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Kiev: A City in Transition

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Photo: John Kernick

I've returned to Kiev to gauge the speed and effect of change. Reminders of the past are everywhere, whether it's the concrete-slab, Brezhnev-era architecture or the odd hammer-and-sickle insignia that catches a first-time visitor's eye. This time, the snow falls on the many middle-aged marchers who have lived through decades of upheaval and privation. That's just how it's been in Kiev, stability remaining as elusive as a prolonged stretch of good weather. I am taking it all in when a Mercedes jeep stops in front of me. A door clicks open and a voice inside commands: "Get in."

I have known Robert Koenig for five years. He is one of my Kiev friends, and a better friend in Kiev would be hard to find. His vast local connections are surpassed only by his generosity. Koenig, from Bethesda, Maryland, was a part of the first wave of Western developers to arrive in Kiev a dozen years ago. He worked in-country for Pepsi for a few years before realizing the vast opportunity inherent in a new market economy led by people with no capitalist experience. Koenig now owns a Ukrainian real estate development company, Black Sea Investment Group, which has brought many Western brands to the country—Mont Blanc, Dunhill, Tumi, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Piaget, among others. He also owns restaurants, nightclubs, casinos, family entertainment centers, and a fast-food empire.

"I just took the American model and adapted it to Ukrainian tastes," Koenig says, as his driver steers us down Khreshchatik, Kiev's stately answer to New York's Fifth Avenue. "It's been bumpy. You had to understand that this was a brand-new country. So you couldn't expect the same things that you get in the West. For example, when I first started coming to Ukraine from America, I'd bring an entire suitcase full of food. But I don't need to do that anymore. They're trying to adopt whatever's in Western Europe and America, and bring it here as quickly as possible."

Koenig's car passes through Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, the heart of the city, a great open space of granite government buildings and mercantile centers, with an oversize globe and golden idols huddled around a 5,000-jet fountain called the Friendship of Nations. It was here, in 1990, that students staged a hunger strike that spurred the end of the Communist Party in Ukraine. It was also here that the Orange Revolution played out in 2004, thousands of protesters hunkering down for weeks in harsh winter conditions as speakers rallied them from a makeshift dais.

Koenig watches the square roll past his tinted windows. "Prior to the revolution, Ukraine was a bandit society," he says. "The authorities would push you around. If you supported the other side, suddenly the tax inspector would come see you, the fire inspector would come see you. Now there's not as much stress. You're allowed to take sides without any fear of repercussion. You can walk the streets free."

We continue on through the city. There are roughly 3 million residents here, the Dnieper splitting the cosmopolitan Right Bank from the suburban Left Bank. Koenig has a business meeting, so he hops out at Arena City, his four-story entertainment complex—restaurant, casino, sports bar, and nightclub. But he loans me his car and driver, and I continue on through the cobblestoned inner city, its winding, tree-stuffed neighborhood streets a mix of new apartment towers and unrenovated Soviet-era housing blocks. After ascending several bending embankments, the car turns onto Vladimirskaya, a main artery named for Kiev's central historical figure. The son of a washerwoman, Vladimir I was a Norse warrior who took Kiev by treachery and fratricide in the year 980. The kingdom was then known as Kievan Rus, the Rus appellation courtesy of a Scandinavian tribe that conquered the area and established Kiev as the first capital of the Slavs.

An unrepentant barbarian, Vladimir had 800 concubines and engaged in human sacrifice, or so it is said. If anything, Vladimir serves as a lesson that everything eventually gets old. Because having grown tired of all the wild behavior, he eventually baptized his entire kingdom, connecting Kievan Rus with the Western world and qualifying for eventual sainthood in the process.

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