get some totally fair pushback from the folks you were wrong to. Simple as that.
At the moment, we’re primarily called ‘Karma Crew.’ It’s kind of a community around ‘Karma’. The word has been thrown around so much that it has taken on a bunch of meanings now. So it’s pretty hard to outline a clear concept. ‘Karma Crew’ basically means we have a lot of friends. Our community is pretty big and we all know each other well.
Sasha and I sort of own this bar brand, but it has already grown way beyond just us. We’ve got about 30 partners who co-own the ‘Karma’ bars these days. Like, the bar in Warsaw has 11 co-owners, and the Gdansk-based bar has around 10, I think? Something like that. Some people co-own a couple of bars, while others are only in one, and they can interact with each other if needed. Not all of them know each other but we’re trying to make those connections happen. And it turns out to be pretty much of a social business.
I’m tryna say we’re all about the idealistic stuff, but the idea does matter. Social connections matter. Money, well, it comes second.
So, you recently opened up bars in Gdansk and Warsaw. What can people expect from these new spots?
We kicked off those two around the same time. Sasha and I had this goofy bet, you know, like a joke – whoever opens a bar first gets the fanciest bottle of non-alcoholic beer. I ended up winning.
There are many reasons for that. I was thinking of moving to Warsaw for quite a while. Plus, there’s a lot more of our folks around here. So, it just made more sense to set up a bar here.
In Warsaw, we took up a project that wasn’t doing so well and turned it into Karma in just about a hundred days. Gdansk, on the other hand, was a bit tougher. Guys basically started from scratch – no sanitary inspections, no license. It was a bit of a challenge for them
‘Karma Warszawa’ is like an art bar, with casual parties, simple food and drinks, and people gathering around the bar stand all the time. Gdansk venue is more sophisticated. It’s an artsy gallery bar right in the heart of the old town, with fancy vegan cuisine, thanks to our brand chef. Unlike ‘Karma Warszawa’, this one is all about contemporary art and some more complex meals. While ‘Karma Warszawa’ is one endless party.
You’ve opened bars in Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland. How’s the bar scene different across these countries?
The difference is huge! The bureaucratic hurdles, the chaos, and all the stress in Belarus before the elections, plus Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, there’s just nothing like it anywhere else. We rented premises while we were still dealing with paperwork and construction. And the process was long and painful that we’ve lost plenty of money for rent thanks to state bureaucracy. Maybe we were a bit green at the time, but dealing with the state agencies is just a whole different kind of headache.
In Ukraine before the war, things were way smoother. Everything is designed for the business to fit into the business structure quickly and easily. It was simpler and felt cheaper since all the processes took way less time. You just pay money and boom, things get moving, no waiting around.
Kyiv’s a powerhouse. There’s fierce competition on all fronts. It’s all about who’s got the slickest concept and execution. Sometimes it even gets a bit absurd. You’ve heard about those “contract” police raids, right? It’s when a business kind of “hires” police to prosecute a competitor’s business. Total mess, I would say. I’m hoping things will improve after the war, especially in that regard. All my Ukrainian pals admit there’s such a flaw.
As for Poland, people here are much less motivated, the competition’s not as cutthroat, and everyone’s more chill. You won’t solve anything at 4 PM on a Friday until Monday.
Right now, we’re kind of in our own emigrant bubble. We’re not really in direct competition with anyone but rather got our own corner. That doesn’t mean we don’t welcome locals or Western Europeans. But for now, we exist a bit apart from the local industry, let’s say. Slowly and quietly trying to blend in.
In Kyiv, things moved quickly. We had no language barrier back then, no major cultural gaps, just little differences – like the extent of freedom and willingness to express opinions openly.
When it comes to bar culture, we’re tryna break free from the norm. We’re all about the experience, the process rather than product. I mean, we can sell one type of beer and a gin and tonic, and that’s it. That means, I want my bar culture to be about culture first, and then the bar.
What’s up with these bars now?
The Belarus spot, unfortunately, had to shut down. That place had a bunch of problems. The biggie was the people who invested in it. One of them has quit completely and the other went full dictator mode – always paranoid, trying to accuse someone of stealing or some shady business.
But the thing is, he just couldn’t face facts. The country was completely f*cked, in a total economic and social crisis like a neverending downward spiral of nothing but revenue drop, falling profits, the fall of everything, basically.
That’s 50% of the story of why we’ve closed the Minsk-based bar. The other 50%? The war, of course. Paying taxes to a country that backed the invasion of Ukraine? This thought alone could drive me crazy. Our team wanted to keep things running a bit longer, which I get. I’m sorry if they were relying on this job, but it was the only possible decision.
The Kyiv bar still works, chugging along at zero profit. But it pays salaries and raises funds for the Ukrainian army. That’s a big win. We were about to close ‘Karma Kyiv’ a few times and I was thinking about giving up on it myself. But our team, especially our partner Sasha Gaikovich, held down the fort in Kyiv, almost solo. Without those people, nothing would’ve happened. And now ‘Karma Kyiv’ looks exactly how we envisioned it originally.
The bars in Warsaw and Gdansk are up and running, as you can see.
We heard there are franchises and projects that operate both in Belarus and abroad since the war started. Can you tell us about that?
Well, our emigrant community kinda splits when it comes to the new businesses emerging. There are those tied to Belarus only emotionally and those who still have business there. And that brings up a pretty big ethical dilemma. Some want to keep their businesses going in Belarus, no matter how tough things are now. But they don’t actually want to live there. They want a calm easy life somewhere else.
And here’s the kicker – so you think you can pay taxes in the aggressor state, do your business “legally” there, and still live it up in Poland? How ethical is it to run a business in an occupied country and enjoy life in free Europe?
Looks like an attempt to sit on both chairs. But the thing is that it’s impossible. You gotta make a choice either to stay and do business in Belarus or move to Poland and shut down your business in Belarus.
This isn’t just my personal opinion, it’s the team’s and the wider Karma community’s stance. Ask any Ukrainian who hangs out in our bar. Their response might be less polite. I can’t really say anything to those who’ve stayed put in Belarus. But if you decide to move, then please move. Even McDonald’s packed up and left the place.
My homeland is basically in the clutches of fascists – fighter jets taking off, missiles flying, troops invading. Meanwhile, you can still run your business in that country, hit up parties, and dine in swanky restaurants. Live somewhere else where there’s no political persecution and war while passively supporting the murderous regime that involved the country in the war and takes its people captive. Do I get this right?
Honestly, it’s super irresponsible to back the regime but pretend you don’t. That’s simply about dodging responsibility and that’s not gonna work. Today, everyone needs to have a thought-out stance and valid arguments. Such projects will just fizzle out in the long run. A product that’s missing an emotional spark can’t really compete in the market, especially in the bar scene.
I get it, there are reasons for staying in Belarus: founders, debts, staff. But if you’re puffing cigars and sipping martinis here, in Warsaw, while earning money and paying taxes there, in Belarus, then what’s the point?
Any entertainment thing in Russia and Belarus now legitimizes those bloody regimes.