On a sultry Saturday evening in August, hundreds of young Kievans have descended on a vast courtyard a few miles from the city centre. As a DJ spins electronica in front of a 20ft LED screen, some partygoers stand in a paved open area bobbing their heads to the music, while others crowd the bar and burger stand or sneak off to a leafy grotto to chat and canoodle.
The scene evokes late 90 drip, two-and-a-half-year conflict with Russia has killed nearly 10,000 people and displaced about two million in the east of the country. But if the Maidan revolution, which ousted a Russia-friendly regime in February 2014, has largely failed to install the transparent, democratic government its proponents envisioned, it at least appears to have democratised Ukrainian culture.
Bold young artists, promoters, entrepreneurs and officials have quietly begun to transform this city of three million into a hotbed of urban creativity, with innovative theatre, outdoor concerts and food events, a slew of smart bars and cafes, and a flowering of film production and appreciation.
“People stopped being afraid, after Maidan,” says Ivan Kozlenko, the 35-year-old general director of Ukraine’s national film archives. “Nobody’s afraid any more to say what they believe, to express their visions, their ideas. Young Ukrainians today – they are so free, and the revolution moved them, spurred them.”
Much of Kiev’s new cultural thrust has been in response to recent tumult. Class Act, a recent conflict-focused theatre project led by Edinburgh’s Traverse theatre company, brought together Ukrainian youth from the country’s east and west. A song about Donbass, the Ukrainian region under conflict, by the Dakh Daughters – a cabaret band spun off from Kiev’s revered Dakh Theatre – is approaching a million views on YouTube. And of course, the Ukrainian singer Jamala won Eurovision 2016 with a song about the suffering of Crimean Tatars.
But film may be Kiev’s current hottest medium. The Russian Woodpecker, a documentary about one Kiev artist’s bizarrely compelling spin on Russian imperialism, took the grand-jury prize for world documentaries at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. And Ukrainian-made docs about Maidan have won several top festival prizes; one, Winter on Fire, was nominated for the best feature documentary Oscar.
Kozlenko has worked tirelessly to promote Ukrainian film, screening silent classics at major film festivals in Berlin, Cannes, and Karlovy Vary, and at the archives’ headquarters, known as the Dovzhenko Centre. He has also developed innovative funding methods such as renting out unused building space, and recently launched a major renovation at Dovzhenko; a film museum is also set to open next spring.
“Ivan has managed to single-handedly get the Dovzhenko Centre from an actual crumbling building into a legitimate cultural centre,” says Myroslava Hartmond, the Ukrainian-British owner of Kiev’s p
Hartmond and others, meanwhile, have sought to bring high-minded works to the masses. Impressive street art has been popping up across the city. Pinchuk Art Centre, perhaps the country’s top independent art space, now positions “mediators” in every room of its four-floor gallery space – young art students who speak Ukrainian, Russian, and English and answer questions from visitors. Last year’s Kiev biennial, called School of Kyiv, commandeered a variety of unusual spaces – a shuttered factory, a stylish shop, an unused mall – to reach a broader audience and help haul Ukrainian culture into the 21st century.
Of course, Kiev has its troubles. The Donbas region is still a tinderbox, with Ukraine-Russia tensions on the rise in recent weeks. Corruption remains deeply endemic. Unemployment hovers at around 10%, and the economy is still sluggish. Locals complain of huge potholes, pricey public services, and no parking.
Kiev also appears to have become a more dangerous place of late. Serious crimes have more than doubled nationally since 2013, according to the local weekly New Time. And in July, prominent journalist Pavel Sheremet was killed by a car bomb in broad daylight on a busy street in central Kiev.
But while some may dismiss the city’s new ferment as just the latest chapter in the globalisation of hipster culture, Kiev’s newfound creativity marks a shaking off of the Soviet mindset, a breaking away from a past where new ideas and free thinking occurred only underground.
Consider that courtyard party. To boost revenues and attract Kiev’s youth, last year Kozlenko rented an entire floor of Dovzhenko to Plivka, a group known for organising all-night raves. Plivka and another outfit, Rhythm Buro, put together that party – the first event in Dovzhenko’s backyard – and in the process likely awakened hundreds of young Kievans to their national film archives.
Slowly, even the government’s top-down Soviet style appears to be shifting toward glasnost. “Before Maidan, our ministry would decide what each group or theatre should perform,” says Ukraine’s culture minister Yevhen Nyshchuk – a former actor and a prominent figure during the Maidan protests – during an interview in a stately conference room at his ministry.
In addition to encouraging leaders like Kozlenko, his ministry is working with local arts organisations and international events such as the Frankfurt Book Fair and Venice Biennale. Nyshchuk himself has even gotten into the act, performing in a play during the Class Act project earlier this summer.
“There’s a Ukrainian proverb: ‘start with yourself’,” says the 43-year-old minister. “So we started here, reorganising the ministry. Now we encourage self-expression. We want to support creative youth who have these new ideas and new ways to do things.”
The Ukho Music Agency, founded by Eugene Shimalsky and Sasha Andrusyk, has in the past two years held 15 classical music concerts in unlikely spaces across the city. Envision a sea-themed Ukrainian choral work in a swimming pool; a vocal arrangement in the city’s botanical garden. With tickets at $6-10, all the shows sold out. “We wanted to facilitate listening, and we wanted to tell stories about Kiev,” Andrusyk explains.
While many tales have been told of Kiev’s legendary all-night raves, the city’s newer dining and nightlife spots are embracing a highly democratic approach. Three-year-old Closer is a welcoming multi-use space, with live music and DJs, art exhibitions, film screenings and lectures. Cafe Squat 17b, which was opened last summer by squatters in the adjoining building, offers well-made drinks and snacks in a quiet, shady courtyard in the city centre.
Meanwhile, Ulichnaya Eda (“street food”), the festival founded three years ago by Roman Tugashev, a 32-year-old former lawyer, is now one of Europe’s largest regular street food events. Around 100 vendors and 30,000 visitors are drawn to a vast former silk factory compound one weekend per month from April to November. The selection is dizzying, from garlic butter snails to pork burritos, goat burgers to honey vodkas.
Tugashev is set to expand to other Ukrainian cities next year. That’s good news for gourmands: the festival, which receives dozens of new vendor applications each month, has emerged as an incubator for local food entrepreneurs. At least half a dozen Kiev food outlets got their start at the festival, including a Scandinavian sandwich shop, a crawfish-on-a-bun outfit, and a craft ice cream business. “People are starting to make and do whatever they want, because they believe they can,” Tugashev says. “It wasn’t like this a few years ago.”
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In terms of influence, Kiev peaked about a millennium ago, when the leaders of Kievan Rus built St Sophia Cathedral and the Monastery of the Caves (now a Unesco Heritage site) and embraced literacy and Orthodox Christianity, which spread across the region.
The Mongols decimated that city, and Kiev lay largely dormant for centuries. Recently, the Economist placed Kiev only 131st out of 140 global cities in its liveability rankings. Yet Ukraine’s capital may be quietly regaining its long-lost swagger.
“Everybody abroad thinks Ukraine is in a war now, a terrible crisis, and it’s not safe here,” says culture minister Nyshchuk. “Of course there are issues, but right now we have great potential. Kiev is seeing so many festivals and events, so much creativity. Culture can play a key role in spurring development.”