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Kiev: A City in Transition

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Photo: John Kernick

Along a hilltop overlooking the Dnieper River in Kiev stands the Mother Homeland, a titanium statue of massive proportions. With her right hand she raises a sword, and with her left she holds a shield emblazoned with a hammer and sickle. The statue, in the shape of a robed goddess, is absurd, a grand gesture of the fallen Soviet system that has yet to be replaced by anything as grotesquely magnificent.

I found myself at the base of this statue on my first trip to the Ukrainian capital, in 2002. I had flown in for a friend's wedding, and I couldn't take my eyes off the monument, its myth and history confounding me. I swallowed champagne with the rest of the reception crowd as we waited for the bride, a Ukrainian model turned photographer, to appear with her American financier husband. Having climbed the statue from within, the couple poked out from the top of the shield high in the sky. The two then unfurled enormous American and Ukrainian flags, obscuring the hammer and sickle, before releasing clutches of doves into the air. Here was a gesture of another kind altogether—a moment that encapsulated the new Kiev, where Western influences and Slavic traditions have united to transform this ancient city.

Kiev has undergone furious change since that wedding day, and during my subsequent visits, I've been able to witness the transition. The fundamental event behind the city's development occurred in late 2004, when pro-democracy citizens staged a mass street protest against electoral fraud. The Orange Revolution awakened political hope where before there was only the dread of power, and ushered Western-leaning Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency. Political consensus has been difficult to muster in the ensuing three years, but the hope for significant legislative reform and social change exists nevertheless.

The overall restructuring of life here has led many people to believe that Kiev—and all of Ukraine, with its 47 million citizens—is on the verge of breaking out of its dull, post-Soviet mold and becoming something altogether new and uplifting, part of the so-called "new Europe." The adjustment in the general attitude has not escaped the notice of international investors. From the beginning of national independence in 1992, until 2004, direct foreign investment in Ukraine totaled just $5.6 billion. But in the three years since Yushchenko's ascendancy, that number has ballooned to $20 billion. Hyatt and Radisson hotels have arrived in Kiev, along with the flagship stores of most major fashion brands and carmakers. Newcomers now jockey for position with local oligarchs whose cushy relations with the old apparatchiks had until recently afforded them a stranglehold on commerce.

The spawn of Ukrainian émigrés who fled Communism have also been showing up, and while exploring their roots they've transplanted values and skills learned in Western democracies—how to conduct business aboveboard, how not to intimidate rivals out of existence, how to deal with a newly free press. This mix of people and manners presents a strange new model of commerce—with rules of engagement altering by the week—in a city whose people are known for their ability to make anything happen for the right price, be it wealthy residents renting the entire botanical garden for their own use or hiring the national ballet for a weekend party at their dacha.

To anyone who favors real progress, Kiev's democratic leanings can only be positive. But now that the Ukrainian state has dropped visa requirements for Western travelers in an effort to drum up business and draw closer to the West, Kiev stands one EasyJet route away from becoming another perfectly polished tourist site of ancient churches and digestible prices. Fortunately there is still time to catch Kiev with a proper mix of old and new, as the energy of recent arrivals mingles with that of natives who still see the world through a Soviet lens.

If it's orange, it's Kiev. In few places is a single color so loaded with meaning. Ever since Yushchenko's political coalition chose orange as its official color, it has gone forth into the country as the emblem of reform. On a cold afternoon in midwinter, tangerine banners stream down one of Kiev's many hills, carried by marchers spilling onto European Square in the town center. Because Yushchenko has dissolved his cabinet a few times and rival parliamentary factions are frequently calling for elections, street demonstrations happen with great regularity.

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