This was not my first time in Kyiv. This visit was going to be different, though; I would be staying for a month in Kyiv with the idea of really getting a good feel for the city by experiencing everyday life there.
I arrived in Kyiv-Boryspil from Berlin and took a cab to my temporary home. The ride into town was familiar, but the last time I drove on those wide boulevards lined with gigantic residential buildings was in winter, when the ground and the sky were almost the same color.
My home for the month was an apartment on the 13th floor of a massive tower by the Shulyavska metro station (thanks, Lara!). There are two other towers of the exact shape and size right here, though I don’t think they were built as a statement or to represent any kind of groundbreaking architectonic concept but to cut costs. This district is called Solom’yanski Raion—popularly known as Los Solomas.
“Oh, so you live by the invisible bridge?” I heard that question a number of times. The apartment is on Vadyma Hetmana St., where the invisible bridge is still being built. Its construction has been going on for so long that people speak of the bridge as an illusion. However, the city seems to want to finally finish it and has crews working round the clock in true Stakhanovite fashion—which unfortunately meant jackhammering through the night right below my window.
I found my routine living in Kyiv. I’d wake up, get ready for work (though I worked in the kitchen), go out to get a cappuccino at Lucky Coffee, a small stand right outside my building by one of the countless underpasses of the city, where the barista, a young guy named Vadim, always greeted me with a handshake. Twice a week after work I would take the metro at Shulyavska to Palats Ukraina (transferring from the red to the blue line at Khreshchatyk) and go to my boxing gym.
Armed with my camera, I visited districts I had never been to before. One of the absolute highlights came on the first weekend after my arrival, when my friends in the band Sectorial invited me to a rehearsal in the town of Boyarka. And by the way, if you’re into Metal definitely do check them out!
Why did Kyiv keep me interested and why do I feel so at home there?
First of all, the city is very interesting in terms of architecture: Kyiv suffered heavily during World War Two. However, what was not preserved from the pre-war years, such as the historic neighborhood of Podil, was not reconstructed (unlike in other former cities such as Riga) but built anew in a Socialist style (more like in the case of Minsk).
The buildings in the city center along Khreshchatyk Street are imposing giants built in the style of Socialist Realism and really resemble the ones on Karl-Marx-Allee in (East) Berlin. Outside of the city center, avenues are lined with “Khrushchjovkas,” small apartment buildings of three to five stories. And of course there are bizarre jewels such as the National Library and the Institute of Information.
Another side of Kyiv looks toward the future in a borderline sci-fi manner, with its glass facades and oddly-shaped towers of gargantuan dimensions. There are quarters that embody the failure of corruption, such as the area of Vozdvyzhenka with its empty luxury buildings, and others that are microcosms in their own right such as the microraions (commonly known as sleeping districts) on the left bank of the Dnepr River.
What stands out immediately are the dimensions of everything in Kyiv: The city’s boulevards, buildings and metro stations are massive.
Identity and history are more present in Kyiv than in other major cities I’ve been to, particularly in Western Europe. One of the first things that I noticed in Kyiv was just how popular folklore is; traditional music and clothes are not a rare sight, which really reminds me a lot of Mexico. Good luck trying to find anything similar in Germany!
This revival of traditions also took place in other former Soviet Republics after independence, especially in the Baltics, where they also became almost-mainstream after independence. However, as I came to find out through conversations with locals, this is rather a post-Maidan development—at least in the capital.
When I was in Kyiv in July, the metro was full of pictures of women clad in the traditional clothes of different cities/regions of Ukraine: Donetsk, Zaporizhia, L’viv, Kherson, Crimea, etc… Then I realized that, even though the pictures where in spaces designated for advertising, they were not selling any products but simply showcasing Ukraine’s rich culture. In the metro itself there were videos about Ukraine’s history and its ties to Europe. In short, this all was intended to drive a point home: Ukraine is a nation—a European nation.
A Ukrainian friend once told me that many Ukrainians feel pressured to make the most out of their time because changes can be very sudden in a country as unpredictable as theirs. I got the impression that my friend’s theory perfectly applied to the city: Kyiv is a city in motion where things are constantly changing.
Kyiv has multiple faces and personalities that often clash and pull in different directions yet somehow harmonize: the concrete, the golden domes, the street art. After all, it’s the combination of all the individual parts that make the city, as a whole, what it is. Add to that a history as convoluted as it is brutal and you have a city with textures and layers like no other; of strong identities and differing ideas of how to deal with the past.
But it’s the character of the city that fascinates me most: It’s youthful, creative and free yet aware of its struggles. Kyiv is a city of juxtapositions in terms of language, architecture and history, where different myths coexist—one inherited from Soviet times, and another extending to the early days of Kyivan Rus. And there’s modern European Ukraine, with the Revolution of Dignity at the center of its galaxy. Kyiv is a dynamic city that moves forward in the right direction but carries a lot of baggage—which is probably the main reason why I find it so interesting.
As I’ve observed throughout my travels in Ukraine, what applies in Kyiv does not apply to the rest of the country as a whole, but when thinking of the differences between Western and Eastern Ukraine, Kyiv is a good middle ground.
I found the experience of spending a longer stay in Kyiv very refreshing. The city kept me interested, whether through Soviet mosaics or colorful street art. It was my fourth time in Ukraine and, just like every other time, I didn’t have a single bad experience and left the country with new friends.
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