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KYIV — Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Oleksandr Chyrva, a 33-year-old entrepreneur from the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, produced designer grills with his former classmate Oleksiy Suslin and business partner Timur Feizulaiev.
Now this trio of entrepreneurial dads are turning their metalworking know-how to bomb shelters. And they are starting at the high-end of the market, with designs that are meant to be as comfy as apartments, with Wi-Fi, fitted kitchens and bathrooms.
Kharkiv is only 40 kilometers from the border with Russia, and Chyrva has not left his pummeled front-line city since the first days of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault, even though Kharkiv was under daily bombardment.
“My then-pregnant wife refused to leave the city. And we did not know where to go. It was terrifying, but still in our district the shelling was less intense than on the outskirts,” Chyrva told POLITICO.
As Russians occupied most of the Kharkiv region at the outset of the war and were bombarding Kharkiv several times a day, the three former grill makers dreamed up a new business idea – personalized metal bomb shelters. These would not only provide protection but also the comforts and mod-cons of an apartment located three meters underground covered by a concrete slab.
Their start-up, Skhov (Shelter in Ukrainian), launched in April, a month after Chyrva’s wife gave birth to their second child.
The Russians were retreating from around Kyiv by then, but were still bombing Kharkiv daily. As fathers, Chyrva, Suslin, and Feizulaiev were very concerned about their families’ safety as the Russian army regularly targets residential buildings.
Although the Ukrainian government urges citizens to head to shelters during air raids, in reality most of the available shelters are simply subway stations, parking lots or basements.
“We went down to our house’s basement a couple of times just to realize that it is more dangerous to stay there than in our own corridor behind the double walls. If this old basement collapses, there will be no way out,” said Chyrva, who lives in an old building in the central district. “That’s how the idea came to us. If the house is old or new but there is no proper shelter, then you can dig deeper underground and be safe there.”
As the three partners were working out the Skhov idea with professional construction specialists, Chyrva saw his native Kharkiv changing.
“In the beginning, it seemed people disappeared from the city. Everyone was hiding, there were no cars. Stores were closed,” Chyrva recalled.
As Ukrainian troops started pushing Russians out of the wider Kharkiv region and liberated it from the invaders in autumn, life slowly returned, but it was still far from a safe place. “Now they are shelling us weekly, not daily as it was before,” Chyrva said.
He and his partners have been working on the first prototype of a compact bomb shelter at their private workshop.
Each Skhov shelter will have a ventilation system, autonomous power supply, and water reservoir. It will consist of a fully furnished kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom for a family of three people. The shelter can even have air conditioning and internet. All that will be hidden inside a compact solid metal compartment with two separate entrances.
“Our main goal was to put everything in a compact size which can be transported easily from our production house. The synergy of all life-support systems was the hardest thing to achieve,” Suslin said.
Kicking off at the luxury end, Skhov bomb shelters will cost 2.4 million hryvnia or €60,000. Suslin explains that the entrepreneurs created the priciest option first, but are soon planning to start work on more affordable offerings.
The Kharkiv dads are using their own funds to start a bomb shelter business. “We don’t want any investors as we know best what the end product should look like. We all have many kids, we are from the war zone, we know what we and others living in front-line cities need,” Suslin said.
Skhov’s founders claimed they placed a bet on comfort. As the shelters Ukrainians have to hide in during Russian missile strikes are mostly dark, cold, and depressing. “We want our shelter to feel like home,” Suslin said.
The Skhov creators are sure that, even after the end of the war, their business will still be relevant.
“We hope the war ends this year. However, our life has become so unpredictable. Today we have war, yesterday we had COVID, tomorrow we might get something else. Our neighbor [Russia] is also very unpredictable,” Suslin said.
And Skhov will be there for decades, Chyrva added. “A father builds an underground safe space for his children and grandchildren. And he is sure that his family will have reliable protection for many years.”