• Jonathan Slade

Kyiv

Courage & hope in Ukraine's capital


Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv (X100V)

The ride in the airport taxi is as exhilerating as any I can remember. My flight was delayed and my driver - let's call him Eugene - has taken it upon himself to make up the lost time as much as possible. As we approach the sound barrier, I try to distract myself with the view.


We're heading west towards the mighty Dnieper river. Here, the highway becomes lined with a vast procession of high rise blocks, some straining to break free from their brutalist shackles with the addition of giant, colourful murals.


The blocks suddenly fall away and across the bridge, another Soviet remnant dominates the skyline: the vast all-seeing Motherland monument. To the right, some of Kyiv's historic golden domes shoot blinding shards of light over the river. It's a breathtaking sight; enough to make me momentarily forget Eugene's driving.


St Sophia's Cathedral & Bell Tower (X100V)

I am instinctively drawn to photograph these two, very different representations of Kyiv's past; there are enough ornate cathedrals and enough Soviet concrete to fill my viewfinder for weeks. But this isn't the Kyiv that strikes you when you arrive. As soon as I step outside I'm startled by the youthfulness and diversity of the population, by the restless energy and confidence they bring to the place. I set myself the goal of capturing this side of the city too.


(X100V)

On my first morning I make my way down to the local metro station. The ticket barriers don't like my contactless card, and after losing my battle with the automated machines, I make my way to the unsmiling employee at the booth.


An earlier attempt to reproduce one of the Ukrainian phrases I hurriedly learned was met with such undisguised bafflement (contempt, even) that I've already resolved never to try anything so foolish again.


"English?" I ask hopefully. The ticket agent fixes me with a stony expression and shakes her head slowly, without breaking eye contact. I begin to realise that communication might be a problem here. Luckily, I've downloaded a translation app that works offline. After a few minutes of frantic typing and gesturing, I have a Kyiv travel pass.


My sense of achievement takes a knock when I pass the more modern turnstiles that would have accepted my card in the first place.


Mykola Prytyska Church, Podil (X100V)

I head to Podil, one of the oldest parts of the city, and a typical exhibition of Kyiv's competing architectural styles. An excellent brutalist encounter comes in the form of the splendid Zhitnii Rynok market. It's perfect camera fodder, though I get an inescapable sense that the market vendors would rather I was spending cash than taking photos.



I have my first of many, many cheap and delicious meals. Georgian and Turkish influences are prevalent and extremely welcome, though there's an impressive variety of cuisines from other parts of the world. In most places you'd struggle to spend more than 100-180 hryvnia (£3-5) on a main. The Ukrainian chain Puzata Hata offers traditional classics at even cheaper prices. Rides on the (excellent, efficient) metro are a mere 8 hryvnia (£0.22) a time.



Known as the City of Golden Domes, there is an extraordinary richness of churches and cathedrals in Kyiv. I choose St. Sophia's, an 11th-century Byzantine style masterpiece in the city centre that has withstood, against all odds, invasion, neglect and the threat of demolition. It's a small but stunning maze of intricately-painted arches and beams of light. Outside I meet an old man cradling a bandura and singing some old folk tune over its gentle chords. He sings with a sincerity and depth of feeling that transcends our different languages.



The next day I head to the Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War. Towering brigades of Soviet forces in stone, stoicism and defiance carved into their faces, greet you as you enter. Above them, the concrete roof is split in open wounds.


Kyiv was occupied by the Nazis between 1941-43 and saw appalling brutality. The carefully curated exhibits are unflinching and deeply affecting.



Since Ukraine's independence in 1991, Kyiv has often found itself at the epicentre of political turmoil, revolution and unrest. In 2014, bitter protests against the pro-Russian administration killed 130 and led to the overthrow of the government. (The Kremlin took advantage of the resulting destabilisation and embarked on the annexation of Crimea.)


The 2014 demonstrations, 2004 Orange Revolution, 2001 'Ukraine without Kuchma' and 1990 'Revolution on Granite' protests all took place in Maidan Nezalezhnosti ('Independence Square'). Today, the square is peaceful and welcoming, thronging with the young and the glamourous. But a sense of its revolutionary past is never far away. Currently it is a focal point for protests against the frightening autoritarianism in neighbouring Belarus.


A man draped in the former flag of Belarus, now used by the protest movement, surveys the exhibition in Maidan (X100V)

As the evening draws in, I take my aching feet up to St. Andrew's Church and its famous descent linking Old Kyiv with Podil. It's a favourite spot for Kyiv's artist community. Vendors line the streets and kids on scooters clatter over the cobblestones.


St. Andrew's Descent (X100V)

Being a visitor here has been an endlessly interesting but rather solitary experience. I have sometimes struggled to break through the language barrier and steely exterior of some of the locals. Although I sense another side to Kyiv, so far it has eluded me. On my last day, however, I have some good fortune.


I discover that my visit coincides with the monthly Kurazh (Courage) event: a festival with live music, street food and a thriving flea market. Its inclusive ethos and "Be Yourself" mantra makes it a kind of haven for young Ukrainians who might struggle to find their place in a country dominated by social conservatism.


I head south to Vystavkovyi and my plans are almost derailed by the stunning VDNG civic centre I pass unexpectedly on my way to the festival: a complex of remarkable Soviet architecture deserving of more time than I have left to offer.


Expo Centre of Ukraine, Vystavkovyi (X-E3, 18mm f2)

Among the crowd snaking its way out of the metro station I notice some looking a little out of place: a gay couple with matching 1970s moustaches dressed boldly and exclusively in denim, a young woman in an eccentric bucket hat, pink gym shorts and a 'Hasta la Pizza Baby' t-shirt. I have a hunch as to where they might be heading.


We find Kurazh just down the path from the civic centre. It's a happy scene. Ahead of me, the flea market has occupied and colourfully transformed an old concrete block. Just below, two volunteers apply glitter in liberal quantities to enthusiastic visitors. Over to my right, a DJ keeps a small but hardcore following of dancers entertained. From afar, I pick up the scent of delicious things frying on the grill in the street food market. My heart swells with the feeling of being among my people. Or perhaps it's the promise of food.


The flea market at Kurazh (X100V)

Nothing at Kurazh would look out of place in Western Europe, but here it feels different: an expression of liberalism and tolerance at odds with large sectors of Ukrainian society. This is a Kyiv that defies old prejudices and the inertia of successive governments. In a part of the world where anti-LGBT discrimination is still pervasive, and where Pride marches are frequently met with violence, I meet young Ukrainians confident in their own skin, welcomed and embraced for who they are. The rainbow flag flies proudly here and its significance is powerfully felt.



I come away from Kurazh grateful for its existence and with a kind of awed admiration for its young crowd determined to forge a future in their own image. Despite the enormous instability and upheaval that has shaken Ukraine in its only thirty-year history, I can't help but leave with a sense of optimism and hope that its future lies in good hands.




Gallery




All images taken with Fujifilm X100V & X-E3 with 18mm f2 and 35mm f1.4 lenses.

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