It took me two weeks to work out what was wrong with Kiev and that’s because, on the surface of it, there’s nothing particularly wrong with it at all. Eventually I came to realise that all was not as it should be.
Strolling its boulevards and broad streets, the European will feel at home amongst the grand 19th century architecture, after all this was an era when Tsarist Russia was so enamoured by life to their west that French was the language of its court. To Britons Ukraine may seem a strange and distant place but with borders on Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, it is only the years behind the Iron Curtain which have shaded its undoubted European heritage. If anything there’s a bravery to the choice of paint colours for these buildings with their classical motifs that would be deemed too vivid for many Parisians or Romans.
Even the years of communism have done little to dull the bourgeoise stylings it so despised. Little in the way of concrete monstrosities blight the avenues and besides, the communists were never averse to planting trees, many of the neglected Soviet era apartment blocks are at least comfortably shrouded by a profusion of mature trees. As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union all those decades of atheism did nothing to dim the light of religion, which now shines again from the golden domes of the Orthodox Christian churches and monasteries which embrace the steady streams of pilgrims.
The evolution of design was not a sudden departure with the old on the arrival of Lenin, so plenty of structures exhibit the stops on the way from the classical to the modern, such that portions of the city tend to morph into others rather than halt at emphatic statements of stone and concrete. The multitude of ever-increasing, modern tower blocks, although as always, not works of great beauty, demonstrate enough attention to detail to prove that their design was not simply a function of lowest common denominator economics.
So much of the basis for Ukraine being in the news in recent years is all about this contrast of European vs Russian, such that you’d expect both sides to be at each other’s throats hurling abuse and rhetorical molotovs at each other. But, like the buildings, the people, with a few exceptions of course, straddle both sides of the cultural line and see little clash of civilisations, it is only the purely political dimension that ignites the flames of discontent. Any rash ideas of marginalizing the Russian language after the Maidan protests were destined for unequivocal failure as it is widely spoken and many speakers of Ukrainian are fairly familiar with it, if not bilingual. Russian music, films and books are all part of the cultural landscape.
It is here where we start to see that Kiev is not what it ought to be. For a country at war, emerging from a revolutionary inspired coup, being used as a media battleground between the world’s mightiest military regimes, it’s just so unbelievably calm. You could almost be forgiven for thinking that Kiani (Ukrainian for Kiev’s inhabitants) are a bit boring before you realise they have had two revolutions in a decade, even the French have not managed that! Call them many things but boring is not one of them. Even at rush hour on the metro there is just a shuffling serenity and measured voices, no one charging up one side of the escalator, anxious to escape the depths, despite it being the world’s deepest. The contrast with London’s underground system is dramatic, mind you if Londoners were paying only 12p for a journey they might be a bit more chilled out than with the wage sapping rates they are used to.
I have yet to hear a shout of anger in the streets and that’s even with a system that tolerates street drinking, where even some grocery stalls sell draught beer and vodka costs a pittance. The evening air should be filled with drunken obscenities and slurred threats but instead there is amiable chatter to the serenade of buskers.
For the majority of us who havent lived through a revolution it’s easy to romanticise its intensity and giddy highs, without the crushing gloom of the dozens of deaths that came with it and the elation of victory, only to be followed by the loss of Crimea and war in the east, uprooting 2 million with a current death toll of over 6000. For many it simply becomes impossible to remain actively engaged in events with its daily psychological demands, so some retreat into their shell, others cloak themselves in patriotism but either way you have to get on with daily life. Underneath the calm, anxieties bubble as the unresolved threat of events in the east backed by Russia’s military might leave a dark aura of uncertainty over life.
Kiev is also addicted to coffee, you can barely walk more than 200m without bumping into a vendor of the black stuff. There’s even a fleet of vans with espresso machines in to fill any gaps in the market, three of them regularly congregated near my hostel, despite there being two cafes nearby, such is the demand for a caffeine hit. The locals ought to be more wired than ravers in an amphetamine factory but life plods at its gentle pace. What is it with these people?
Outside of Switzerland and Ashgabat in Turkemenistan, where cleanliness is encouraged at gun point, you would be hard pressed to find a capital cleaner than Kiev. Not because an army of sweepers patrol the roads, in fact you see very few, but Ukrainians obviously take pride in their surroundings and don’t regard crossing the road to put something in the bin as a deplorable waste of effort. In fact the general air of orderliness extends to other factors. You will see chisel jawed patriots in combat fatigues wait obediently at pedestrian crossings with the old ladies, patiently waiting for permission to cross from the flashing green man, despite their being nothing resembling even a pram in terms of a wheeled vehicle in sight.
The economy may be crumbling but the country does produce a significant surplus of one much in demand commodity: attractive ladies. Downtown Kiev is very much a showroom for the goods on offer and should you have problems obtaining one on your own, a number of agencies are available to help you procure a wife. Given the aforementioned surplus even the chances for someone such as myself of negotiating some sordid action are significantly raised up to at least almost hopeless. Alas my noble inability to pretend to show some inclination towards marriage stifles my chances of sampling the goods. However, for any men amongst you in the market, let me assure you that you could do a lot worse than Kiev if you are considering such a business trip. The exception being for those who have a preference for some fat booty. While pigs fat and cheese may form a significant part of the diet, none of it collects around the waist, at least until they reach an age of 50 or so, when some expansion may occur. Western beauticians need to look into the wonders of the diet as the expanse of blemish free, tanned skin on offer is ample proof for its effectiveness The sight of flat bellied mums with kids in tow, looking like they’ve just stepped out of a modelling assignment is a common one but there’s plenty more unaccounted for when the lure of a nice EU visa is dangled as bait.
If you are thinking that this paints these delightful creatures as shameless hussies you will be sorely disappointed. Women may be unashamed to flaunt their sexuality and I’ve seen bigger knickers than some of the shorts on display here but there’s not a hint of sluttiness, only an understated style. For the ladies looking for something in the Ukrainian male department, you may struggle to find shy and sensitive types but if you are in the mood for some rippling biceps in para-military chic you will have come to the right place.
As strangers we will never truly get close to the heart of Kiev but what ever you do, don’t take it for granted.