Kyiv is enjoying an unseasonably warm spring; the atmosphere is calm, almost lethargic in the oppressive humidity. This is not how you would imagine the capital of a country that had its borders and infrastructure shattered only 2 years ago. It feels important to stress, that Kyiv is, and feels safe; like any large city you need to exercise caution, but even in Kyiv's most notorious districts we have never felt uncomfortable. The conflict in Ukraine has been described as frozen and the country is experiencing a tenuous peace but Kyiv feels vibrant, busy creating its new identity.
We visit Hydropark, located on the banks of the river Dnieper, a creative amalgamation of dilapidated entertainment centres scattered across an urban idyll. Skirting along one side of the river, we come across ominous blacked-out BMWs and Mercedes parked by the river bank; their owners sit by the water, fishing and watching the sunset. The woods soon engulf us; our walk is occasionally interrupted by an SUV passing by, but otherwise you feel far from the hustle and bustle of central Kyiv. We come to a clearing and visible behind a large rusty steel mesh appear around 60 concrete table tennis surfaces. A tournament is taking place and we tentatively manoeuvre our way through this collection of bare chested enthusiasts; our lack of appropriate attire makes us somewhat unwelcome. Our camera is spotted and we are able to perforate the social barriers formed of sweaty machismo; we are invited to attend what is described as ‘the best table’. We watch as an unlikely duo (see picture above) perform perhaps the most impressive, yet unorthodox display of table tennis we have ever witnessed. We move on, passing a boxing gym, an amusement park and finally arrive at an outdoor gym, created entirely from scrap metal. We hear the screech as a man's skin slides down a pole, he has long curly hair, is wearing jeans with no top and appears to be pole-dancing. He tears across a section of the gym and nimbly jumps up on a platform, where he continues dancing to a power ballad that plays from his phone; no one reacts with anything other than quite amusement. We pass bench presses made from railway steel, an arm wrestling table and end up in an alcove, where a well-built man is pounding a pile of tyres. The atmosphere is amicable, but heavy, these men (there are only two women, and they are not alone) are serious about their exercise. This park seems to embody the spirit of Kyiv, diverse, exciting and eccentric in it's behaviour, yet carried out with nonchalant indifference.
The underground system, seems a fitting reflection of the city's eclectic influences. We pay the equivalent of 10 Euro cents and descend the never-ending staircase at Arsenala; the deepest tube station in the world, and arguably, one of the most beautiful. A few minutes later, we ascend from the opulence of the Sviatoshynsko-Brovarska Line into the low, grey Soviet inspired Kurenivsko-Chervonoarmiyska Line. The chandeliers and grand arches are replaced with LED strip lighting and pushed along by the crowd we are pulled in and then spat out by the low narrow entrance. If the world deep underground is confusing enough, the cityscape above proves even more so.
Blue and yellow stripes - the colours of the Ukrainian flag - drape themselves across concrete towers, historic buildings and even disused tyres. This is a city embracing its national identity; the ubiquitous Tryzub, a trident shaped symbol of Ukraine, has experienced an impressive array of graphic interpretations. Kyiv seems to embody the spirit of a young adult, eager to exercise its independence, yet still forming its identity. With a communal mistrust of the political institution and a growing realization that the EU is more worried about keeping people out than letting another country in; you sense that people here have accepted that they are responsible for their city and country’s future. Yanukovych had left the army in complete disarray, underfunded and understaffed; the army now defending the country is crowdfunded mainly by individual contributions, with many young people donating a large part of their salary voluntarily to the armed forces.
This is a city that is still riding on the energy of revolution, sincere, ambitious but still uncertain. The youth culture appears lively; young people are politically engaged and well travelled compared to their previous generation. The sight of trendy youths with beards, New Balance trainers and skinny jeans stand in stark contrast to the style and demeanor of the older generations, but this style seems to be driven by a desire to conform or emulate the generic trends of the major western European and US cities. The younger generations appear keen to adopt the styles you see in Berlin and London, but to an outsider Kyiv’s identity lies less in its commonality with other European capitals and more in its uniqueness, borne from its eclectic eccentricity and historical diversity.