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Travel + Leisure

Kiev on the Rise

In the wake of the Orange Revolution, Ukraine’s capital is embracing Western ways—and investment dollars. A city in transition, with a burgeoning nightlife and an anything-goes mentality.

A CITY MAY BE BUILT on gestures, brick and mortar serving only to fulfill the essential idea. Along a hilltop overlooking the Dnieper River, in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, stands a statue of massive proportions—235 feet tall and made entirely of titanium—in the shape of a robed goddess. In her right hand she raises a sword, and in her left she holds a shield emblazoned with that tired, old, field-factory insignia of the failed regime. The statue is absurdist, the grandiose gesture of the fallen Soviet system, which hasn’t been replaced by anything as grotesquely magnificent.

I found myself at the base of this statue on my first trip to Kiev several years ago. I had flown in for a friend’s wedding, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the monument, the myth and history of it confounding the mind. I swallowed champagne with the rest of the reception crowd, as we waited for the bride, a Ukrainian model-turned-photographer, to appear with her American financier husband. Having climbed up through the interior of the statue, the couple poked out from the top of the shield high in the sky. The two then unfurled enormous American and Ukrainian flags, obscuring the hammer and sickle, before releasing clutches of doves to the air. Now this was a gesture of another kind altogether—a moment that encapsulated the new Kiev, where Western influences and Slavic traditions have united to transform this ancient city.

Kiev has undergone a furious change since that wedding day several years ago, and during my few dozen subsequent visits, I’ve stood witness to the transition. The fundamental event occurred in late 2004, when liberal-minded political forces staged a mass street protest against Kremlin-sponsored electoral fraud. The Orange Revolution awakened political hope where before there was only dread of power, and ushered Western-leaning Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency. Political consensus has been difficult to muster in the ensuing three years, but legislative reform and social change proceeds nevertheless.

The overall restructuring of life here has led many people to believe that Kiev—and all of Ukraine, with its 47 million people—is on the verge of breaking out of its dull, post-Soviet mold and becoming something altogether new and uplifting, part of the so-called “new Europe.” The adjustment in the general attitude has not escaped the notice of international investors. From national independence in 1992, until 2004, foreign direct investment into Ukraine totaled just $5.6 billion. But in the three years since the Orange Revolution, that number has ballooned to $20 billion. Hyatt, Radisson, and Intercontinental hotels have arrived in Kiev, along with flagship stores of most major fashion brands and carmakers. The newcomers now jockey for position with local oligarchs, whose cushy relations with the old apparatchiks had until recently afforded them a stranglehold on commerce.

This presents a strange game of sizing-up, as the rules of engagement alter by the week. The spawn of Ukrainian émigrés, who fled war and political cynicism have also been showing up, exploring their roots while transplanting values and skills learned in Western democracies—how to conduct business above-board, how to deal with the newly free press, how to excise intimidation from commercial relations. This mix of people and manners can produce a wild party, as Kiev is known for its ability to make anything happen for the right price, be it wealthy residents renting the entire botanical gardens for their own use or hiring out the national ballet for a weekend party at their dachas.

To anyone who favors real progress, Kiev’s Western lean can only be positive. But now that the Ukrainian state has dropped visa requirements for Americans and Western Europeans in an effort to drum up business and draw closer to the West, Kiev stands one EasyJet route away from becoming another cute tourist principality of ancient churches and digestible prices, bowled over by black beer and loud laughers. The days of beautiful strangeness are numbered. The drawbacks of progress never get any PR.

There is still time to catch Kiev with a proper mix of old and new, as the energy of recent arrivals mingles with an ancient logic that persists benign and toothless. Kiev presents a noticeably lighter shade of the Soviet aftershock. There are great similarities in the general routine and the heaviness to life in this part of the world. But in Kiev, things are done with a shrug, rather than with a scowl, as in Moscow. For centuries, Ukraine was known as Little Russia, and in the country’s capital today, the outlook of the underdog endures, and that makes the going considerably more relaxed.

IF IT’S ORANGE, it’s Kiev. In few places is a single color so loaded. Ever since Yushchenko’s political coalition chose it as its official color, orange has gone forth into the country as the hue of reform. Orange continues to dominate here, as it does during my visit on a recent, cold afternoon in mid-winter, the tangerine banners streaming down one of Kiev’s many hills, carried by marchers spilling onto European Square in the town center. It has often been election season here these last few years, as rival factions call for new votes, battling over seats in the parliament and the soul of the electorate.

I’ve returned to Kiev to gauge the speed and effect of progress. Always and everywhere are reminders of the past, whether it’s the concrete-slab Brezhnev-era architecture or the odd hammer-and-sickle fresco that catches the unaccustomed eye. Today the snow blankets the many middle-aged political supporters who have lived through decades of upheaval and privation. That’s just how it’s been in Kiev, stability as elusive as a prolonged stretch of good weather. I am taking it all in when a black Mercedes jeep stops in front of me. A door clicks open and a voice commands from inside: “Get in.”

I have known Robert Koenig for several years, and a better ally in Kiev would be hard to find, his vast local connections surpassed only by his generosity. Koenig, from Bethesda, Maryland, was a part of the first wave of Western developers arriving in Kiev a dozen years ago. He worked in-country for Pepsi for a few years, before realizing the vast opportunity inherent in a new market economy led by people with no capitalist experience. Koenig now owns a Ukrainian real-estate development company, the Black Sea Investment Group, which has brought many Western brands to the country—Mont Blanc, Dunhill, Tumi, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Piaget, among others. He also owns restaurants, nightclubs, casinos, family entertainment centers, and a fast-food empire.

“I just took Western ideas and adapted the American model to the Ukrainian taste,” Koenig says, his driver steering the jeep down Khreschatik, Kiev’s stately main artery. “It’s been bumpy. You had to understand that this was a brand new country. So you couldn’t expect the same things that you get in the West. For example, when I first started coming to Ukraine from America, I’d bring an entire suitcase full of food. But I don’t need to bring anything from the West anymore. They’re trying to adopt whatever’s in Western Europe and America, and bring it here as quickly as possible.”

Koenig’s car passes through Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, the heart of the city, a great open space carved from granite government buildings and mercantile centers, with oversized globes and golden idols huddled around a 5,000-jet fountain called the Friendship of Nations. This setting comprises the heart of the city. It was here, in 1989, that hundreds of university students staged a hunger strike that spurred the end of the Communist Party in Ukraine. It was also on Maidan that the Orange Revolution played out in 2004, thousands of protesters hunkering down for weeks in harsh winter conditions, as speakers rallied them from a makeshift dais.

Koenig watches Maidan roll past his tinted windows. “Prior to the Orange Revolution, Ukraine was a bandit society,” he says. “The authorities would push you around. If you supported the other side, suddenly the tax inspector would come see you, the fire inspector would come see you, the sanitary inspector would come see you. Now there’s not as much stress. You’re allowed to take sides without any repercussion. You can walk the streets free.”

We continue on through the city. There are roughly three million residents here, with the Dneiper splitting the cosmopolitan Right Bank from the suburban Left Bank. Koenig has to attend a business meeting, so he hops out at Arena City, his four-story entertainment complex—restaurant, casino, sports bar, and nightclub. But he loans me his car and driver, and I continue on through the hard-stone inner city, its winding, tree-stuffed neighborhood streets a mix of new apartment towers and un-renovated housing blocks. Up the bending cobblestone embankments, the car turns on to Vladimirska, a main avenue named for Kiev’s central historical figure. The son of a Norse washerwoman, Vladimir I took Kiev by treachery and fratricide in 980. The kingdom was then known as Kievan Rus, the Rus appellation courtesy of a Scandinavian tribe that conquered the area and established Kiev as the first capital of the Slavs.

Vladimir had 800 concubines and engaged in human sacrifice, or so it is said. If anything, Vladimir serves as a lesson that everything eventually gets old. Because having grown tired of all the wild behaviors, he dispatched advisors on a tour of local religions. When they returned from Constantinople with upbeat reports on Christianity, Vladimir was impressed but unmoved. It wasn’t until he met an unattainable Christian princess that he made his decision, being baptized in Crimea in 988. He then baptized his entire kingdom, connecting Kievan Rus with the Western world, and qualifying for eventual sainthood in the process.

The kingdom of Kievan Rus lorded over the territory until 1240, when the Mongols sacked Kiev. The Eastern Orthodox Church and all political power drifted north to Moscow and Russia’s Golden Ring, and Kiev would never again hold such sway with the world.

There is plenty still standing to remind one of Kiev’s medieval roots, such as Andreyevsky Uzviz, where Koenig’s car eventually sets me down. This is a downward spiral of a street (uzviz meaning descent), which from ancient times has formed a direct route between Kiev’s aristocratic Upper Town and Podil, the workers’ quarter. Today the street is packed with vendors selling the rare worthwhile souvenir, such as an artisan jewelry box or highly detailed tsarist-era ruble notes, among the many haggled trifles—a wooden mace, a busted Red Army watch—the stuff of vacationer regret.

To see how locals shop, there is Bessarabsky Rinok, in the city center. Here, women in head scarves sell fruit, vegetables, caviar, fish, meat, sausage, cheese, honey, and flowers in a rotunda dating to 1912—the furious, and often loud, commercial activity monitored by a Lenin statue standing in the center of the room. The shopping experience here looks and feels timeless, and yet what’s being sold these days is a remarkable contrast to the sparse offerings during the Soviet era.

Also in Kiev’s center, on Khreshchatik, the Passage complex and nearby Marki bazaar carry high-end Russian and Ukrainian fashion designers such as Alena Akhmadulina, NB Poustovit, and Olga Soldatova.

It’s not hard to find a taxi in Kiev, as almost any Ukrainian in a cheap Lada or Volga will stop and take you where you want to go, after haggling over the price. Without a working knowledge of Russian or Ukrainian—both of which are spoken here—it’s impossible to avoid paying double. But it’s cheap all the same. I flag down a car and cruise from Andreyevsky Uzviz and along the Dnieper, which carries on for 400 miles past Kiev and empties into the Black Sea. In olden times, the Dnieper was known as Slavutich, meaning “Slavic river.” These days, Slavutich is etched in cursive across the blue labels of Kiev’s mainstay local beer, and here are several tall glasses of the stuff landing on the table just now.

The restaurant is called Khutorok, and my friends have assured me that this is Kiev’s most authentic Ukrainian dining experience, situated in a wooden houseboat parked on the Dnieper. The waitresses wear traditional Ukrainian peasant dress, with its colorful stitching and ill fit, making you want to squat low and pitch in harvesting what the good Earth has yielded. The crockery comes, containing the savory substantiality of the Ukrainian kitchen. Sitting around the table are the close friends I’ve made in Kiev over the years— construction bosses, publishing magnates, financiers, Internet kingpins, and wildcatter Americans who arrived in the early days of the free market, and now rake in the spoils of their entrenched companies. Everyone is yelling and grabbing and reaching across the table for meat.

There is, of course, borsch, with thick dollops of sour cream swimming in the beet broth. Plates layered with shashlik—grilled pig, chicken, and veal—fist-sized chunks eaten under the drip of several sauces. Then vareniki, the Ukrainian dumpling, filled with potato, salmon, cherries, or meats and vegetables, also eaten with sour cream. And blinis with not-so-small black pyramids of sturgeon caviar—which is currently under an export ban, giving the meal a wisp of the illicit. (I have often fielded questions about the “black market” in Kiev. My answer: You can buy anything here—a Hollywood movie before its theatrical release, a military escort, pirated computer software—all a single phone call away. Spend enough time in Kiev, and it’s hard to return to “normal life,” waiting in line with everyone else.)

Meanwhile, someone corrals a round of horilka, the Ukrainian national drink, which is vodka blended with honey and hot red pepper. Horilka burns going down, and leaves a scalding aftertaste along the windpipe. This is a serious drink for a serious town. Kiev can be a dangerous place for Westerners, not for troubles inflicted by locals, but for the damage you will be tempted to inflict on yourself. One must chase horilka with salo, the fat of a pig. Salo is white and salty and cold to the tongue, and when you throw it on the fire of fuming horilka, it has a big-blanket, dousing effect.

Khutorok aside, there are plenty of new restaurants popping up in Kiev these days, such as Belvedere, on Dneprovsky Spusk, which has a Continental menu and is frequented by the mayor of Kiev, Leonid Chernovetsky. Ikra, on Saksa­ganskogo, has excellent seafood, along with an oyster bar and a fine slogan: if it’s fresher, it swims. For top-shelf Georgian, Kazbek is the place to go, and for French pastries and desserts, there is the Wolkonsky Patisserie & Café, in the Premier Palace Hotel. For a quiet few hours, decompress at Babuin, a bookstore, café, and bar on Bogdana Khmelnytskogo.

For a stiff drink, however, your best bet is the Balcony Bar at the new Hyatt Regency, on Tarasova, which looks upon the gold-leafed St. Sophia Cathedral and St. Michael’s monastery, both completed in the 1050′s. There is also Ryumka, which means “shot glass” in Russian, and the first floor at Arena City, on Basseynaya (across from Bessarabsky Rinok), which brews its own beer. For dancing along with your drinking, Barski has a terrace that affords great views of central Kiev. There is also Tsar Project, on European Square, a loud, cavernous club, and Privilege, on Parkovka, which resembles a Grecian theater.

Among the many new clubs, bars, and restaurants in Kiev, none is hotter than Decadence House. The club/café is black inside, an Art Deco chamber of discreet permissions. The door opens, and beautiful women keep coming in, wrapped in expensive fabrics. They are tall, and wear heels that lift them higher. The many candles and reduced, sugarplum-inspired chandeliers spill shadows across their fine features. Vyacheslav “Slava” Konstantinovsky, who owns Decadence with his twin brother, Alexander, tells me the story of a fight that broke out in the club a few weeks earlier. One of the combatants exited Decadence lightened by the weight of one ear.

With their shaved heads and compact build, the Konstantinovsky brothers look like Yul Brenner, but they’re a lot more than Hollywood tough. They came up through the Soviet sports apparatus, as Greco-Roman wrestlers, and they’re now connected to some very real power as board members of Kiev-Donbass, a highly influential Ukrainian real-estate developer. They opened Decadence four years ago, and the place now attracts a clientele willing to pay high prices for an exclusive, glamour-puss evening. Tonight there are many substantial capitalists here in oil and metals, a foreign ambassador or two, along with several parliamentary deputies.

During the Orange Revolution, the Konstantinovsky brothers offered up Decadence as a gathering point for Orange functionaries. The TVs here, which now run Fashion TV on a loop, were then switched to the hard news of history as it was happening: the mass street protests, the gathering army, the sweeping uncertainty of a political process in crisis. Slava waves it away. “We’re not so interested in politics now,” he says, hinting at the stability that allows Decadence to pull in predictable profits. That confident wave is the upshot of the Orange Revolution. Three years ago there was a great fear that it would all come to a violent end, but now there’s the calming belief that Ukraine, with its new political will and its foreign investors spurring on new shops, clubs, and restaurants—is on the path to positive social and economic reform.

Outside Decadence, a gypsy cab pulls up, and I hop in. An elderly woman sits at the wheel, her voice hoarse with cheap come-ons. She is easily 65, and tells of prostitutes that may be had directly. “Very clean,” she says. “Very beautiful, all of them.” If you are unaccustomed to the underside of life, in Kiev you will ultimately be confronted with it, all matter of vice and excess barely hidden beneath the surface.

The taxi driver lets me out at Koenig’s Arena City, where a long line piles at the coat check, fur sheaths and twinkling earrings, great clouds of perfume and the unfunny faces of some serious money, escorting the beauties to the higher floors. Past the brewery downstairs, the sports bar on the second floor, and through the packed casino on the third floor, the glass doors cantilever open with a wash of house music slopping down the translucent staircase.

The club’s oval dance floor is charged with the cravings of village girls and guys who save up their glib chatter for the weekends. The loudest laughter can be heard at the VIP table, decked out with tall bottles. Koenig is here, and pours out another drink for another ally, Darko Skulsky, who owns Ukraine’s top movie and TV company, Radioaktive Film. Radioaktive produced last year’s U.S. slasher movie, Hatchet, and has made hundreds of TV ads and music videos for markets throughout Europe. It’s much cheaper to mount productions here than it is in, say, Berlin or even in Prague.

Skulsky’s family fled Ukraine during WWII, ending up in Philadelphia. Skulsky grew up Darren, but after graduating college, he changed his name to Darko and wound up right back in Ukraine, where he established Radioaktive with two other Ukrainian-Americans. Tracing the bloodline has made for stark times. A few years ago near Kiev, Skulsky visited relatives he had never met. “They started talking among themselves about how much money they were going to be able to get out of me,” he says. “Finally, I had to tell them that I speak Ukrainian.” A pretty woman sneaks behind Skulsky to deposit her purse at the booth, and he pastes a smile on his face. “I gave them a couple hundred bucks. Man, if my family hadn’t gotten out, I’d be driving around here in a Lada with a spoiler on the back.”

Taste doesn’t run cheap here. Viktor Pinchuk, a steel billionaire and Ukraine’s second-richest citizen, recently opened the Pinchuk Art Centre, on Krasnoarmeyskaya, a contemporary collection that includes pieces by Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Andreas Gursky, all three of whom attended the opening of an exhibition of their works at Pinchuk’s gallery last fall. For Ukrainian art, there’s the Kollektsia Museum, on Pankivskaya, and the RA Gallery, on Bogdana Khmelnytskogo.

Kiev does not skimp on opera or ballet, either. Standards such as Swan Lake and La Bohème are performed with regularity at the Taras Shevchenko Ukrainian National Opera House, a grand structure on Vladimirskaya, considered one of the most prestigious in the former Soviet Union.

The day after my night at Arena, I find myself lacing the ice skates of a friend named Aliona. She has taken me to an indoor skating rink, the Pioneer Ice Club. The place is designed like a 1970s commissary. The staff here wears outfits that look as if they were left over from some failed Scandinavian attempt to host the Winter Games. After several circuits of the ice, we put our shoes back on and Aliona takes me on a short walk to one of Kiev’s landmarks: Pechersk Lavra monastery. The city is filled with such structures, not the least of which are towering monasteries and cathedrals, including St. Michael’s, St. Sophia, and St. Andrews.

It is deep-winter overcast, but the gold-leafed domes of the Pechersk Lavra monastery have absorbed enough light through the clouds to lighten the afternoon with a subdued reflection. Sledders take the long run down the hill leading from the church compound down toward the Dnieper. As we continue to the monastery, we pass a beggar with a peg-leg stump and then a memorial to the unknown soldier of WWII, the flicker of its flame sounding like a flag flapping in the wind.

Then we enter the gates of the thousand-year-old monastery. Lavra began as a cave in 1051, with monks living in a series of underground compartments. Over the ensuing centuries, Lavra spread across many acres as several churches were erected along this windy hilltop, the complex surrounded by high fortress walls. The Golden Horde destroyed Lavra in the 13th century. After being rebuilt, the compound met a similar fate in 1480, and again in 1941, when Soviet forces retreating from the Nazis laid mines that leveled many of the churches. Yet Lavra stands today, always rebuilt, emblem of Kievan Rus and Orthodox tradition, and Aliona’s feet are cold, she cries to me.

I send her home in one of the overpriced cabs that loiter cynically outside such places, and I head down to the Dnieper, where I have been told that the ice fishing is good. I shuffle onto the frozen surface, only to find a single fisherman remaining on the white expanse. He stares down into his little gap of the Dnieper, but soon packs up and walks off, his fishing gear nodding in his hands until he disappears in the distant white. This is the Kiev that doesn’t change.

The rest is up for grabs. As I look back toward the city from my vantage point on the ice, the most prominent image is the titanium statue of Soviet womanhood. My friend who celebrated his marriage there five years ago chose to stick around the neighborhood, rather than take the easy road back home. Now he manages a sizable investment fund, foreign money drawn to Kiev since the Orange Revolution. This is Kiev’s inevitable future: growth, and in every direction.

Cause to celebrate, I toast the city itself. I had picked up a bottle of gorilka on the way to the river, and the pepper vodka burns my insides rather than warms. No matter. Before me are the rolling hills of Kiev, Lavra and its unending Orthodox gold, the titanium statue, and a curious band of orange sunlight ripping through what has been a long and constant cover of cloud.