Past and Present Clash in Kiev

A man playing a traditional folk instrument called a bandura.
A man playing a traditional folk instrument called a bandura.

I was born on the tail-end of an empire. On my birth certificate it reads USSR, back when Ukraine was still a state of the Soviet Union. I spent the first few years of my life in a “kommunalka” in Kiev — the collective vision of the soviet era distilled into the tight living quarters of a communal apartment. My memories of it are hazy like a faded black and white photograph. Time has infused its own colours into the picture but I can’t really tell how close they are to the truth. My childhood Kiev is a fictional history at best.

Every couple of years I return to Ukraine to visit relatives and almost without fail I stop over in Kiev. As the capital of Ukraine, Kiev is both a reflection of the country as a whole and at the same time a deviation from the norm. It is the largest city in Ukraine and the urban sprawl only pushes out further and further with each passing year. Originally Kiev rested mainly on the right side of the Dnipro River (Dnieper) but modern day necessity has given birth to a forest of apartment complexes on the eastern banks.

Old and modern building vie for space in Kiev's cityscape.
Old and modern buildings vie for space in Kiev’s cityscape.

Although the city is European in appearance Kiev has internalized the questionable idea that modernization goes hand in hand with westernization. English steadily creeps its way into the Ukrainian language. Some expressions blend in under the guise of being popular slang meanwhile other words awkwardly shove themselves into sentences where they don’t belong. I have seen commercials where perfectly usable Ukrainian words have been supplanted by their English counterparts. The spoken language is undergoing its own tug of war between the past and the present, between Russian and English. In Kiev, Ukrainian remains quietly in the background, relegated to the academic field.

Statue of Taras Shevchenko, a famous Ukrainian poet who is widely perceived as the father of the Ukrainian literary language.
Statue of Taras Shevchenko, a famous Ukrainian poet who is widely perceived as the father of the Ukrainian literary language.

However, Kiev is not reflective of the rest of the country. Ukraine as a linguistic whole looks more like a patchwork quilt. The eastern oblasts tend to be more Russian dominant, the western regions are more Ukrainian, but even this is a generalization born from historic delineations. In the Carpathian oblasts Ukrainian mingles with Romanian to form local dialects like “Bukovynian” while in cities like L’viv you will encounter Polish influences.

As Kiev attempts to keep its balance in the wave of western influence the city grounds itself by embracing its cultural traditions. The city is becoming a true touristic destination, not only for beautiful architecture and sprawling city parks, but also for its food. Restaurants serving traditional fare from the Ukrainian kitchen are rising in popularity and quality. One of my favorite restaurants is located in the park square across from the prestigious University of Taras Shevchenko. The restaurant, called O’Panas, serves wonderful Ukrainian dishes like varenyky, a type of large dumpling, and borscht.

Undoubtedly the city has changed, evolving to suit the times, but there are some constants that have remained. The boulevards and parks are filled with chestnut trees, a popular symbol of Kiev, flowering like candles of white blossoms in early summer. These beautiful trees compliment Kiev’s old churches and monasteries which attract thousands of people, pilgrims and tourists alike. Throughout the city their cupolas gleam in the sunlight and during the day you can sometimes hear the ringing of the bells echoing down cobblestone streets.

St.Andrew's Church
St.Andrew’s Church

Even the more modern aspects of Kiev, as for example its metro system, are a sight to behold. Some of the most visited stations, such as the station Zoloti Vorota (Golden Gate), are decorated with mosaics and chandeliers. The elaborate splendour of these stations is tempered by tiny stalls that crowd the underground walkways, selling everything from cell phones to flowers to lingerie. The world’s deepest metro station is found in Kiev — Arsenalna station rests 105 metres below the ground and descending down into its depth takes about five dizzying minutes by steep escalator.

Kiev has always been a great city full of vitality drawing on a rich cultural and historic tapestry. The city was founded in the 9th century but some historians believe that there were settlements in the area dating back even earlier to the 6th century. Kiev has undergone a tumultuous history shaped by a multitude of ethnic groups — Cossacks called the Ukrainian steppe their home, Kievan-Rus suffered an invasion by Batu Khan’s Mongol armies, the Russian Empire reigned over Ukrainian land for many centuries before it eventually gave way to the Soviet Union. And now, for better or for worse, Kiev stands on its own two feet. Like a toddler, Ukraine is still learning how to balance, between its aspirations and the reality. Hopefully, when Ukraine stumbles it will have the fortitude to right itself again.

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