Kyiv is huge
Yulia and I live in a tiny village of less than one hundred people. It's in a tucked away area well off the beaten path. When it rains, our road remains muddy for weeks. The houses here are small, modest one story buildings.
|Our village. The only two story building is the big white Національний Дiм ("National Home"--only used during elections) lit up by the sun in the background.|
We live 30 miles (50 km) from Lviv. It is a city of just under a million people. There is a height limit to the buildings there, so there is no skyline in the modern sense of the word. Lviv's downtown is dominated by architecture from Austrian times--it's quaint and charming, but relatively small in scale.
|The heart of downtown Lviv|
In comparison, Kyiv is huge. It reminds us of the American city of Chicago. The buildings are tall and the streets are wide--especially in comparison to the medieval alleyways of Lviv. The volume of traffic is intense. At night, the sound never ceases. We had a particularly stuffy hotel room, so we had to keep the window open all night. We had a hard time sleeping because of the constant roar of the street fourteen stories below. The architecture of downtown Kyiv is a combination of beautiful, historic buildings (but unlike Lviv, they are enormous!) and modern high rises.
|A view from our hotel during our trip in 2011.|
Kyiv has a Metro
We love love love the Kyiv Metro! It's by far better than any subway system we have used anywhere. The trains come every two minutes or so. You never have to wait long for a train. The Metro stations are also beautiful!
|Inside the subway cars|
|We really like the "University" stop. It's right by the botanical garden, and there are many beautiful potted plants by the escalator. The lighting didn't lend itself to a good picture, but you get the idea! :) |
On our first day in Kyiv I went to a currency exchange. After I gave the lady at the booth dollars, she asked for something in Russian. I didn't understand and looked to Yulia for help. She told me that the lady wanted hryvnias so that she could return large bills to me. I gave her some hryvnias, and she asked for more because Yulia misunderstood her the first time. I obliged and apologized in Ukrainian, saying, "Sorry, I don't speak Russian."
I guess this set her off because she went into a long speech and shook her head as she counted my money. I had no idea what she was saying because, as I made clear earlier, I don't speak Russian. I stared at her blankly and took my money.
I guess she was saying something rude (I later found out that she said, "All kinds of foreigners come here, from England and all over the world, and they all understand Russian."). Yulia was listening to everything as she stood off to the side. She went up to the window after I left and said, "So you think that everyone understands Russian?"
"Well, I'm not obligated to speak to anyone in Ukrainian."
"What country do you think you live in? This is Ukraine."
"Girl, why are you yelling at me?"
At this point we left in disbelief. I just want to reiterate what happened. I was speaking Ukrainian. In the Ukrainian capital. And a woman became upset with me because I didn't understand Russian.
Aside from this incident, most other people we spoke to in Kyiv were quite friendly. Many of them switched to Ukrainian when they spoke with us, but it was unnerving that we had some friction with that lady on our first day in Kyiv.
We went to restaurants with some trepidation. When we went to one place for dinner, we received only Russian language menus. I explained that I don't understand Russian and asked for a Ukrainian menu. They let me know that they didn't have a Ukrainian menu, but an English one.
Also, we had some business to attend to at the American Embassy, and again, surprisingly, Russian. When we were moving through security a lady was saying what kinds of things to take out of our bags and pockets before going through the metal detector. Yulia saw me struggling to understand and started explaining what she was saying. The embassy worker saw and had to get one of her coworkers to translate into English. Again, this was the American embassy in Ukraine, and Russian was spoken there. Some employees knew English. No Ukrainian (I don't want to paint an overly grim picture, either. The people inside were quite friendly and professional and spoke English fluently).
We've only spent about seven days total between our two trips to Kyiv, and we already met some resistance to our speaking Ukrainian. It makes us wonder how difficult it would be to live there and try to continue speaking Ukrainian long term.
We hear many people call Kyiv a bilingual city, but Yulia and I think Lviv might actually be a better example. True, Lviv is an overwhelmingly Ukrainian speaking city, but there are locals who speak Russian as well. We encounter many of them in Франківський Район (Frankivs'kyi Rayon), a beautiful, well-to-do neighborhood of the city. They speak Russian and most people speak to them in Ukrainian. We've lived here for four years without seeing any conflicts.
Communist Monuments and Symbols
Long before the decommunization laws that were passed earlier this year, Lviv got rid of its Soviet monuments and symbols. You'd be hard pressed to find a hammer and sickle around here.
It's different in Kyiv. Despite the decommunization laws, we still saw communist stars on lamp posts and a statue of a guy on a horse with a hammer and sickle on it (I also noticed that someone had spray painted Слава Україні (Glory to Ukraine) on it, but the paint has since been washed off. The hammer and sickle remain).
What was outside of the currency exchange where I got yelled at the first night? A gigantic pedestal holding up the communist star.
Kyiv seems more "American" to us
Despite a few old symbols from Soviet times, Kyiv has the feel of a modern American city to us. The streets are wide and the economy seems to be bustling. We saw few, if any, Ladas or old junkers. Most cars are new and shiny compared to Lviv. We also noticed that the people were finely dressed. I've almost forgotten what it's like to see a grown man with neatly combed hair wearing a collared shirt and sweater.
|The wide, yet empty streets of Chicago--I mean, Kyiv|
You'll see nicely dressed people in Lviv as well, but not to the same extent. Lviv is much smaller and has many residents who are recent transplants from the surrounding countryside. It has much fewer native urbanites.
And while Kyiv seems very American to us, the urban fabric of Lviv is more "European." Lviv's historic buildings are from Austrian times, so it's no wonder why it has the feel of any other northern European city.
Despite these superficial and not-so-superficial differences, we think Kyiv and Lviv have more in common than not.
Living in a small village, we forget what it's like to go to a city--whether it be Kyiv or Lviv--and have to constantly walk through other people's cigarette smoke on the sidewalk.
Like all big cities in Ukraine, Kyiv and Lviv have pretty good economies (that is, jobs) which vacuum up people from surrounding villages and towns where, sometimes, there is no economy to speak of. The only difference is that Kyiv, being the capital, gets people from all across the country.
Recently, however, Lviv is giving Kyiv a run for its money. It's becoming very attractive to investors, professionals, inventors, creative types, and all sorts of people. As this recent RFE/RL article says: "The country's GDP is set to contract by 9 percent this year, but you wouldn't guess it by walking around Lviv. New restaurants open every month, and posters advertise new residential developments." Like Kyiv, Lviv's IT sector is really taking off. One Israeli IT entrepreneur, who moved to Kyiv before relocating to Lviv, cites the locals as the reason why he set up business here:
While Yulia and I are thrilled that Kyiv and Lviv are doing so well, we get the feeling that they are virtual islands isolated from the ocean of Ukrainian land around them. They vacuum up not only people from the surrounding countryside, but also talent and resources. Ukraine just had local elections, which made us consider who in our surrounding area we should vote for. We wonder who is actually qualified to be elected into office. Who has the leadership skills? Who can take on such a responsibility and who understands how to manage money for a village or town?"Lviv today is in effect not only the most comfortable place for living, but the least problematic in terms of the mind-set of people," he says, stressing that it's not "just because of the closeness of a [European] border."He explains that the city differs from others in Ukraine because it has no oligarchs, and boasts a healthy middle class unified by a singular goal.
Whoever is in charge now is doing a pitiful job. We see little evidence that they know how to organize a group of workers to fix a road or manage money. We've seen a policeman on our street once in the 2+ years we've been living at our home. Old buildings from the former колгосп (collective farm) are crumbling, and no one is even thinking about demolishing or reusing them.
|A local road near our village|