Full-house in Kiev bar inspired by Russian propaganda

KIEV - The title of the menu, "Long live Junta", and its Hitler-like caricatures of Vladimir Putin are some of the more benign gags at a new bar in Kiev packed nightly with crowds.

Opened this month, the Karatel bar, whose name translates as "The Punisher", offers a tongue-in-cheek gastronomical take on all the main cliches of Russian propaganda about Ukraine's conflict with pro-Moscow separatists in the east.

The owners, some of them Ukrainian army veterans, offer a discount to active soldiers.

They say their black humour is harmless, and that it helps people affected by the conflict feel at ease.

But serving novelties such as the salmon "grilled separatist" and poultry-based "Berkut-grill" -- a reference to riot police accused of brutally dispersing pro-Western Maidan protesters last year -- the bar brazenly pushes the boundaries of political correctness.

As they enter Karatel, guests are asked to leave their handcuffed "slaves" at the door, in a nod to a claim in a Russian television report that Kiev gives two slaves to every soldier who fights against pro-Moscow rebels.

"All these funny things in the restaurant are inspired by fake stories used by Russia's misinformation campaign," cafe manager Igor Pylyavets said.

Pylyavets said he and his friends couldn't help but chuckle at Russia's designation of Ukrainian soldiers as "punishers" who aim to eviscerate east Ukraine's population.

"We laughed and that's how we decided to name the bar as such," he said.

Former nightclub director Pylyavets, 29, was drafted into Kiev's forces and was heavily injured last summer in Ilovaysk.

It was one of the most devastating battles for the Ukrainian army, and left a heavy psychological toll on the young man.

"I went on a drinking binge. It was so hard to forget everything I'd seen," he told AFP.

So he decided to set up a "place where people that went through war are comfortable".

'Always full'

The group of friends sought the expert help of French chef Andre Pettre, who believes the bar is a success because it appeals to people's curiosity.

"Since we opened, we're always full," said Pettre, 60, who had previously worked at the same address when it housed Claude Monet, a French restaurant. "We work and work."

The prices are average for Kiev, attracting clients of all walks of life.

One of the bands whose songs get played most here is Okean Elzy, which was very active during the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution and last year's Maidan protests.

The cream-coloured walls and fancy tablecloths are leftovers from the previous French theme.

Those aspects of the decor clash with new additions, like posters showing fighters of the nationalist Azov battalion and the army surplus T-shirts worn by the waiters.

Pettre compared the bar's dark, satirical humour to the style of French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

"We play a bit with the news," he said.

So far, the response has been mixed. Fair-haired Oksana Senienko, 29, said she was expecting the gags to be even more extreme.

"I came here because of the theme... The name of the bar is so interesting. But I thought it would be more (politically) charged," Senieko told AFP.

Nearby, a soldier who had to have his leg amputated after he was injured fighting in eastern Ukraine, came to Karatel because of the discount on offer.

In good spirits and accompanied by at least five of his friends, the soldier laughed as he enjoyed the night.

With the conflict in Donetsk and Lugansk dragging into its 14th month, many cafes now make references to the war and Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in March 2014.

But Karatel is the first Kiev bar to focus entirely on the theme of Ukraine's "anti-terrorist operation" in the east, said Pylyavets.

"Some people criticise us because they think it's not the right time to do it, during war," he said.

"But it is the right time. We are not attacking anyone and we don't stoke hatred. We are only laughing."

Some people disagree, and find the morbid humour off-putting.

"To name a bar The Punisher when there is real war going on, that shows cynicism and contempt to people who fight," said political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta Centre for Political Studies in Kiev.

"They don't have ethical boundaries," he said.