Arriving in Kiev, you’d be hard pressed to find signs of economic hardship and the ongoing war. The billboards along the motorway leading from the airport into the city centre advertise luxury cars and apparel. Couples strolling along Khreschatyk, Kiev’s main street, on a balmy summer night are dressed according to the latest fashion from European catwalks. Young street artists sing Ukrainian rock pleasing the crowds. Ubiquitous coffee vendors sell proper coffee (from 10p a cup) made using Italian coffee machines fit into the back of their cars. Souvenir stalls are packed with fridge magnets of the Ukrainian flag, mugs “I Love Kiev” and toilet paper with an image of Putin and a caption even the Urban Dictionary would struggle to translate.
What began as a peaceful protest against government corruption and demand for closer relationship with Europe in November 2013, when hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians came out to Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kiev’s Independence Square, led to riots, political crisis and violent clashes in different parts of Ukraine. The bloodshed in Kiev ended in February 2014 after former president Yanukovich fled the country and the new “pro-European” government came into power. However, at the same time new protests sparked in southern and eastern Ukraine where predominantly Russian-speaking population argued for closer integration with Russia.
Following an unconstitutional referendum, the Crimean peninsula became a federal subject of Russia in March 2014. At the same time protests in Donbas (area of the river Donets) in eastern Ukraine escalated to the full-scale civil war between pro-Russian separatists and the new government, led by Petro Poroshenko. According to the UN News Centre, at least 6,454 people (both military and civilians) have died, and another 16,146 have been wounded since the outbreak of hostilities. Over 1.3 million people have been internally displaced due to the ongoing conflict. Despite the truce brokered by Russia, Germany and France back in February 2015, armed skirmishes continue to claim lives.
Fading photos of those who fell in the Maidan.
Meanwhile, life goes on in Kiev. Old babushkas sell wild carnations they had picked earlier that day. Evdokiya, who is in her eighties, struggles to make ends meet on her monthly pension of 1,200 hrivna (c.£40). Ukraine’s latest CPI (Consumer Price Index) indicates an inflation rate of 58 per cent year-on-year. Evdokiya is plainly pessimistic about the future: “It’s been getting worse and worse,” she says. Her generation went through the famine of the 1931-1932, World War Two, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (when Ukraine became an independent state) and now the Euromaidan revolution. Her life has seen more than a fair share of austerity.
Poroshenko’s government, distracted by the war, is slow to mend the social infrastructure: pensions are pitiful, the healthcare is free on paper but in reality, everything has to be paid for. On the other hand, streets and metro stations are heavily patrolled by the newly formed police force. “We need this vigilance right now”, argues Alina, a former investment banker who now works for the UN. Alex, 25, tells me he has first hand experience of the new policing regime. When walking home from work, he was stopped by the patrolling policemen and asked for his papers, a routine matter in Kiev. Once they had learned he was born in Donetsk, they searched his backpack and his pockets before letting him go. Alex’s father is still in eastern Ukraine, his mother lives in Odessa and his sister has emigrated to Switzerland. Alex has two jobs, managing a hostel and making coffee, but he hopes to move to Poland, if he can get a work visa.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the older generation is worried about the future. Larisa, 52, sells chilled drinks and snacks at the People’s Friendship Arch built in 1980s by the Soviet government. Since Russia and the Ukraine are no longer “friends”, the titanium arch is not lit at night (above) and, according to Larisa, is about to be deconstructed. “There are no jobs, unless you are 20 or 30”, complains Larisa. “My children work 12-hour shifts and get 2,000 hrivna [c.£67] a month”. Meanwhile, the government promised to clean Kiev of any remaining Soviet signage. “They’ll pour money into taking the images of wheat stems off cast iron bridges, as if we don’t have other problems.”
Larisa’s frustration is understandable. The new mayor of Kiev, the former boxer Vitali Klitschko, decided the city had too many soft drinks and coffee vendors and announced a tender for a limited number of places. Apart from a mountain of paperwork, each retail place was offered for a considerable license fee, payable up front. “Who but the rich entrepreneurs with a network of kiosks and connections within the city administration can afford to pay in advance?” asks Sveta, who had to fold her own kvas (traditional fermented cold drink) stand. Sveta got a job with a chain of soft drink stalls in Mariinsky Park but her income, which has to feed a family of five, has halved. Vitalik, 28, tells me the same story, as he is setting up his coffee van in the Volodimirskaya Gorka Park: “In Kiev’s administration, one gang was replaced with another.”
While retail trade and hospitality are generally suffering from fewer tourists coming from Russia and the West, cafés in the centre of Kiev are making the most of the local crowd. Anya and Andrey are having family dinner with their three-year-old daughter on Khreschatyk, just two hundred yards from Maidan Nezalezhnosti, where only candles, flowers and black-framed photos remind on the blood that was spilled when Yanukovich’s force opened fire on the protesters. “People came to put an end to the dictatorship from Kremlin,” explains Anya, “we had had enough of Putinism.” She admits that life was better with the previous government, because of Russia subsidising the Ukraine’s economy. “The prices are crazy right now,” says her husband Andrey, “while an average bank clerk (working at Italian Intesa) earns 3,500 hrivna [c.£117] a month.” And yet, the couple is optimistic about the future, arguing that Poroshenko needs time to deliver the reforms he had promised. “We are in a vulnerable state right now, but I hope changes will come. I support our president and I hope we’ll join the EU,” says Anya, raising a toast to Ukraine with a shot of prune vodka. “We are happy to die as long as we are not dragged back to the USSR.”
Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kiev.
Another couple, Alina and Svyatoslav, also in their early thirties, speak of the “re-born” Ukraine with the passion of true patriots. “Ukraine today has the best government it has ever had.” Indeed, many new ministers were recruited from the private sector. Minister of Finance, Natalie Jaresko, was one of the co-founders and Chief Executive Officer of a fund with $600m under management. Minister of Economic Development and Trade, Aivaras Abromavicius, was previously a partner at private equity firm Swedish East Capital. Andrii Pyvovarskyi, Minister of Infrastructure, was also a former investment banker. The newly drafted reforms are offered to public scrutiny via an online portal reforms.in.ua, with its model inspired by the government site of the UK. “Our society has awakened, reforms are on their way,” says Alina. “Now we need the war to end.”
The deep wound that cannot stop bleeding is the war in the east. Most people speak little of it – it’s too painful a subject. Some are less inhibited: “Eastern Ukrainians aren’t Ukrainians. They aren’t patriots,” says Kiev-born Anya. Such opinions are not uncommon here, which makes one wonder whether “United Ukraine” posters still spread around the city are mere lip service. Back in the early years of the USSR the territories east of the river Dnieper were rapidly industrialised. Coal mining and metallurgy transformed Donbas into the powerhouse of the Soviet Union. Migrant workers from all over Russia settled in Eastern Ukraine and have been living there ever since.
Dmitriy has been playing chess in Shevchenko park for decades.
Dima, 37, who came to Kiev from Donetsk ten years ago, tells me he has relatives in Kuban and Siberia. Under Yanukovich, the corruption was so widespread that you could not run any business without “buying protection” first. Local elections were always rigged. “Imagine a teacher, respected by the local community, standing for elections into the local government. Everyone knows and supports him. Then comes a suit from Kiev with an expensive car and a handful of glossy flyers and wins the seat,” says Dima. With his mother still living near eastern battlefields, he is hopeful the new government can improve on the previous one. “It’s a tricky and a turbulent path, but I believe we are moving forward.”
Chess enthusiasts have been meeting in Kiev’s Shevchenko Park for generations. Dmitriy, 58, who now lives in Israel, recalls coming to play chess here 40 years ago. Men I spoke to were first reluctant to talk about politics, masterfully changing the subject to literature and beer, without taking their eyes off the chessboards. “We have no idea where we are heading to, but we are clinging to the boat,” offered one. “Our country is great, the government isn’t,” added another. They fear the new ministers are too used to working from their offices to make themselves more present. They don’t visit enterprises or hospitals but they write reforms. On the other hand, Poroshenko has only been at the steering wheel for just over a year, and his performance is too early to judge. “People got a new sense of freedom, that’s why we are patient – for now,” explains one player. His opponent Dmitriy, who started his business in Ukraine in the early 1990s producing medical equipment, is curiously positive, despite his company suffering from the excruciatingly high costs of the imported materials: “If you are entrepreneurial and ambitious, the opportunities in the times of crisis are unparalleled.”
“We needed a kick up the backside to get going,” is a telling summary offered by a young barista, who fixed me a mean cup of coffee near Maidan, where the Independence Monument appears to be shining in the light of new optimism.