Standing in the geographic center of Europe is a city straddling the left and the right banks of the wide Dnipro River: Kyiv. It was once the capital of the Slavic world and the nerve center for the greater Kyivan Rus Empire. In 2017 the power that shapes Ukraine comes not only from itself, but also from more powerful capital cities in Russia, the US, and Europe. Kyiv is a fulcrum, delicately balancing the political weights of the West and Russia on its periphery. Leaning too far one way could bring the weight of the other side crashing down on top of it. But enough of the cliché geopolitical ranting; let me try another way of explaining this place.
The snake symbolizes Russia
Banya (n, v) The process of transitioning between sweltering hot and freezing cold environments while being whipped by birch tree branches (my definition).
To truly feel the comfort of warmth one must freeze, and for one to find pleasurable comfort in the cold they must come from the sweltering heat. The ideology of swinging between the extremes is baked into the psychology of the Ukrainian people, and everything here seems to function in the ways of the banya.
The juxtapositions in Kyiv are manifold: people are either really hard on each other or very kind, the architecture beautiful or ugly, the smiles are wide and real, or faces rigid like stone, the women hot and the guys not (some exceptions here), people drink a lot or a little, service is excellent or terrible, people just get by or are rich (small middle class), the weather is post-apocalyptically dark or pleasantly uplifting….
My move to Kyiv was more of an accident laced with the intangible—a decision rooted in a feeling and impulse over rationality or reason. I can point out the obvious: it’s a beautiful city, it’s an economical place to live, it’s in a great position to connect with the world (2 hours to Istanbul, 2 hours to Berlin), it’s adventurous, it’s a city with a rich soul, its women are beautiful, it’s real, it has human connections that run deep, it’s modest with a rich history, and so on….
But these reasons alone weren’t enough to pull me away from my life in San Francisco; there was something more here—something functioning at a deeper, more visceral level that is difficult to explain….
I came to Kyiv from Italy to visit some friends living here last summer. My intention was to spend a few days in the city, and then go on a long trip back to Rome, through Eastern Europe, via trains and buses. During those two weeks, I never left a two-mile radius in the old city.
While Rome and Italy felt stale, stuck in their ways, overly touristic, dying on the vine, and emotionally unstable, Kyiv showed signs of hope, strength and newness—like a strong flower poking through the hard dirt. There was a feeling of optimism in the youth—passionate energy firing into new restaurant concepts, into the coffees shops, into the craftspeople making everything from beautiful furniture to quality textiles. I felt Kyiv in the massive art installations in old buildings all over the city. I felt it in the sounds of a violin echoing off the concrete walls in the underground passageways…
One of my favorite streets on planet earth: Yaroslaviv Val
There is richness in the soil here. The other day, I walked by an opened manhole, looked down into the earth, and saw literally centuries of the city: pavement, dirt, cobblestones a few inches under the dirt, rocks a few inches under the cobblestones. I saw layers of stories beneath the rocks—of war, of blood, of euphoria, of joy, of architecture, of breakups, of love—each force never lasting long enough to create a one-dimensional identity, but long enough to make the city into what it is today.
The locals will talk to you about the right and left banks of the city. When I looked at Google Maps, the right bank was on the left and the left bank was on the right. But when living in a foreign land, the gestation process takes its natural course; the answers come when the time is right from someone, or from a realization.
I chalked my confusion up to one of the differences in perspective, like in the language. A clock is referred to in the plural “часы” (time), which identifies a clock through its action of measuring time as opposed to the English word, which identifies it as a fixed tangible object.
As a hawk flies high above, tracing the river’s flow from north to south, it sees the right bank from the opposite perspective, and therefore the right bank is associated with the flow of the river.
Lively streets, even in the dead of winter
Walking down the street is always a lively human experience in Kyiv. People walk around at different cadences, but mostly at a hurried “late for work” pace. Eye contact is commonplace, and gazes are long-lasting. I’m not sure if this comes from a historical context—one of assessing an oncoming threat—or if there is an overwhelming curiosity to look into “the gateway of the soul,” as I’ve heard it called here. Either way, it adds color to the human experience, and while Ukrainians might appear cold with their faces, their eyes show a full range of emotions, usually with high levels of intrigue and interest. There is a low level of B.S. here: people smile if they mean it, and don’t smile if they don’t.
There are two things in abundance here, and usually within 200-yards in any direction: pharmacies, and cafés with copious varieties of cake. I’m not sure if there is a correlation between the two.
Everything is juxtaposed in Kyiv. Near my apartment, there is a luxurious Thai massage studio adjacent to a decrepit building with vegetation growing out of its decay—vehicles drive underneath the building on a functioning road. A red double-decker bus from London sits on the side of the roundabout across from the crumbling building. Inside the bus has been creatively transformed into a charming café with a modern espresso machine and ornate tables and chairs.
Thai studio on the left, decrepit building on the right
A Soviet-Era, concrete monolithic building with the heaviness of an iceberg stands behind the bus. There is a “bitcoin embassy” in the small park inside the roundabout. Memorials, statues, and trees have been sparsely placed all around this setting.
Down the street is a pharmacy with a graphic of a nurse in a mini-skirt taking up the whole storefront window. A little further on, there is a French café with world-class croissants that would rival any made in Paris or Montreal. A few modern high rises shoot upwards. A large, pink snail-on-wheels houses a takeout coffee/tea operation next to the sidewalk. Babooshkas/dedushkas (old women/men) sell pickled vegetables and fruit on the streets. It’s properly mixed up and motley here.
Cool cafe concept
Snail-on-wheels takeout coffee/tea operation
A large percentage of the “babooshka/dedushka generation” embody Soviet times. The world has flown by them; promises were made and broken overnight by bureaucrats touting a utopic ideology. They are a constant reminder that I walk by daily, internalize, and tell myself: never trust a system because what might be today could easily be gone tomorrow. And no part of the world is immune to this.
Much of this older generation isn’t aware of the 1’s and 0’s that are driving the future, and that professions like something relating to analytics or programming are growing, stable, and in much higher demand than that of a relatively low-paid, but highly respected economist. At least, this is how many talk to their kin: “Vanya you must become an economist, lawyer, or doctor if you want to become successful in this life.” But the reality is that talented programmers here make more than most other forms of honest work.
There is a strong societal push for the youth to marry, make babies, and settle down very young. This is true even in the heart of this European capital, in the most progressive part of the country. This pressure to marry appears more intense than most capital cities I’ve visited in the Islamic world.
The smart and bright youth in Kyiv are into startups, cryptocurrencies, everything Silicon Valley, Uber, creating things, and learning English. They know they have a window of calm to work within, and they are hungry for what the world has to offer. There is a powerful concoction of brains, optimism, entrepreneurship, passion, and soul here. Much of the future of Ukraine lies in its young population writing code.
And if the future of a country is a reflection of its youth, then Ukraine has brighter days ahead. Many talk about the “old guard,” Soviet mentality dying off, and leaving more space for a progressive ideology to push the country forward.
The city is full of random sights like this that pause me from the day
It’s interesting to observe the American government trying to win over the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian youth and pull their thoughts out of the Russian orbit. I’ve seen this game of soft power played all over the world. In pre-civil war Syria, there was a strong barrage of soft power directed at the young in Damascus from both the Americans and the Russians, each competing to win over the Syrian youth one brain at a time.
In Kyiv, this persuasion manifests in a place called the America House, which is a comfortable environment where Ukrainians can hang out, go to interesting events, use computers and cameras, and be surrounded by all things Americana, all free of charge, and funded by the U.S. government.
I’ve been impressed by the level of educated young people. I find that America is more of a land of specialists—of people who have figured out their specific niche and dominate in it. And maybe that’s necessary in the States because there is so much fierce competition in every industry. But in Kyiv, the youth are generally more well rounded in their knowledge.
For example, it’s normal for a young 20-something-year-old programmer to speak not just about his craft of programming, but also about history, philosophy, geopolitics, music and art. And he is most likely capable of doing this in three languages. But, for better or worse, they are missing that marketing/advertising chip that isn’t baked into their DNA from day one like it is in Americans; so they are often unequipped with the understanding of how to bring a product into a western market.
Central post office
In some ways, Ukraine is a place of opportunity. It’s a land laced with corruption, but also with some attractive levels of taxation (depending on how a business is structured), and lots of young talent. I have a French friend who started a wine recommendation startup here and told me, “Kyiv is where the opportunity is, not Paris.” He went on to mention how it’s nearly impossible to fire a poorly performing employee in France, that permitting and taxation are insanely expensive and that there’s a strong negative ideology in French culture that perceives entrepreneurship as a force of greed and sin.
My good friend from San Francisco lives here. He hired six developers to help create his startup; there is no way he could have afforded to bootstrap this at home. Two other friends from San Francisco set up their sales and development team here because the workforce is good and the costs are low.
The streets generally feel much safer here than those in American cities. There is poverty, but evidence of drugs and serious mental illness are far less. Not as many people have completely fallen through the cracks of society. In San Francisco, I would walk by at least three people a day who were screaming at the sky, a garage door, or something else inanimate. In my three months here, I’ve only encountered one person at a SF level of sketchiness.
Many of the very wealthy appear to isolate themselves quite effectively. There is a “take all” and squash all others mentality in this culture. It’s not like this behavior doesn’t exist in other places in the world, it’s just more in your face here. Our landlord is part of this class; she storms into our apartment with a stressed-out and panicked energy. There is a lack of trust, and she feels the need to scare us into paying rent when we have it ready for her in a stack of $100 bills.
As she looks down on us, she either rips utility bills out of our hands, or yells when we are giving her money. She approaches every interaction with us like it’s the Battle of Stalingrad. We get a break from her misery when she answers her phone and attempts to pulverize somebody else. None of it makes any logical sense, but I’m under the impression that this is the only language she speaks.
The morning commute on Yaroslaviv Val
Speaking of language, it’s a challenge here, especially since two languages (Ukrainian and Russian) are spoken simultaneously. But a very cool thing about the Ukrainians is that they’re happy to help, happy that you are trying to speak in either Ukrainian or Russian, happy that you’re here, happy to give you their time…. Stumbling with French in Paris doesn’t evoke the same welcome.
Language is a very powerful tool; in many ways, it is the foundation of a national identity. Even though more people speak Russian than Ukrainian as a primary language in Kyiv, there is a strong push for Ukrainian. I was told Russian-speaking radio stations are required to play at least one Ukrainian language song out of every four. Much of the Russian signage has been changed into Ukrainian. Anything backed by the U.S., like the Embassy or the America House is devoid of Russian.
Strong coffee/tea culture
Despite the levels of corruption and oligarchal, take-all mentality, I’ve witnessed a surprising amount of free press (at least in the English-language paper). Journalistic diatribes about wealthy politicians and businessmen robbing the country blind through shady business activities, corruption, and so on are commonplace. They are even labeled “thief,” “oligarch,” or “criminal,” with large mug shots on the front page like a 19th-century U.S. newspaper with a picture of a wild-western bank robber titled “Wanted.”
In many ways, life feels very free here. This, of course, boils down to a few factors, like someone’s socio-economic reality. But overall, there are few petty rules to abide by. I saw a massive cable apparatus for climbing in the forest. It seemed full of fun and potential injuries to be had, but there was not one sign warning about danger or liability, and it was open to anybody. It’s uniformly understood here that it’s your responsibility if you mess up.
Kyiv’s and Ukraine’s futures are ambiguous—it’s hard to plan a long-term path from inside the fog. One benefit of this is that life here is more about living in the moment and in the present whereas America is more about living for a better day ahead while often missing out on that day that it’s in.
But regardless of the uncertainty here, the hope and energy are palpable in the youth, the soul is deep, and the banya is always ready—ready to guide your senses through the contrasts within the Ukrainian mentality—through the extremes. And once you’ve experienced these extremes, everything else feels so much more real and alive.
So as the hawk flies south from high above, it looks down at the right bank of the river at old Kyiv and feels something powerful that it can’t ignore. It innately decides to land, for there is an interesting place full of mystery and intrigue that calls at it to be explored.
Running along the Dnipro
Industrial Soviet look
Quiet weekend streets after a snowstorm.
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