Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Kyiv and Lviv: A Comparison

Yulia and I just got back from a quick trip to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. This was our second trip to the city, and we only spent a few days there on each trip, so we are by no means experts. Still, we've been able to make some observations while traveling there. This post will be about the differences and similarities between Kyiv and Lviv.

The differences:

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! :) 

Lviv doesn't have a subway system, but it does have pretty good public transportation. There are buses, mini-buses (маршрутки), trolleybuses, and trams. The video below is about the designers of the new trams in Lviv. They were designed, constructed and, now, used in Lviv. While Lviv may not be as big and wealthy as Kyiv, there are many people here who care about their city and who try to make a difference. We think their care and love shows! (The video is in Ukrainian, though we'd recommend watching it just for the images, which are lovely).


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.

The similarities:

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:
"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.
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?

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
Since the quality of life has now improved in cities like Kyiv and Lviv, it may be time for the much touted talent in those cities to begin to think about the rest of the country. Why do the roads suddenly fall apart when you drive beyond the city limits? Why are there good paying jobs only in the biggest cities? During the electricity emergency last year, we had daily blackouts in our village. However, when I drove to Lviv, the soccer stadium had its lights on full blast, lighting up the sky for miles around. Why is everybody who is not a city resident treated as a second class citizen?

Don't get us wrong, if you're a visitor or an expat in Ukraine, we think Kyiv and Lviv are wonderful places to visit or live. They have all the amenities and infrastructure you expect and need. Also, you'll be able to find all the Ukrainian history and culture you're looking for. Enough people speak English for an outsider to get around. The cost of visiting Ukraine is much less than the cost of going to most other European cities, but your experience will probably be the same as, if not better than, going somewhere else. Definitely give them a try!


  1. I an American have been living in the central part of Kyiv now for 6 months. My Russian is very poor and I know 2 words of Ukrainian. I have found that a fair amount of people in this part of the city know Ukrainian and I have been urged numerous times to learn Ukrainian and not Russian. No matter it is a great city to live in.

    1. Hi Al. Thanks for the comment.
      Yes, that was our experience too. As I said in the post, many people switched to Ukrainian when talking to us, and, regardless of the language they spoke, most people were very friendly.
      Our suspicion is that the lady at the currency exchange thought I was trying to make some kind of point by saying I don't speak Russian. Who knows. There was no need to get offended though. As an American I think it counts for something that I can go to Ukraine and speak Ukrainian instead of trying to get by on English.
      We've been living in Lviv for four years now and have never once seen any problems when Russian speakers come here and can't understand Ukrainian.
      And you're right, Kyiv really is a great city to live in! :)

  2. Hi there

    Totally agreed! Kyiv has that American feel to it.
    Re. the Russian being spoken in the capital. Don't forget that during Soviet times, people were flowing there from all corners of the CCCP. In order to push they career forward, they had to speak Russian, whilst Ukrainian was perceived to have a somewhat "countryside" feel attached to it. :)
    Don't get me wrong but that's what I heard many times. When I was in Kyiv for the first time a few years back, I was also taken aback by the fact everyone speaks Russian :)
    (note that I'm a foreigner that speaks Ukrainian)


    1. We, of course, know about and expected to encounter Russian in Kyiv. You're right about the history.

      I want to be clear that we don't have a problem with Russian speakers. But we were taken aback by that one lady being upset with me because I couldn't understand her. We never encounter that sort of thing in Lviv. Of course, she was just one out of many people we talked to there.

      In the rest of that section I simply wanted to describe our experience with language in Kyiv because it is so different than what we encounter on a daily basis--no judgments, good or bad.

      It's wonderful that you speak Ukrainian as a foreigner! How did you learn it? Are you originally from Poland or did you move there from another country?

  3. I'm from Poland. Grew up some 130 kilometers from Lviv (Zamosc - worth a visit by the way!!) :)
    I learned Ukrainian just because the country always interested me. It was so close, yet so different - a totally different world. Never learned it at school but picked up a bit of Ukrainian by simply going there on a regular basis.
    Trust me - Ukrainian is similar to Polish and getting to grips with it is no problem for Poles (and the other way round, too!)

    on a side note - just a few months after I visited Kyiv, Maidan protests began and I simply wanted to follow the news about it. Polish media outlets weren't too eager to provide information on it (or it was too biased) so I decided to follow Ukrainian media outlets. And this is how I polished my Ukrainian to a much higher level.

    Overall, I got nothing against Russian-speaking Ukrainians, too. I just wanted to put in my two cents and that's it :) Judging people by the language they speak is just silly.

  4. That's great! I (Michael) also brushed up on my Ukrainian during the protests.

    Yulia and I have been to Zamosc, but only at night when we were driving from Warsaw. We bought some nice glass bowls at Galeria Lwowska!

  5. I visited Kyiv three years ago and ran into many, many people who understood Russian, but chose to speak back in Ukrainian. As a statement, I guess.