kyiv is often described as the cradle of Slavic civilisation. According to legend, the city was founded in 482, when a group of brothers and sisters from a Slavic royal tribe established a settlement along the banks of the Dnipro. By the end of the millennium, under the leadership of Volodymyr the Great, it had become the capital of a major European civilization, Kyivan Rus. At this point, Moscow was barely a village.
Apart from Maidan Nezalezhnosti, kyiv’s main square and its places of protest, most of what Westerners know of kyiv are monuments from this storied past. Saint Sophia’s Cathedral and kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, two onion-domed churches dating from the 11th century, are the city’s most famous landmarks. Although beautiful and singular, they represent only one dimension of the kyiv landscape.
I learned this first hand in 2005, when I came to Kyiv on a scholarship. I rented an apartment in a Soviet-era high-rise near Lybidska metro station in the city center. The elderly woman who looked after my building was growing dandelions in the yard, using a set of discarded car tires as pots. Around the corner was another Soviet-era building that looked like a flying saucer. On the other side of the subway station, deep in a buzzing market built from old shipping containers, was a restaurant serving the best, most authentic Chinese food I’ve had in my life. The brutalist tower of the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine beckoned across a whizzing set of highways. The library hadn’t yet digitized its card catalog, which slowed research, but I often went there to simply sit in its reading room, where light flooded from rows of circular skylights.
The kyiv I came to know was ingenious, whimsical and steeped in history. As the fighting continues around the capital, I brought together five Ukrainian city planners to write about the places that are most dear to them in the Ukrainian capital.
“In Podil, a central district of kyiv that has been a river port since the Middle Ages, there is a late Soviet-era housing complex known informally as 4blocks. Spanning four blocks, it was built from 1985 to 1994 and is one of the few examples of what might be called Ukrainian postmodernism.
Although virtually all Soviet housing was centrally planned, for the 4-block complex the architects were selected through a rare open competition. It was radical because the community shaped its construction. Each of its 19 buildings had a different architect who incorporated environmental features and existing buildings, rather than ignoring or demolishing them. Despite the looming economic crisis, the resort is boldly decorated. Arches, passages, columns and color were used to create a welcoming and lively atmosphere. Local housing co-ops and nearby factories sponsored and furnished the apartments.
Although the complex was largely completed at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and was permanently inhabited, few people know its history. I return again and again to 4blocks as a symbol of an alternate take on the dynamic 1990s that never happened. — Oleksandr Anisimov, Chief Specialist of Urban Mobility and Road Infrastructure Department of Lviv City Council in Lviv, Ukraine
“As much as I love the historic center of Kyiv, its residential areas, where there are no notable monuments, are just as special to me. My husband, Egor, grew up in Obolon, a residential area in the north of the city. We lived there for 11 years together, until we had to leave on the night of February 24 with our mothers and our cat.
Egor recalls that during a period of large-scale development in Obolon in the 1980s, there were no playgrounds, so children played in the mountains of sand at construction sites and swam among shards of ice in a bay of the Dnipro river. My favorite parts of Obolon are the four-mile-long embankment that runs parallel to the river, the experimental architecture (including two buildings we call “corncobs” because of their resemblance to the plant), and the smell of malt coming from the brewery a block from our house.
We lived our lives in the middle of concrete, sand and the river of Obolon. In 2015, my husband and I hosted my parents and sister from Makiyivka, Ukraine, when the shelling there became unbearable. On the morning of March 14, the first Russian shell hit a building in Obolon, killing at least one person. The war had again come to our district. — Anastasia Ponomaryova, architect and displaced person in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine
“Word exposure has had special significance in Kyiv since 1958, when the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy (now Expocenter of Ukraine) opened on the outskirts of Holosiyivsky Park. The Soviet regime developed the complex as a propaganda tool to highlight the achievements of Ukrainians and the bright future that awaits them under communism. Known as “Ukraine in Miniature,” visitors could tour dozens of pavilions dedicated to topics such as mining, engineering and agriculture in Ukraine. Factory workers and collective farmers received gifted trips to the exhibition to inspire them to contribute more victories to the communist cause.
When I was little, I liked to visit the exhibition with my family on weekends, without knowing, of course, its ideological intention. The main square contained majestic neoclassical palaces and fountains surrounded by flowerbeds. There was plenty of food to try, a movie theater, a tour bus that guided you around the park, and green spaces that served as an oasis for the inhabitants of the metropolis.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the complex lost its purpose and began to deteriorate. Over the past decade, however, life has gradually returned; the site began to host music festivals and exhibitions. Recently it has been proposed to demolish one of the modernist pavilions and redevelop the grounds. Kyivites have united to defend the integrity of the complex, showing how the exhibit remains valuable and appreciated. — Yevheniia Moliar, art historian; participant in the artistic collective DE NE DE, which aims to rethink the role of Soviet history in the public space; and refugee in Berlin
“The Flowers of Ukraine is a modernist building designed by Ukrainian architect Mykola Levchuk. Completed in 1985, it was a veritable palace of botany in Soviet times, housing a flower shop, a greenhouse, a exhibition, a research center and a workshop area for children.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the building was rented out to small businesses. In 2021, a developer announced plans to tear it down and replace it with commercial real estate and retail space. My fellow activists and I launched a preservation campaign, which resulted in a protest of 200 people wearing floral-patterned clothing and holding flower pots. The developer decided to go ahead with the demolition regardless. Upon hearing the news, I rushed to the site to find dozens of anxious people, idle policemen and two demolition excavators tearing down the greenhouse. I broadcast the scene live and urged people to come together.
As the diggers began destroying the facade, the growing crowd toppled the fence and flooded the site, forcing the diggers to a halt. We then hunkered down in the building until the diggers left. This movement to preserve the Flowers of Ukraine united the inhabitants of kyiv, public figures and politicians. A month later, the building was added to a list of cultural heritage sites. A long legal battle between the activists and the promoter is ongoing, although the war has interrupted the proceedings. But we have already won by raising awareness about heritage protection and development regulation in Kyiv, and by creating a strong community of preservation activists. — Dmytro Soloviov, activist, architecture researcher, writer/photographer for @ukrainianmodernism on Instagram, and IDP in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine
“I like the green and blue parts of Kyiv the most. One of my favorite places is the Horbachykha stretch which runs along a tributary of the Dnipro river on the left bank of Kyiv. My wife and I visit our friends every season I’m glad we have a strong community defending these green spaces against private developers, and now some of those people are defending Kyiv against Russian invaders.
British anthropologist Tim Ingold has suggested imagining the environment as a continuously unfolding story. This idea reminds me of the story of my own house. I grew up in eastern Ukraine, in the suburbs of Luhansk. When my parents bought our house, in 1998, it came with young trees – cherry, apple and peach trees. Since the start of the war in 2014, no one has been able to live there. Nobody took care of the house or the trees.
During the eight years I was away from Luhansk, I wondered when my house would fall apart. However, abandoned buildings do not disintegrate all at once; other forms of life come to inhabit them. I know from a neighbor that wild vines have grown on the roof of the house. Mice gnawed the lids of the honey jars and ate their entire contents. Mold covered the walls, the floor, our books and our clothes. The fruit trees that were dear to me never stopped flowering, their branches creaking under the weight of the unpicked fruit.
During the pandemic, I started doing day hikes in Horbachykha and other wild green spaces in Kyiv. As I walk, I sometimes catch myself thinking that right now my childhood home might look like these landscapes. — Dmytro Chepurnyi, curator and cultural anthropologist in Kyiv