At Bessarabska ploshcha, the Ukrainian equivalent of Oxford Circus, the last remaining Lenin – a tall statue of the old guy in red marble – was playing to perfection the role of foreman.
With one hand clutching a lapel and the other resting on his hip, he couldn’t have looked happier as he watched over the labours of Kyiv’s assembled builders. All day long they dug, shoved and welded. They tore the place apart and gradually put it back together again, with attention to detail that included repainting every municipal rubbish bin.
Meanwhile, at the other end of vulitsya Kreshchatyk (think Fifth Avenue), they did the same to the even bigger territory of Independence Square, maydan Nezalezhnosti.
Major building work is not exactly new in Kyiv. In 1943, when the Red Army recaptured the city after two years of occupation by the Nazis, four out of ten buildings had been destroyed and more than 80 per cent of residents were homeless. Most of the rebuilding, then, went into drably efficient housing blocks in the suburbs, but Kyiv’s builders also tackled Kreshchatyk – widening it to accommodate May Day parades – and restored landmarks such as the neoclassical university building by Shevchenko Park.
UPDATE: 24 February 2022.
Today, Vladimir Putin sent Russian tanks into Ukraine, and I dug this travel story out of my archive. I think it’s fair to say that in the years since it was published, in November 2001, Ukraine had become much more democratic, and safer – that is, until today.
The latest project was to prepare the city for the celebrations marking ten years of Ukrainian independence. With less than a week to go, it was looking bad, so more and more workers were drafted in – including a contingent in military uniform – and somebody, somewhere took the decision that they must work through the night.
That’s how the team from Wallpaper*, driving back from one of the city’s liveliest clubs shortly before 4am, came to witness the ceremonial lowering into place of Kyiv’s most hotly anticipated landmark. There she was, the new statue of independent Ukraine, dressed in green folk dress, wobbling gently on to her 62-metre column, arms raised in triumph.
But is there really much to celebrate? Of all the countries that got rid of communist regimes around the same time, Ukraine has fared less impressively than most. Back in 1991, independence had seemed like such a good idea. Geography, for once, had played in Ukraine’s favour, bestowing upon it a substantial quantity of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons and a portion of the Black Sea fleet.
All of a sudden, Ukraine found itself the largest country located entirely in Europe. Many in the western part of the country entertained hopes of joining the European Union and Nato. But others, especially in the east, saw their future with Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The man who runs the country as president is the pro-Russian Leonid Kuchma. He was elected to office in July 1994, when inflation had already started to fall (from 10,000 per cent in 1993). By 1996, with inflation down to a mere 40 per cent, Kuchma introduced the long awaited national currency, the hryvnya and, in 1998, gross domestic product rose briefly. When the Russian rouble collapsed later that year, the hryvnya lost more than half its value.
Nevertheless, Kuchma won a second term of office in 1999 and Russia formally renounced territorial claims on Ukraine. In return for writing off part of Ukraine’s massive gas debts, Russia took a 20-year lease on the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, resolving the problem of where to station its share of the Black Sea fleet.
As in much of the former Soviet Union, Kyiv is run by the so-called oligarchs; that is, the people who run the country also own the infrastructure. It’s no great exaggeration to say that most Ukrainians consider capitalism to be banditry – because in Kyiv that’s more or less what it is. It takes six months and a lot of bribes to establish a company; most businesses currently in operation were established on this corrupt basis. The government did recently put in place a rudimentary criminal code, but only on condition that it could also push through ‘commercial’ laws, which independent observers have described as a licence for governors to profit.
Officials earn a pittance – even the prime minister takes home little more than $450 a month – which exposes them to tempting offers to raise more on the side. And owing to restrictions on the press – of which more shortly – those temptations are rarely revealed to the public.
Exceptionally, one former prime minister, Pavlo Lazarenko, was removed from office in 1997 and subsequently charged with embezzling $2million in state property and laundering more than $4million through Swiss banks. But as Kuchma said, soon after removing Lazarenko, ‘Show me a Ukrainian politician who is without sin. Let him cast the first stone.’
At the other end of the social scale, earning money on the side is a necessity, because public sector wages are massively in arrears. Miners and teachers have gone on strike, pilots’ wives have picketed airfields and others groups have threatened to poison rivers or terminate power supplies.
But the problem is still there. That’s why ordinary people routinely come to Kyiv to conduct some ad hoc capitalism of their own.
On shopping streets, such as Kreshchatyk or Kontraktova ploshcha, they set themselves up selling just about everything you really don’t need: breakdance lessons, soap for blowing bubbles, kittens, cold fried fish, muddy vegetables, cigarettes, half a dozen raw eggs, Teletubby knock-offs, Christian evangelism and the opportunity to weigh yourself (stand on some peasant’s bathroom scales for just 25 kopiykas). If they can’t find a space on the pavement, they might spread a blanket over the bonnet of their car, scattering Soviet-era medals, egg cups and old books to attract customers while they sit in the driver’s seat waiting.
To appreciate the gap between Ukraine’s rich and poor, you can do worse than consider their cars. The rich drive sleek limousines, with shaded windows and immaculate paintwork. Step into a taxi or private car, however, and chances are you’ll find a severely cracked windscreen and greasy, threadbare upholstery. Given the average income in this country, it’s a surprise that so many people can afford a car in the first place, not that they fall into disrepair. (On the subject of Ukrainian vehicles: the US military recently placed an order for some tanks, but the government in Kyiv declined to sell because the Americans only wanted them for target practice.)
In the press and on TV, the cause of Kyiv’s problems is addressed obliquely, if at all. On the city’s hippest station, Noviy Canal, the most popular programmes are a breakfast show, Padyom! (Wake up!), featuring flirty presenters Masha and Yura, and TelePuzeke (aka Teletubbies).
Taboo, hosted by Mykola Veresen on the rival channel One Plus One, does push boundaries. But as Veresen, who is accompanied at all times by a bodyguard, explains to me over coffee, the boundaries of what is acceptable in the Ukraine might appear tame elsewhere. To begin with, Taboo covered social issues – putting forward the pros and cons of cannabis, for example, and Veresen also did a programme in which he asked young women why they worked as prostitutes (because, they said, their mothers put them up to it).
Gradually, he brought in politics – asking viewers whether they were for or against oligarchs and shocking the entire nation by telling one politician he was not attractive to women. Another time, believe it or not, Veresen caused a sensation by putting a government minister up against a spokesman for the opposition.
Before you laugh, you should consider that Ukraine’s president Kuchma has been implicated in the murder of a well-known journalist. On tapes recorded by one of his assistants, who has subsequently taken asylum in the US, Kuchma is heard to order someone to ‘deal with’ Georgy Gongadze, whose headless body was found in a forest outside Kyiv. For what it’s worth, the international firm of investigators, Kroll Associates, has cast doubt on the authenticity of the tapes. But it remains the case that Kuchma’s opponents, including senior politicians, have been jailed, often for months, without charge.
My own experience of Kyiv’s forces of law and order took place in the shabby interrogation room at Dnipro metro station. Like other underground railways established under totalitarian regimes, Kyiv’s metro looks fantastic, if a little dim – to save money, every other light bulb is turned off. In many stations, the floor, walls and ceiling are all marble. At Dnipro, the ticket office has exquisite turquoise tiles. I made the mistake of capturing these on a digital camera.
Two officers appeared out of nowhere, wearing hats with fantastically wide brims. (Somewhere along the line, one imagines, metric measures were inadvertently converted to imperial.) They wagged their fingers and barked, ‘Nyet!’. Then they pointed to a door and marched me into a room. Though unable to speak their language, I sensed they wanted to know why I was taking pictures. Eventually establishing that we shared some knowledge of German, I tried to explain and offered to delete the image. But they weren’t interested in the pictures any more. Scowling more deeply than before, they asked suspiciously why I spoke German…
Once upon a time, Kyiv presided over one of the most powerful nations in Europe. But that was nearly 1,000 years ago. Since then, the city has learned a humbler role, as wave after wave of outsiders passed through to trade or wage war: Greeks, Huns, Khazars, Lithuanians, Magyars, Mongols, Ostrogoths, Poles, Sarmatians, Scythians, Slavs, Tatars, Turks and Varangians. (Ukraine, which currently borders seven states, takes its name from a word meaning borderland.) The most recent oppressors, of course, were Russian. As a direct result of Stalin’s farming know-how, as many as 7,000,000 Ukrainians died in the famine of 1932 to 1933. The population dropped so low that Stalin felt it expedient to ‘purge’ the people who carried out the census. Later that same decade, he purged the entire leadership of the Ukrainian Soviet and hundreds of thousands of others were tortured, murdered or deported.
Then, briefly, there were the Germans. Arriving in 1941, they killed or captured more than half a million Soviet troops at Kyiv in the process of taking the whole of Ukraine. At the death camp at Babyn Yar, in a Kyiv suburb, they killed more than 100,000 Jews and other minorities. Altogether, roughly 6,000,000 Ukrainians died in the war. Specifically because of these sufferings, Ukraine was granted a seat of its own in the new United Nations.
Stalin, deeply suspicious of Ukrainian nationalism, was less sympathetic. In 1946, he abolished the Ukrainian Catholic Church (which, typical of the Ukrainian tendency to look east and west at once, accepts the Roman Pope as its leader, but follows Orthodox forms of worship). For similar reasons, Stalin banned folk embroidery. He was too late to ban the Ukrainian language; the tsars had done that before him. Meanwhile, aspects of culture that had originated in Ukraine gradually came to be regarded as Russian: painted eggs, the later works of Chekhov and the dancing style perfected by Cossacks (from the kazak, meaning outlaw, adventurer or free person – a status attained occasionally even in Ukraine).
Consequently it’s not just outsiders who think of Ukrainians as, essentially, Russian. They do the same themselves. So much so, in fact, that you wonder at times whether they really did declare independence. Ten years later, incredibly, the national anthem remains ‘Ukraine is not dead yet’.
One part of Ukraine that very nearly did die lies just 60 miles north of Kyiv. Nine tonnes of radioactive material was spewed into the air when reactor four at Chernobyl blew up during the testing of a generator in 1986.
There was so much fallout – 90 times as much as in Hiroshima – that experts as far away as Sweden thought something must have gone wrong at one of their own installations until, days later, the Soviet government admitted what had happened. Only 31 people died in the actual explosion, but Ukrainians and their neighbours in Belarus haven’t stopped dying since. Of 600,000 ‘liquidators’ assigned to help clean up, nearly 170,000 have died or are suffering fatal diseases.
Even people who go nowhere near Chernobyl can be affected. On hot days in Kyiv, the sandy banks of the broad Dnipro river are thronging with sunbathers, many of whom are tempted to cool off in the river. Not something to be recommended, as nobody knows how much radioactive sediment has worked its way downstream. Still, today, more than 15 per cent of Ukraine’s national budget is devoted to the clean-up operation.
At the Chernobyl museum in Kyiv, you can watch footage of miners dashing in and out of the sarcophagus that encloses the reactor – wearing flimsy white outfits better suited to surgeons or ice-cream vendors. Other ‘highlights’ include photographs of the firefighters whose skin was ravaged just by getting close, and the preserved embryo of a pig, born not long afterwards, with eight legs.
Of course, not everything that happened under communism is to be regretted. The Soviet system provided genuine advantages for women; not just childcare, but also positions of influence (including a third of all parliamentary seats) and jobs in unlikely industries. You don’t see many female construction workers in New York and London, but in Kyiv there are plenty, including a woman in – I guess – her forties, with short black hair and floral-print dress, who operated the crane outside my tenth-floor hotel room window.
Younger women show little interest in that kind of work; for good and bad, they have other ways to exploit earning potential. At weekends, you can sit at a pavement cafe in the centre of town and watch an extraordinary promenade. Every so often, a smartly dressed, but otherwise unprepossessing, gentleman of middle age saunters past, chin up, eyes fixed on the middle distance, with a stunningly attractive woman, still in her teens, on either arm. It’s a remarkable sight, but difficult to interpret. Is the man so rich and powerful that girlfriends are willing to share his magnetic presence? Or is he a pimp, waiting for punters to approach him for pricing information?
Either way, it’s clear that, for straight men with much cash and few scruples, Kyiv’s the place to be. (The most prominent poster at Boryspil airport advertises the services of a company willing to help you get ‘your special lady’ a visa for the USA. For more information, it supplies a website, www.russianladies.com, which once again muddles the national identity.)
As well as special ladies, Kyiv boasts some fantastic artwork. In the Byzantine style, first imported by King Volodymyr, when he adopted Christianity in 988, there are many world-class icons. Soviet-era paintings by collectable names, such as Bohomazov, Murashko and Pymonenko, can be found at galleries in Kyiv’s Montmartre, Andriyivsky uzviz. Monumental statues and memorials – gigantic figures, male and female, striding bravely into the wind – hit this visitor from the west with force because there’s nothing like them back home.
For something entirely different in approach, consider the micro-miniatures at the Caves Monastery, created by Nikolai Siadristy, where there are sculptures so small they can only clearly be seen through a microscope (including a human hair that has been hollowed out into a kind of vase, with a tiny artificial rose plunged deep inside).
Then there’s the architecture: government buildings that terrify you by their sheer scale or playful public structures, such as the funicular at Poshtova ploshcha or the Hotel Salut, which resembles a pile of biscuit tins.
In the last three years or so, restaurants of every type have sprung up all over the city. (One of the best, patronised by Kyiv’s most powerful figures, is Suntory in the riverside district of Podil.) And a singular German, known only as Eric because his real name, Eckhardt, is considered hard to pronounce, has established several groovy nightspots. The latest, sampled by our team, is a cocktail bar beneath the Hotel Lybid, where drinks are served from a revolving counter in the middle of the room. It’s like a funfair ride: step off, cocktails in hand, and you find yourself amid an entirely new group of friends. But Eric’s best-known club is A1 Capone in Podil where, in accordance with the practice of Chicago speakeasies and the gangsterish ethos of modern Kyiv, tequila is served from the radiators.
Despite these attractions, Kyiv lures fewer visitors than it did ten years ago. These days, most newcomers are representatives of the Ukrainian diaspora or from former Soviet states here to do biznez. At my hotel, bringing thick clouds of cigarette smoke to the buffet, there was a huge group of tough-looking Armenians.
And it’s not just visitor numbers that have dropped; Ukraine’s population is shrinking, too. In Kyiv’s newspapers, stories about ‘illegal immigrants’ tend not, as in much of Europe, to be concerned about people sneaking in. No, they’re more likely to report that Ukrainians, perhaps unsatisfied by the changes effected in their country since independence, have neglected to secure the appropriate visas before getting the hell out of there.
First published 1 November 2001