Yulia Vyalova with her husband Sacha
Normal that is, inasmuch as circumstances allowed Vyalova and her charges to do their job, staffing the 155 PrivatBank branches around Luhansk after war had erupted three months earlier across this industrial city of 500,000, just 40 kilometres from the Russian frontier.
With neighbouring Donestk, the Moscow-leaning ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ had wrenched itself from Ukraine in April, exploiting the chaos of Kiev’s pro-Europe ‘Maidan’ revolution, and then Moscow’s seizure of Crimea.
The clashes between separatists and the Ukrainian military unnerved Yulia, as did the mines laid around besieged Luhanks that occasionally exploded, sometimes only metres from PrivatBank’s office.
Through the conflict, banking somehow went on, the sanguine Vyalova, PrivatBank’s deputy regional director, stoically adjusting to the new reality, determined to keep PrivatBank operating in this disputed no-man’s land.
She’d subdued a potential run on the bank, deploying a calmness finessed during her 18 years at PrivatBank. And the thugs that showed up in branches, jostling customers and intimidating staff, were kept at bay by highly visible security guards.
Branches had been firebombed, ATMs pulled from walls and a succession of PrivatBank armoured cars had been turned over, but the ever-optimistic Yulia felt these incidents were more to do with punks than partisans.
As she tells Euromoney: “I was 100% certain” that the Ukrainian military would restore things to normal.
That was until July 7.
A 55-year-old grandmother and IT specialist, Yulia arrived at work that Monday for a 9am meeting with the regional director. She remembers feeling uneasy on the way to work. “I had put on trousers,” she recalls. “I don’t know why. I never usually wear trousers. Maybe I did it from instinct just in case I had to run.”
At 1pm, she was in her office when in burst an armed man in ragtag military fatigues, the unmistakable separatists’ uniform.
“He had all kinds of guns and weapons,” she remembers. “A sniper rifle, hand grenades. I asked him: ‘Do you think I have a gun under my table?’” She laughs now, two years on, but at the time it was terrifying. Luhansk had fizzed in past months with stories of brutality from its occupiers. Her first thought was that she would be tortured, or worse.
Thirty rebels had stormed the bank. What struck Yulia was how fast, how professional their seizure was. She suspects that the gang was FSB, the feared Russian security forces, or at the very least orchestrated by Russian specialists. “They had come from the Russian side of the border,” she insists.
The raiders rounded up PrivatBank staff and corralled them at gunpoint into a meeting room. Yulia was marched to the boss’ office, the regional general manager, along with 12 senior colleagues, one of them heavily pregnant.
The gang demanded to see the bank’s database, details of PrivatBank customers, the whereabouts of money. “They thought they were seizing the entire bank,” she scoffs. “They didn’t understand that it was a branch, and that the data was stored on computers in (PrivatBank’s head office in) Dnipropetrovsk.”
If they didn’t offer up information, they were threatened with getting their legs shot at the knees. There was a vault on the first floor but the director had long previously sent its contents outside the contested region. He’d also disabled the server connecting head office to his eastern network.
After eight hours, the hostages were bundled into cars and taken to a hotel under separatist control. Yulia was held there for three days; nine colleagues for another nine days and were released only when international pressure built after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 nearby.
Once freed, Yulia quietly toured the branch network, severing and isolating servers. She and husband Sacha packed up what they could of their family home and fled south to Mariupol, a steel city that had also fallen to separatists but was retaken by the national army and militias loyal to PrivatBank’s Igor Kolomoisky.
“We were working to the last possible moment in Luhansk,” Yulia says. She refused an offer to relocate to head office, or to accept trauma counselling after her ordeal.
Two of the hostages stayed on in Luhansk. One of them, her former deputy, now runs what remains of PrivatBank’s former branch network, reconstituted as the barely functioning ‘People’s Bank’ of the unrecognized – even by Moscow – ‘Luhansk People’s Republic.’ “He calls sometimes to say hi and tries to contact me on social networks,” she says. “I think he betrayed us.”
She returned to Luhansk a last time in October 2014, collecting winter clothes and their cat, then abandoning her apartment.
Was she paid extra money for her ordeal? “Nyet,” she says emphatically, laughing. But she adds that staff working in branches within a kilometre or two of the frontier to the occupied ‘republics,’ or as Yulia put it “within grenade range” to what Kiev calls the Anti-Terrorist Operational buffer zones, are paid a 50% loading – danger money – on their salaries.
PrivatBank had wanted to close its branch networks in the ATO zones but Yulia says the mayors of the host villages had requested PrivatBank keep its doors open.
“If I had to face the same circumstances that I faced in Luhansk, I wouldn’t do things any different,” she says
“I am optimistic. I am faithful to my clients. I am responsible for their savings. A true banker should be faithful to the people. Of course there is politics, but we are a service and we must serve our clients.”