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19 October, 2011

To Kyiv With Love

What surprises a Belarusian journalist in Ukraine

A train station. Kiosks, tents, trays with socks, vegetables, cans, etc. — it's impossible to go through all of it. Sometimes all of this is sold in one place next to each other. I feel like I’m reading Gogol — only the fair has changed location. But there is no irritation in the eyes of passers-by – everyone understands the need to earn a living somehow.

There is a kind of Odesa-style recklessness and European-style pedantism about Kyiv. I see the glass in bank buildings and the reinforced concrete of office centers next to half-fallen specimens of architecture with their oriel windows and ancient narrow bricks. Close things are distant here, while distant things are close.

Khreshchatyk is a place where a person can express himself fearing no punishment. If you want to sing, sing. If you want to dance, dance. If you want to sell sunflower seeds, sell them. These things are impossible to do in Minsk. First, there is a regulation now valid in Belarus – “no more than three people may gather.” Four people are just short of a rally. Second, unlike in Minsk, those who express themselves in Kyiv will not be approached by a policeman and told: “Get out of here.” Nor will a tax official inquire: “Are you, ma’am, paying taxes to the state from selling these sunflower seeds?” Third, you can freely applaud the musicians and dancers on Khreshchatyk, and no one will throw into a paddy wagon.

Even when you find yourself in districts that architecturally are very much like other cities, you still feel that it’s Kyiv. There’s some kind of Dovlatov-style confidence and impasse at the same time. Moreover, it is indeed a city of social hierarchies. Not only people but also Kyiv’s history, its streets and buildings are subject to them. Here is, for example, a downtown building with a barred gate leading to the yard – stucco work on the walls, cobblestone under my feet. I lift my eyes and see a well-groomed office worker in a checkered suit, nonchalantly tapping ash onto glossy cars parked underneath. And here is Podil, also in downtown Kyiv. A pensioner wearing a threadbare jacket is tightening the nuts in his old Tavria car, squinting from the smoke of his cigarette. His temples are gray, and he doesn’t even bother to flick his ashes. Kyiv is different. But I can clearly see one thing: if you want to grow and develop, it can be done here – if you really want it.


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