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22 December, 2011  ▪  Maksym Karpoverts

The Portraits of Ukrainian Cities

Shaped by its diverse history, urban Ukraine resembles an impressionistic painting - blurry at a close look, yet unique and vibrant from a more distant perspective

Urbanization is always more than just filling space with new buildings and roads. The way towns emerge and develop reflects the internal hidden processes of a national culture or, more precisely, a specific community. When thinking of a city, the average mind pictures an American metropolis, cozy European towns and overcrowded Japanese streets, while the image of a Ukrainian city is extremely obscure. So, what kind of a city is it?    

A closer look reveals a cocktail of styles, shapes, structures and human lives. Some people are willing to spend an hour waiting in line for a bus in winter to ensure that they will be seated as opposed to standing during their 40-minute ride home. Women manage to run on ice-covered streets, wearing stilettos and talking on the phone. A Ukrainian city is all about its people who intentionally or unintentionally create their own routes, which sometimes have no rhyme or reason are paradoxical, yet always exciting.  

A mix of different cultures and social layers makes it hard for foreign tourists to make sense of a Ukrainian city. Even if the biggest cities from the four corners of the country were merged into one, the resulting metropolis would present a somewhat uneven picture that could fall apart in a heartbeat. There doesn’t appear to be anything complicated about them: just follow the metro line, leave tips in restaurants and avoid dark streets. After all, this is the code of conduct in all urban jungles, which is why Ukrainian cities cannot rock this globalization harmony.

Those involved in urban research often say that there is no such thing as an East European city, let alone a Ukrainian one. This comes from the notion of a “proper” city, instilled deeply in people’s minds, that looks like a West-European or US one. This is reasonable since urban studies always concentrated on such major cities as Chicago, L.A. or New York, so the “right to be a city” ultimately belongs to our colleagues across the pond. This monopoly in urban studies could not but affect the European vision as much as the Ukrainian one, which is still in the embryonic stage. Sergei Smirnov, a Russian philosopher and anthropologist, says any discussion of Russian cities with urban experts that are carriers of Western cultures and stereotypes inevitably leads to a misunderstanding. Russia cannot possibly have a Western city just like the West cannot have a Russian one. The same is true for Ukrainian cities that have not yet fully left the post-soviet space.  

Another reason why a Ukrainian city has no unique portrait of itself is the dominant rural culture in the nation. As soon as the city distinguishes its world from agrarian values and rids itself of everything “rural”, which in the urban consciousness is associated with something backward, second-rate and barbarian, only then will it attain its own identity. Yet, this conflict is symbolic rather than real. Cities would inevitably die out without rural resources. Therefore, realizing its dependence of villages, the urban world will never fully abandon rural culture. This is particularly important for Ukraine, since many of its cities grew up around villages and hamlets, while most people migrated to cities from the provinces. One of the facts that prove the strong presence of a rural component in urban life is the dacha, a seasonal home outside the city, owned by most city dwellers, where they relax from big city chaos and stress, and enjoy their gardening. People involved in the artstend to spend more and more time in the country. Some even stay there permanently and create communities away from “city” pressure.

Towns play a unique role on the urban map. They are free of the stressful turmoil that fills big cities at literally every step. No-one ever hurries in towns, but at the same time, they keep up with civilization trends. The fact that some of the benefits of big city progress sometimes reach towns a little later is a different matter. Still, towns are not cities for the simple reason that they are closely tied to the village, after all, the latter is always connected by routes and workers, the genetic and historic routes to the socio-cultural spact of the town . In fact, towns are the bridge between the country and the big city, between nature and human civilization. Take Kamianets-Podilsky, for instance. It reflects a clear understanding of urban values yet will never go beyond its historic and physical walls.

The essential problem with constructing a Ukrainian city is its complicity in the soviet context. This leads to an inevitable clash of old and new codes of conduct that mutate into something new. People have a hard time quitting old habits, although they have not yet developed new ones. The monuments to communist leaders, old trolleybuses, plastic flowers in vases and shabby old wall carpets are but a fragment of the previous era that is still vibrant in cities, towns and villages that are supposed to nurture authentic Ukrainian culture. The soviet curtain is no longer here yet the mindset remains unchanged, amidst endless shopping malls, state-of-the-art stadiums and abstract glass constructions.  

Thus, cities have never been, nor will they ever be a complex of modern buildings. A city is always a special spiritual unity of people. Ukrainian city dwellers unite around different spiritual elements. The older generation feels nostalgic for the Kyiv of the 70-s as they look at a totally different Kyiv today. On the other hand, the young people of Kharkiv feel as if they live in a modern city amidst the crowded remnants of the past. All this gives us the wildly eclectic Kyiv, the detached industrial cities of Eastern and Southern Ukraine, as well as Chernivtsi and Uzhhorod, made to look like your average old European city. Every city has its own unique spirit and background. This does not take into account the thousands of small towns which also have their own face. After all, we still have the portraits of Kyiv, Odesa or Lviv, shaped by global history and local everyday stories, artistic-aesthetic programs, political twists and turns and mythology. Therefore, it is entirely possible that the identity of a Ukrainian city is noticeable from a distance. Sometimes, though, it is necessary to distance yourself from it to fully appreciate it.

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