Kiev does not skimp on opera or ballet, either. Standards such as Swan Lake and La Bohème are performed with regularity at the Taras Shevchenko Ukrainian National Opera House, a grand structure on Vladimirskaya considered one of the most prestigious in the former Soviet Union.
The day after my visit to Arena, I meet up with a friend named Aliona. We head to the Pioneer Ice Club, an indoor skating rink designed like a 1970's commissary. The staff here wear outfits that look as if they were left over from some failed Scandinavian attempt to host the Winter Games. After circling the ice a few times, we take a short walk to one of Kiev's landmarks: Pechersk Lavra monastery. The city is filled with such towering hallowed structures, including St. Michael's, St. Sophia, and St. Andrews.
It is overcast, but the gold-leafed domes of the Pechersk Lavra monastery have absorbed enough light through the clouds to brighten the afternoon with heavenly reflection. The monastery began in a cave in 1051, with monks living in a series of underground compartments. Over the centuries, it expanded across many acres with the building of several churches, and the complex is still surrounded by high fortress walls. The monastery has been destroyed many times, but it has always been rebuilt, an emblem of Kievan Rus and Orthodox tradition, and Aliona's feet are cold, she cries to me.
I send her home in one of the overpriced cabs that loiter cynically outside such places, then head down to the Dnieper, where the ice fishing is good. I shuffle onto the frozen surface, to find only a single fisherman remaining on the white expanse. He stares down into his little gap in the ice, but soon heads off, fishing gear bobbing in his hands. This is the Kiev that doesn't change.
The rest is up for grabs. My American friend who celebrated his marriage here five years ago chose to stick around, rather than take a cush job back home. Now he manages a sizable investment fund—foreign money drawn to Kiev since the Orange Revolution. This is the city's inevitable future: growth in every direction.
There's reason to celebrate, to toast the city itself. I had picked up a bottle of horilka on the way to the river, and the pepper vodka again burns my insides. Before me are the rolling hills of Kiev, Lavra and its shimmering Orthodox gold, the giant titanium statue honoring Soviet womanhood, and a curious band of orange sunlight ripping through what has been a long and constant cloud cover.
Brett Forrest is a writer based in Moscow.