Kiev: A City in Transition
In the wake of the Orange Revolution, Ukraine’s capital is embracing Western ways—and investment dollars. Brett Forrest discovers a city in transition, with a burgeoning nightlife and an anything-goes mentality.
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.
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.
The kingdom of Kievan Rus thrived until 1240, when the Mongols sacked Kiev. The Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as the center of politics, drifted north to Moscow and Russia's Golden Ring; Kiev would never again hold such sway over the world.
There is plenty still standing to remind one of Kiev's medieval roots, such as the Andreevsky Spusk street market. This is set on a downward-spiraling street of the same name, which since ancient times has formed a direct route between Kiev's aristocratic upper town and Podol, the merchants' quarter. The street is packed with vendors selling the rare worthwhile souvenir—an artisanal jewelry box or czarist-era ruble notes—among the many trifles, such as a wooden mace and a busted Red Army watch.
To see how locals shop, there is Bessarabsky Market, in the city's center. Here, women in head scarves sell fruit, vegetables, caviar, fish, meat, sausage, honey, and flowers in a rotunda dating to 1912—the furious, and often loud, commercial activity monitored by a Lenin statue standing opposite. The shopping experience looks timeless, and yet what's being sold these days is a remarkable contrast to the sparse offerings during the Soviet era.
Also in Kiev's center, on Khreshchatik, the Passage complex and nearby Marki bazaar carry high-end Russian and Ukrainian fashion designers such as Alena Akhmadulina, NB Poustovit, and Olga Soldatova. These shops, which emerged after the Soviet collapse, are often filled with the girlfriends of rich young businessmen.
It's not hard to find a taxi in Kiev, as almost any Ukrainian in a cheap Russian Lada or Volga will stop and take you wherever you want to go, after haggling over the price. Without a working knowledge of Russian or Ukrainian—both of which are spoken here—it's impossible to avoid paying double. I flag down a car and cruise away from Andreevsky Spusk along the Dnieper, which flows southward past Kiev for 400 miles before emptying into the Black Sea. The Dnieper was once known as Slavutich, meaning "Slavic river." These days, slavutich is etched in cursive across the blue labels of Kiev's mainstay local beer, several tall glasses of which are landing on my table right now.
I'm in a restaurant called Khutorok, which my friends have assured me offers Kiev's most authentic Ukrainian dining experience. It's situated in a wooden houseboat docked on the Dnieper. The waitresses wear traditional Ukrainian peasant dress, ill-fitting and laced with colorful stitching, and look as if at any moment they will ditch the city and harvest what the good earth has yielded. Sitting around the table are many of Kiev's new power players—financiers, construction bosses, publishing magnates, Internet kingpins, and wildcatter Americans who arrived in the early days of the free market and who now rake in the spoils of their entrenched companies. Everyone is yelling and reaching across the table for meat—fist-sized chunks of grilled pork, chicken, and veal.
The meal has arrived in local crockery; and the food is savory and substantial, as is the way of the Ukrainian kitchen. In addition to the carnivore's delights, there is, of course, borscht, with thick dollops of sour cream floating on the beet broth. Also vareniki, the Ukrainian dumpling filled with potato, salmon, cherries, or meat and vegetables. And blini with black pyramids of sturgeon caviar—which is currently banned from export, giving the meal a whiff of the illicit. (I have often fielded questions about the "black market" in Kiev. My answer: You can buy anything here—a Hollywood movie before its theatrical release, a military escort, pirated computer software—all are a single phone call away.) Meanwhile, someone corrals a round of horilka, the Ukrainian national drink, which is vodka usually blended with honey and hot red pepper. It burns going down, and leaves a scalding aftertaste.
Khutorok aside, there are plenty of new restaurants popping up in Kiev these days, such as Belvedere, on Dneprovsky Spusk, which has a Continental menu and is frequented by the mayor of Kiev, Leonid Chernovetsky. Ikra, on Saksaganskogo, has excellent seafood, along with an oyster bar and a fine slogan: if it's fresher, it swims. For top-shelf Georgian, Kazbek is the place to go, and for French pastries and desserts, there is the Wolkonsky Patisserie & Café, in the Premier Palace Hotel. For a quiet few hours, decompress at Babuin, a bookstore, café, and bar on Bogdana Khmelnytskogo.
For a stiff drink, however, your best bet is the Balcony Bar at the new Hyatt Regency, on Tarasova, which looks upon the gold-leafed St. Sophia Cathedral and St. Michael's monastery, both completed in the 1050's. There is also Ryumka, which means "shot glass" in Russian, and the first floor at Arena City, on Basseynaya (across from Bessarabsky Market), which brews its own beer. For dancing along with your drinking, Barski has a terrace that affords great views of central Kiev. There is also Tsar Project, on European Square, a loud, cavernous club, and Privilege, on Parkovka, which resembles a Grecian-style theater.
Among the many new clubs, bars, and restaurants in Kiev, none is hotter than Decadence House. The café and club is black inside, an Art Deco chamber of discreet permissions. Beautiful women keep coming in, dressed to kill. The many candles and sugarplum-inspired chandeliers spill shadows across their fine features. Vyacheslav "Slava" Konstantinovsky, who co-owns Decadence with his twin brother, Alexander, tells me about a fight that broke out in the club a few weeks earlier where one of the combatants exited minus an ear.
With their shaved heads and compact builds, the Konstantinovsky brothers look like a duo of Yul Brynners. They came up through the Soviet sports apparatus as Greco-Roman wrestlers, and they're now connected to some very real power as board members of Kiev-Donbass, an influential Ukrainian real estate development firm. They opened Decadence four years ago, and the place now attracts a clientele willing to pay high prices for a night on the town. Tonight there are foreign capitalists, an ambassador or two, and several parliamentary deputies.
During the revolution, the Konstantinovsky brothers offered up Decadence as a place for Orange functionaries, and the club's televisions broadcast the mass street protests, the gathering army, the whole uncertainty of a political process in crisis. Slava waves it away. "We're not so interested in politics now," he says, his TV's now looping the Fashion TV channel. That confident wave is the upshot of the Orange Revolution. Three years ago there was a great fear that it would all come to a violent end, but now there's the belief that Ukraine, with its new political will and foreign investors spurring on growth, is on the path to positive social and economic reform.
Outside Decadence, a gypsy cab pulls up and I hop in. An elderly woman sits at the wheel, her voice hoarse with cheap come-ons. She is easily 65, and tells of prostitutes that may be had nearby. "Very clean," she says. "Very beautiful, all of them." In Kiev, the city's underbelly will ultimately confront you, as all manner of vice and excess is barely hidden beneath the surface. In some ways, Kiev today calls to mind Las Vegas during its early mob days, where civility, style, and good times could be found in a world of thugs, fast money, and endless parties.
The taxi lets me out at Koenig's Arena City, where a long line waits amid clouds of perfume and the unfunny faces of some serious money. Upstairs, the club's dance floor is charged with the cravings of those who save up their glib chatter for the weekends. The loudest laughter can be heard at the VIP table. Koenig is here, and he pours a drink for Darko Skulsky, who owns Ukraine's top movie and TV company, Radioaktive Film. Radioaktive produced Hatchet, one of last year's U.S. slasher movies, and has made hundreds of TV ads and music videos for markets throughout Europe. It's much cheaper to mount productions here than it is in, say, Berlin or Prague.
But that doesn't mean that taste runs cheap. Viktor Pinchuk, a steel billionaire and Ukraine's second-richest citizen, recently opened the Pinchuk Art Centre, on Krasnoarmeyskaya, a contemporary collection that includes pieces by Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Andreas Gursky, all three of whom attended the opening of an exhibition of their works at Pinchuk's gallery last fall. For Ukrainian art, there's the Kollektsia Museum, on Pankivskaya, and the RA Gallery, on Bogdana Khmelnytskogo.
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.
Delta and most European airlines fly to Kiev's Borispol Airport. T+L A-List travel agent Greg Tepper, of Exeter International (800/633-1008; exeterinternational.com), can arrange trips to the region.
When to Go
Kiev is magical in the summer—the city is filled with trees in bloom. It's the best time of year to take advantage of the many public squares.
Where to Stay
Hyatt Regency. Doubles from $680.
Premier Palace Hotel. Doubles from $324.
Radisson SAS Hotel. Doubles from $481.
Where to Eat
Decadence House. Dinner for two $100.
Khutorok Dinner for two $70.
What to Do
Pinchuk Art Centre 1/3-2A Ul. Krasnoarmey skaya-Basseynaya; 380-44/590-0858.