How Gleb Kovalev’s Karma Became a Haven for Refugee Artists and Outsiders

This ad hoc art gallery, performance space and hub of connection is as much a place to hide as it is a place to hang out.

A man wearing a plaid flannel and a puffer vest holds his hands in front of his face
Gleb Kovalev, during a conversation with Adam Robb. Photo: Adam Robb

I found the courage to cover the war in Ukraine somewhere just outside of Copenhagen. The afternoon before my flight to Poland—there are no open airports in Ukraine—provided just enough time to tour the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art’s immersive retrospective of a decade of Pussy Riot. The show explored the feminist punk rock art collective’s journey, from their impromptu performance on the altar at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in 2012 to their rushing the field at the 2018 World Cup before slipping out of the country cloaked in the anonymity of delivery drivers.

The show was an inspiration but no fairy tale. They drew a stalemate: Pussy Riot’s arrests, trials and convictions were always followed by release, sure, but they couldn’t even eat at a McDonald’s without being assaulted, even spray painted, by one gang or another; they could only live as freely as being followed by security services allowed, until the women had no choice but to make their escape.

The Russian government hasn’t changed since their departure, but by sacrificing their citizenship, they’re now free to continue to make art and spread their gospel, put up a show in the free world at a world-class institution, and greet visitors with a life-sized video installation showing each balaclava-shrouded artist chugging a bottle of water, baring their sex and urinating on a portrait of Vladimir Putin without fear of reprisal.

The hope after escaping one’s homeland at a time of war or fleeing a dictatorship lies is that one will discover a community of like-minded individuals in exile, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found that same spirit of artistic rebellion not during my travels across Ukraine but upon my return to Warsaw. In a rambling nightclub and art space called Karma, Belarussian owner Gleb Kovalev has transformed the underside of the Poniatowski Bridge into Rick’s Cafe by way of CBGB’s—a punk rock dive and upstairs members club, complete with a tattoo parlor, vegan kitchen, art galleries and a concert floor, where at any given moment some displaced youth might take up the mic or challenge you to a game of Uno.

People mill about in an industrial looking space
Kovalev has transformed the underside of the Poniatowski Bridge into Rick’s Cafe by way of CBGB’s. Photo: Adam Robb

Warsaw is home to the third outpost of Karma Kovalev has opened in seven years, his two prior attempts having the bad luck of opening on the brink of revolution. Kovalev started his business in 2017, in Minsk, in his native Belarus, where the polyglot barman also worked as a foreign language instructor, and translator for visiting spirits brand ambassadors. When nationwide protests swept the country in August of 2020 in opposition to the dictator president Alexander Lukashenko seeking and winning a disputed sixth term in office, police violently cracked down on protestors, and those who had somewhere better to go fled the country.

Karma survived for so long in Minsk partly due to Kovalev’s marketing skills. ”We said we had the best rum and Coke, and people believed that,” he recalled, admitting that he finally did make an effort to back up the claim, infusing the rum with Zefir, a local apple-flavored marshmallow candy his father forced him to eat instead of chocolate. “When I was a kid, I thought it was disgusting, but with rum and Coke, people loved it.” The bar also carried on because, in retrospect, his investors were “hand-washing” money and stocking the well with liquor bought on the diplomatic market.

“I realized my partner and I were playing the role of owners,” Kovalev told me, and as the Lukashenko government came to oppose the fighting spirit Karma represented, serving as a heavy metal haven for dozens of Kovalev’s anarchist allies, artists and journalists seeking shelter from soldiers on the warpath, he knew he needed to walk away while he still could.

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“I was assaulted by riot police during the protests, and my business partner was dropped to his knees and beaten at the entrance of our bar,” Kovalev said, fearless but shaken; his tattooed face and jolting charm evoking a post-traumatic Post Malone that makes him unmissable as he navigates the bohemian crowd in Warsaw. “I’m proud that 90 percent of my team left the country because I can give interviews without worrying they will be put in jail, but I know if I go back I’ll be in jail forever.”

“I had to be realistic,” he added, “because Belarus will find a new dictator even after this one, that’s how they live, so I’m focused on the kids now. I tell them about my mental diseases, and they like me.”

Kovalev got a fresh start in neighboring Ukraine. He opened Karma 2.0 in Kyiv later in 2020, on his own terms, and his delinquent magnetism and bedouin aesthetics found a home steps away from internationally acclaimed speakeasy Parovoz and the luxury department store TSUM.

He found new partners for his bars by selling shares to friends and strangers who valued his radical politics, hospitality and transparency–including a Pakistani aristocrat, the women behind Lviv Vegan Kitchen, two chefs from Ukraine who supply free meals to refugees as well as vegan soldiers on the front line and Pavel Kozlov, the bassist for the Belarussian post-punk band Molchat Doma, whose music had gone viral on TikTok during Covid.

A woman wearing a leather jacket holds a glass of beer in an art gallery
The third iteration of Karma is a punk rock dive and upstairs members club, complete with tattoo parlor, vegan kitchen, art galleries and a concert floor Photo: Adam Robb

“Pavel drove me forty-nine hours out of Minsk to Kyiv,” Kovalev recalled. “When I saw how much his house in L.A. costs, I said, ‘You can afford to invest in my nightclub.’”

At the end of 2021, Kovalev had laid the groundwork to expand into neighboring Poland, though he never planned to start a new life there. But by the following February, the war was at his door.

“I left for Ukraine the first day of the war, and it took forty-nine hours in line just to cross the border,” Kovalev said. “I already had people here to set up the bar, and 100 days later, we opened on the first of June, 2022.”

Karma 3.0 was an instant hit. “We had 600 people here on a Wednesday and ran out of beer twice.”

At street level, Karma, nestled in a support column of the century-old Poniatowski Bridge, is a dive bar-cum-block party. The entrance is marked by the crowds milling between the pillars beneath string lights and a tarp. On my first visit, a couple manned a card table, selling cups of punch for charity at the front door while another played Uno. Opposite them, a spread of worn oriental rugs marked a makeshift stage floor, where Belarusian singer Ketevan Asratashvili, a recent arrival to Poland, via Kyiv, sang for the crowd around her, curled up with a microphone on a chintz sofa, beneath a graffiti portrait of John Lennon. Her melodies gave way to wails as she sang of love and loss and home.

A party under a bridge
Belarusian singer Ketevan Asratashvili performs at Karma. Photo: Adam Robb

The music wasn’t audible inside. The blacklighted beer-and-a-shot dive was rocking; its interior resembled a second home for a nomadic biker gang, but everyone here was warm, knowing no one who found their way here had an easy journey. High on the wall hangs a tribute to the Cross of St Euphrosyne, a thousand-year-old jeweled relic looted from Belarus during World War II. The blacklighted tribute was made for the bar by the Belarusian artist and designer Tasha Katsuba, who also made works in the upstairs members club.

Kovalev handed me a beer brewed by some local Warsaw punks before we wound up the grand outdoor staircase toward Karma’s private members’ club. He clarified that anyone can become a member for a fee, though language may still prove a social barrier. “Right now, it’s hard to let in someone who doesn’t speak Russian, Belarusian or Ukrainian, but it’s my dream to hire barbacks from the Middle East, to make the space more multicultural and to force people to speak English better.”

A maze of small curtained club rooms and galleries are furnished like the sets of a Wes Anderson movie, while a formal bar serves proper cocktails in delicate glassware. Kovalev describes it as a place to hide and a place to hang out.

A man in a trench coat smokes a cigarette under a bridge
Karma 3.0 was an instant hit. Photo: Adam Robb

On our way back downstairs, he stopped to marvel over this hub of outsider culture that’s grown well beyond recognizable faces but has so far faced little resistance.

“As long as no neighborhood grandma calls the cops, everything is legal,” Kovalev said with uneasy delight, wired by now to brace for the worst. “Police will never come for no reason because we pay our taxes—probably this is how capitalism works?”

Following my stateside return, I wondered whether many of the artists who sought freedom in Poland and the E.U., with aspirations to channel their creativity and calls for justice into careers, are finding an international audience for their work outside their immediate circles. It doesn’t happen overnight, I reasoned, but it does happen.

I didn’t take long to find an answer. Last month, I attended the New Art Dealers Alliance fair during Miami Art Week. Two galleries—Raster in Warsaw and eastcontemporary in Milan—shared a booth displaying new works by Ala Savashevich, a multidisciplinary artist who resettled in Poland after completing art school in Minsk in 2014.

Savashevich’s work focuses on the plight women face inside the home and out, as much from the patriarchy as from authoritarianism; at NADA, three new works, Ladies I, II and III, depicted defiant women finely crafted from straw marquetry, a technique popularized by prisoners during the Napoleonic wars. Here, there’s an unmissable modern touch; the women, menacing with traditional vessels and sickles, are all clad in balaclavas. Even when an artist can show her face, she never forgets those who cannot, whose interior lives even place them at risk.

Last month, Asratashvili, the singer I met at Karma, performed in a holiday special on BelSat, an opposition channel on Belarusian television. All the performers were Belarusian entertainers in exile. Despite the vibes, light jazz and Christmas lights, ugly sweaters and candy cane headbands, the show never made it onto the intended airwaves.

“The Lukashenko regime calls [BelSat] extremist, so of course it won’t be shown on TV there, but Belarusians can still watch this channel on YouTube. Although there is a danger there too: If the government arrests you, and finds you are a subscriber, they can put you in jail for that, too.”

 

How Gleb Kovalev’s Karma Became a Haven for Refugee Artists and Outsiders