Taking in the Irrepressible Energy of Kiev, Ukraine

Ambroise Tézenas

Kiev leaves the mind reeling Perhaps no other city except Havana is as torn between its past and its future, with the present but an afterthought. If in Havana you drown your despair in sunlight and song, in Kiev you squeeze it down into a shot glass of vodka, or horilka, as it is known here, and then you talk about the Russian troops massing on the border, and about the flamboyant corruption of the local politicians, and then, despite it all, you find yourself laughing into the night.

A graceful city stashed amid the full catalogue of 20th- and 21st-century horror, Kiev has pockets of cool and hip, and entire valleys of grief and insanity. Yes, Chernobyl is just a two-hour drive north. Yes, Russian-backed forces (and actual Russians) are currently occupying parts of the country’s east and the Crimean peninsula. Yes, one of the city’s best new attractions is the over-the-top suburban palace of the deposed ex-president of Ukraine, complete with an ostrich farm and a Tibetan-mastiff breeding center. Yes, Babi Yar, the ravine in which up to 150,000 Jews and other inhabitants of the city were shot to death in World War II, is to be found here, and yes, there is also a memorial commemorating the millions of Ukrainians who were starved to death during Stalin’s bloody rule. And, yes, yes, yes, despite all of that, and perhaps because of it, you should still go. Now. Because the true measure of a city isn’t what scoundrels do to it, but how the locals survive their plight. Kiev muddles through with verve and spunk and something not unlike joy. Its coat of arms could well be a pair of shoulders shrugging.

Ambroise Tézenas

Being driven into Kiev, I can tell something is different from my usual jaunts to the former Soviet Union. My cabbie isn’t complaining about Tajiks being lazy, Chechens violent, Jews arrogant, or Georgian youths partying too loudly in this building’s courtyard — the usual racist babble. Although, according to the talk show on the taxi’s radio, there is a lot to complain about. The hryvnia, the local currency, is down 60 percent for the year and inflation is up by 50 percent, the result of the nightmarish Moscow-directed civil war in Donetsk and Luhansk to the east, a conflict that has hit a stalemate by the time of my visit. And, more impressive, almost every single billboard running into the city has been commandeered for the upcoming local elections. It would appear that half of Kiev’s population is running for mayor. There’s the Party of Simple Folks; the Dill Party, which promises “concrete results”; a cartoon rhinoceros who promises “reform”; and the party of the current president, Poroshenko, promising nothing less than “peace.” If I could vote, I’d probably cast it for the “free Wi-Fi” party.

Throughout my stay I will be told how many of the candidates are in the pockets of corrupt oligarchs (et tu, Dill Party?), but the cacophony of democracy is still impressive, louder and more urgent than anything you will find in the European Union, to which Ukraine desperately aspires to belong. After being in Kiev for 40 minutes, I feel oddly safe and free.

That night, I have dinner with Masha Gessen, the popular Moscow-born writer and commentator who is visiting Kiev for a conference. “Ukrainians actually like their food,” Gessen says. She’s suggested Lyubimy Dyadya, or Favorite Uncle, which just might offer the best meal to be had in Kiev these days. The place is bizarrely uncluttered despite the presence of Buddhas, motor scooters, electric fireplaces, and the stylish Westernized couples who love them. The menu can be coy — there’s an “almost-Thai salad” — but the cuisine hits the mark with a kind of Egyptian-Israeli-Iraqi-Ukrainian-Jewish bent that might spell disaster anywhere but this place. Here the traditional Jewish appetizer of forshmak, a salty, heavenly mix of chopped herring and onion, presented with egg and “young cucumber,” sits next to salo, the Ukrainian version of lard, served with smoky mustard and marinated onion. A quick word on salo: cruder but more assertive than, say, a timid dash of Italian lardo di colonnata, salo is indeed the spirit of a nation, the means by which a Ukrainian peasant communes with her pig. It is also bacon’s cooler Eastern European cousin; you can’t chase shots of horilka with bacon, can you?

Talk naturally falls to the topic du jour — which country will Putin invade next? Gessen’s take: “He lost in Ukraine and is losing in Syria, so Estonia’s next.” Having put that issue to rest, we order dessert. Nostalgia triumphs and we go for the Kiev torte, a dry Soviet creation that has haunted me throughout many family occasions. Originally invented by Kiev’s Karl Marx Confectionery Factory in the 1950s, the torte is a sad testament to how the combination of hazelnuts, meringue, chocolate, and sweet buttercream can actually be used in the service of evil. At Favorite Uncle, however, it’s a masterpiece: light and lovely, and easy on all the ingredients, most of all the cardboard meringue that can make finishing one the equivalent of some mad diabetic half-marathon. “Kiev has always been a better eating city than Moscow,” Gessen says, and although these are politically charged words, I agree completely.

The next day, following Gessen’s advice, I get a bottle of nalivka, a thick-bodied western Ukrainian liqueur. My favorite flavor is honey, sweet enough to wash away any brand of local despair save for the heartache of first love. Armed with a handy bottle of forgetting, I’m ready to tackle the city.

Ambroise Tézenas

The wide Khreshchatyk Boulevard is the spinal column of Kiev, an outrageous Neoclassical wonderland filled with midrange labels like Zara and Mango sprouting beneath gigantic Stalin-era arches and courtyards. Its emotional heart lies on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), home to the major protests against the 21st-century oligarchs trying to run Ukraine into the ground, including the deadly Euromaidan uprisings of 2013 and 2014 that saw the ouster of the hilariously corrupt, pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. The square, hemmed in on all sides by monumental Stalinist buildings, as thick and puffed-up as the Generalissimo’s whiskers, is actually situated above two cavernous underground malls. The Euromaidan — so named because of Ukraine’s desire to float out of Russia’s orbit and into Europe’s — may have been the first revolution staged above a Tommy Hilfiger. Today, the Maidan is a place of both celebration and sorrow, with giant billboards touting glory to Ukraine, and memorials to the “Heavenly Hundred” who died during street clashes with Yanukovych’s armed minions. The mood is somber, babushkas crying over photos of fallen computer programmers, economists, and welders, while easels show the ragtag forces battling the Russian-backed insurgents in the east. That honey liqueur is coming in handy already.

But now it’s time to move on to the hard stuff. I meet up with my friend Yulia McGuffie (a Kiev native; she married a Scotsman) and we decide to do something very Kiev, just stroll around eating salo and doing a shot or three. McGuffie turned 40 a few weeks ago, and celebrated with an epic bacchanal. She used to be the editor of a prominent online news magazine whose owner turned up on an Interpol list after Euromaidan. Now she cohosts an Internet radio show and tends bar at Alchemist, one of the best in town. We walk up the busy Khreshchatyk, passing grandmothers selling rolls of toilet paper with Putin’s likeness captioned by the nickname his opponents use for him (it references the male genitalia) to the Besarabasky market, an Art Nouveau hangar brimming with flowers, fruit, and endless cries of “Caviar!” — mostly of the contraband variety. We stroll past the Peizazhna Aleia and take note of the fact that half the hatchbacks in the city have been repurposed to sell espresso. We also note a vehicle shaped like a snail.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, Kiev at times reminds me of Portland, Oregon. There’s just a whiff of the unconsciously strange here; yes, snails dispensing caffeine, but also shops with names like Bowties Are Cool and brass bands playing Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita.” The corrupt police force has recently been reformed and now all the young, cute cops in the city center seem to be driving Priuses. “It’s trendy to take selfies with them,” McGuffie says. “It’s the new Ukraine.”

There’s nothing hip about the Andriyivskyy Descent, the city’s most touristy street, winding down from St. Andrew’s Church to the Podil neighborhood, but lovers of borscht, the beet soup at the heart of Ukrainian cuisine, must stop at Kanapa. We order 50 grams of horilka to get warm, and another 50 grams to keep warm. The borscht is of the highest order, incredibly sweet, studded with little chunks of fried pig’s ears, prunes, and smoked pear. It is served with a fearsome hunk of garlic challah — pig’s ears aside, the line between Ukrainian and Jewish cuisine can at times feel imaginary. Back in the upper portion of the city, we stop by St. Sophia’s Cathedral, the most beautiful church in Kiev. Built during the 11th century and named after Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia, the cathedral feels like a more humane version of its storied parent. At 4 p.m. on a cold autumn day, its mosaics and frescoes glow warm and transcendent, needing shelter in a stormy part of the world.

As the sun sets, we drink in earnest. Yes, there’s a financial crisis on, but you wouldn’t know it by the profusion of up-to-the-minute bars in the city. The style is the kind of speakeasy chic pioneered by the late New York cocktail revolutionary Sasha Petraske — think meticulously made drinks and leather aprons. Most of the bars are a brick’s throw away from the Khreshchatyk: Alchemist is where bartenders sporting topknots lovingly concoct negronis. Nearby is Budu Pozhe, whose founder, Dima Gavrysh, spent years in New York and Portland. “When I saw what was happening on the Maidan, I had to move back,” he tells me, thrusting into my hands an elderberry-and-gin drink that has yet to be named. There are many men and women in interesting sweaters around me. Gavrysh is careful about curating his clientele. He doesn’t want corrupt older biznesmen and women with footwear that suggest the possibility of amorous relations with such men. Indeed, the absence of these high-heeled, eight-foot-tall creatures makes Budu Pozhe feel like the antithesis of a post-Soviet night out.

In the morning, I take a trip to Chernobyl with a motley collection of disaster enthusiasts. We are helpfully told not to eat the dirt in the 30-mile so-called Exclusion Zone, and that while there are no bathrooms, we can “use bushes, trees, or abandoned buildings to pee.” As we leave Kiev we see the other Ukraine, the one with a rusted fishing trawler in the middle of a sandy field, and young beauties by the side of the road, their calves glistening in the sun, waiting for the bus or something more lucrative.

Several days before the trip, Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian writer, won the Nobel Prize for literature in part because of her masterful accounting of the nuclear disaster, Voices from Chernobyl. “The Zone pulls you in,” a hunter relates to her. “You miss it, I tell you. Once you’ve been there, you’ll miss it.”

Ambroise Tézenas

And he’s right. The Exclusion Zone, which includes both the village of Chernobyl and the town of Pripyat, is one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited. Surrounded by carpets of pine, filled with vibrant fauna — no, you will never encounter that fabled three-headed fox, because it doesn’t exist, but you will see Japanese tour groups playing with stray puppies — Chernobyl dares to pose the most irreverent question: Will the world be a better place once human beings leave it alone? The Zone’s plentiful boars, moose, and wild horses seem to think so.

In a sense, the Zone is a monument to the failures of the Soviet Union. One of the attractions is the enormous “Russian Woodpecker” radar structure, designed to spot missile launches from North America moments after they would take place, and reportedly costing more than the Chernobyl power station itself. In typical Soviet fashion, it never really worked. You can actually climb the first two stories and marvel at the podlike signal receivers that never got a chance to predict a nuclear attack, much less the disaster that unfolded only a few miles away.

The blown reactor itself stands beneath a temporary Soviet sarcophagus; a new European-made one is being prepared to roll over the old one using a complex set of railroad tracks. “Time for some radiation exposure!” our feisty local guide says as our bus pulls up. Right in front of the reactor, my dosimeter is showing traces of radiation about 16 times the recommended dosage — at one of the hot spots near an abandoned kindergarten I clocked in at 48 times normal — but this is still considered safe for limited amounts of time.

And there it is: a gray wreck of cement with that iconic red-and-white ventilation stack. It’s hard to know what to feel when confronted with a wretched piece of machinery that nearly took out half of Europe. Bored-looking cops smoke to the side.

But the most interesting part of the trip is the abandoned town of Pripyat, once home to 50,000 citizens and today a time capsule of Soviet life and Soviet death. One lane of Lenin Street, the main thoroughfare, has been taken over by jungle-like foliage, and the sign dominating the ruins of the main square reads let the atom be a worker, not a soldier, a Soviet slogan supporting peaceful use of nuclear energy. Think of Pripyat as a far-better-preserved Pompeii. You look for the little details of past habitation, of lives uprooted and torn. A supermarket with dedicated aisles for beer and fruit juices testifies to how privileged “nuclear cities” like Pripyat used to be compared with ordinary Soviet burgs where you stood in line for hours for some inedible sausage. There’s a massive swimming pool that left me speechless. Until 1996, the so-called Liquidators, the brave workers who cleaned up Chernobyl and prevented a much larger catastrophe from unfolding, took swimming breaks here after their grueling and dangerous rounds at the reactor. But nothing is sadder than School Number Three, its cafeteria littered with children’s gas masks. They were supposed to be used in case of nuclear attack by the United States, but when the reactor next door exploded, the children were not instructed to use them, with devastating consequences. The authorities didn’t want to cause a panic.

Ambroise Tézenas

When you leave, you go through two full-body radiation scans at the 30-kilometer and 10-kilometer checkpoints. The results are either “clean” or “dirty.” I test clean, but a part of me knows the hunter is right. I will miss this place, with its chirping birds and gurgling brooks carved out of a landscape of death. Chernobyl is proof of how beautiful nature can be when it reclaims our mistakes.

Mezhyhirya, the estate of the deposed president Viktor Yanukovych, tells the story of what happened next. Located less than an hour outside Kiev, it occupies 350 acres on the banks of the Kiev Reservoir. In all its gaudiness and megalomania, one may think of it as a contemporary Versailles. I am fortunate to be the guest of Denis Tarahkotelyk, a burly former philosopher and businessman who is now the “People’s Commandant” of Mezhyhirya. Once Yanukovych fled for Russia, it was Tarahkotelyk and others who convinced more-radical members of the Euromaidan movement to save it as, in his words, “a monument to corruption.” Today the estate, filled with ostrich and goat farms and greenhouses, is actually run as a business and a museum. “The antelopes are having so many kids, we’re building extra sheds for them!” Tarahkotelyk tells me as we tool around in his Volvo station wagon, listening to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” When I ask him to which branch of the government the estate now belongs, Tarahkotelyk simply says: “It belongs to the people.”

The main house feels like Carmela Soprano’s hot, fevered dream. Canaries sing from their gilded cages. Lalique glass tables worth $150,000 dot the parlors and antechambers. There are tanning booths and a salt cave, an oxygen bath and a helipad, not to mention the hall of Tibetan and English mastiffs and a restaurant in the form of a large galleon ship. (To give a small measure of respect to the deposed leader’s taste, the floors do feature some amazing Ukrainian woodwork.) But perhaps the most symbolic part of the estate is the bowling alley, where the porcine leader placed a photo of himself in a shaft wearing a miner’s outfit — mining is one of Ukraine’s most dangerous occupations — grinning so that his guests could get a nice laugh contrasting the leader to his subjects. For Tarahkotelyk, the true purpose of Mezhyhirya is “to give our children a vaccination against slavishness.”

“We’ve had a good collection of tragedies,” Andrey Kurkov, Ukraine’s preeminent writer, who is best known for his mordant Penguin novels, tells me over dinner. “We’ve had twenty-four years of crisis.”

We’re dining at La Cantina, a charming Italianish restaurant on the equally charming Yaroslaviv Val, one of the pleasant Art Nouveau–dotted streets that lends Kiev a delicate, Prague-like air. Since the conflict with Russia began, Kurkov’s works have been banned in that country because of his pro-Ukraine stance (he is an ethnic Russian fluent in both languages). As we talk, two giant pieces of juicy beef sizzle away on hot rocks. We flip over our steaks and slap on pats of butter and creamy Gorgonzola sauce. Kurkov’s books are available in dozens of languages, and he spends half of his year giving readings in places like Beijing and Cape Town. But this stretch of leafy Kiev is his home, and as we dine, his two lovely boys, ages 12 and 16, are in his apartment around the corner, watching Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in English.

“Ukraine is Russia’s last hope,” he says, raising a glass of Montepulciano to two countries forever intertwined in a part of the world that could use fewer tragedies and more of Kiev’s laughter and bonhomie.

-Gary Shteyngart

The Details: What to Do in Today’s Ukraine

Hotel

Eleven Mirrors Design Hotel: Situated in the heart of Kiev, this independent, 49-room hotel is steeped in contemporary design. 11mirrors-hotel.com; doubles from $249.

Restaurants and Bars

Alchemist: A trendy haunt where bartenders wear leather aprons while live music plays. 12 Shota Rustaveli Vul.; 380–96–008–7070.

Budu Pozhe: After a stint as a contributor for the New York Times, Kiev native Dima Gavrysh returned home to participate in the thriving nightlife scene (above) in the city center. 6/2 Krutyi Uzviz; 380–67–508–9156.

Favorite Uncle: The eclectic menu is perfectly echoed by the hodgepodge of international collectibles throughout the space. 20 Pankivska Vul.; entrées $2–$11.

Kanapa: Restaurateur Dima Borisov is tapping into long-standing Ukrainian culinary tradition with dishes like borscht with fried pig’s ears. borisov.com.ua; entrées $4–$18.

La Cantina: Watch your meat and seafood sizzle on a hot stone before pairing it with one of the many European wines at the bar. la-cantina.com.ua; entrées $3–$8.

Parovoz: Named for the Ukrainian word for locomotive, this “speakeasy” is located downstairs from an old Soviet cinema. 19 V. Vasylkivska Vul.; 380–67–949–8828.

Sights

Besarabsky Market: Vibrant flowers and the smell of smoked meat fill the market as patrons sift through produce, cheese, and honey. 2 Bessarabska Ploshcha.

Chernobyl: Several operators, including Solo East Travel, offer guided tours of the site.

Maidan Nezalezhnosti: The city’s main square has served as a place for political rallies and protests, including the deadly Euromaidan demonstrations in 2013 and 2014.

Mezhyhirya: The house of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, on the outskirts of Kiev, has been a museum since 2014, after it was returned to public ownership. Novi Petrivtsi.

St. Sophia’s Cathedral: The 11th-century marvel was built during the reign of the Great Prince of Kiev and is a unesco World Heritage site.

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