Kiev,  Ukraine

Max Chernyaev in Kiev, Ukraine

Kiev, Ukraine
Max Chernyaev
Varenyky

The Place: Kiev, Ukraine

“Though now a capitalist society, Kiev’s bedrock of communism is far more obvious than anywhere else I’d visited… Rather than remnants of an archaic communist world peeking through the veneer of a more modern, capitalist culture, it seemed to be the other way round. Though advertisements, billboards and the glass and steel of the city’s business sector reflect what Kiev, and the rest of Ukraine, has now become since the fall of the USSR, they seemed like patches haphazardly stitched onto the old coat of the soviet world.”

Read About Kiev

Somewhere on my detour by train to Ukraine’s capital, I crossed an invisible line. Western culture and architecture had been desperately clinging on, making itself known wherever it could as the Eastern-European aesthetic became evermore overpowering, all the way up until Lviv. But between Lviv and Kiev, amongst the fields smothered in a thick blanket of snow that rolled silently by, it’s grip slipped. My train continued, leaving behind the last reminders of the Austro-Hungarian empire – the opera house in Lviv, and the bells and pipes museum in Przemyśl – to fade into a white mist behind us.

Though now a capitalist society, Kiev’s bedrock of communism is far more obvious than anywhere else I’d visited on the Arctic to Asia cycle tour so far. Rather than the occasional remnants of an archaic communist world peeking through the veneer of a more modern, capitalist culture, it seemed to be the other way round. Though advertisements, billboards and the glass and steel of the city’s business sector reflect what Kiev and the rest of Ukraine has now become since the fall of the USSR, they seemed like patches haphazardly stitched onto the old coat of the soviet world. After all, Ukraine has only been independent since 1991, and since then it has struggled to shake its past, only recently in 2014 overthrowing it’s corrupt leader, Viktor Yanukovych. Chandeliers still hang from the ceilings of the subway illuminating plain white walls, devoid of the posters that plaster the ones back in London, 40 metres below streets so wide you could almost play a football match on them and government buildings tower above the rest of the city, projecting their authority and intimidating passers-by with their sheer scale.

Despite it’s communist roots, away from the muted palette of the city centre Kiev was an oasis of colour in an otherwise frigid and barren winter landscape. Orange, blue and yellow buildings stood side-by-side, flanking winding cobbled streets and occasionally receding to allow space for the gold and white of a Catholic or Orthodox Church. With such a dramatic recent history, everything here has a story to tell. Maidan square, pictured below, saw the birth of Euromaidan in 2014. Below the statue is where the Berkut  (police) beat students, causing a spark of dissidence to ignite into a full-blown revolution. The blue-walled St. Michaels monastery took in injured and frightened protestors when they had nowhere else to go. Memorials to the ‘heavenly hundred’, those who lost their lives during the protests, line the street leading from independence square to parliament. Invisible to the eye, slightly elevated radiation levels serve as a reminder of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Kiev has experienced more than it’s fair share of tragedy, but it doesn’t shy away the adversity it’s faced. Rather, it is now part of the city’s identity.


Please note that we do not fact-check our interviewees, and that their views do not necessarily represent our own.

The Person: Max Chernyaev, 36, Interface Designer

“Six years ago I didn’t believe in evolution. I was stupid. And then I started to read a lot of books. I read a lot about the human body, the brain, psychology, and evolution. That stuff was really interesting and amazing for me. For now I don’t read fiction. I only read non-fiction and educational books. Before this, I had somehow missed evolution in school; I just wanted to catch up.”

See Max's Full Background

I was born in Cherkasy, a medium-sized Ukrainian town. When I turned 20 I moved to Kiev for a better job and more money. Obviously in Ukraine, you have to live in Kiev if you want to earn something. In the other cities the salary can be two or three times lower. For example if you’re on a salary of $100/month in Kiev, in Cherkasy you would be earning $20 or $30. People are really poor. In villages smaller than my hometown it’s even less, and they just have to try to survive. They sell produce their own gardens; pork, some vegetables. You notice in Kiev that you see the old ladies at the market who try to sell something like that. I’ve been here for 15 years, and I now feel more like a Kiev citizen. I have family in Cherkasy; my parents and my lovely friends. Everyone now is moving to Kiev. Now, the situation is starting to change. In big cities like Kharkiv, you can live, for sure. But for sure your salary will be a lot lower.

 

I really like movies and reading. Six years ago I didn’t believe in evolution. I was stupid. And then I started to read a lot of books. I read a lot about the human body, the brain, psychology, and evolution. That stuff was really interesting and amazing for me. For now I don’t read fiction. I only read non-fiction and educational books. Before this, I had somehow missed evolution in school; I just wanted to catch up. But I’ve also read a lot about history, the Soviet Union and the history of WWII, for example. Other than that, I like surfing the internet, YouTube and I am a video game addict! I play PUBG, which came before fortnite! They created this genre of games.

 

Kiev is really green in spring and summer, and we have here an island between two sides of the river. There are not many people there. There are beaches there and a big forest, so you can live in central Kiev, and walk for 20 minutes to have a barbeque on the beach.

 

What does ‘home’ mean to you?

A month ago we returned from Italy, and when we came back we decided to not travel for a year minimum because we are so lucky to live where we live. I know this place. I know the people.”

See Max's Full Answer

Honestly for me ‘home’ is comfort. I used to live with my parents, and there were many rules; I couldn’t buy what I wanted, or do what I wanted. I moved out and lived with my girlfriend, and I really prefer that. I can feel free. A month ago we returned from Italy, and when we came back we decided to not travel for a year minimum because we are so lucky to live where we live. I know this place. I know the people. I meet my friends when I’m walking around the city.

What have you learned from living in Kiev?

You can’t be lazy in a big town… In Kiev… there are a lot of people who know better English than me, or who are better designers than me, so I should always learn something new and improve so I can fight for my job.”

See Max's Full Answer

You can’t be lazy in a big town. In my hometown, there were a lot of professional people in my sphere, in design. But they stopped to take some time off and so on. In Kiev you can’t do this, because for my place there are a lot of people who know better English than me, or who are better designers than me, so I should always learn something new and improve so I can fight for my job. Before working in IT, I worked in advertising. I created commercials. I was on shoots with directors, and we wrote small plots for ads. It was really interesting. I found out that many commercials for Europe were shot in Ukraine. Before Maidan there were also many Russian commercials that were shot here. It was cheaper to do it here. We had people from the oil business in Kazakhstan who shot films here. So I saw I saw this big group of professionals who could affect the world. You thrive in this community. Then you go home to Cherkasy, and you see the same streets and the same people who are living in 2000, not 2018.

Can you think of a time you have been proud of Kiev or Ukraine?

“Of course it was on Maidan…our special police came… to these students, teenagers; girls and boys. They beat them. It was really cruel… my friend said that the next morning, he went to his office, and he saw on the metro old men, young men, all different ages with sticks, tools, bricks, with anything, who went to Maidan to say “this is bullsh*t”… then it began; they shot the first protestor.”

See Max's Full Answer

Of course it was on Maidan. There was a situation a few moments before. Our ex-president Yanukovyvhch, who was a thief and a criminal, tried to connect us with Russia with a trade deal instead of Europe. But before he did that, he said to the people that “our future is with the E.U.”. Then he just signed some documents and went with Russia. So people took to the streets. Then, it was just 100-or-so students; not many. But then, our special police came – the berkut. Berkut means like “big eagle”, or something… so a cool name I guess. It’s like S.W.A.T. in the US, but not so professional; they’re just big guys. So the berkut came to these students, teenagers; girls and boys. They beat them. It was really cruel. I saw a picture where one girl who had fallen down, and the berkut were dragging her by her scarf. It was crazy, and it was so cruel. The photos and videos spread online, and then my friend said that the next morning, he went to his office, and he saw on the metro old men, young men, all different ages with sticks, tools, bricks, with anything, who went to Maidan to say “this is bullsh*t”. And then it began; They shot the first protestor.

He was from Armenia. He had lived in Ukraine for a while. More and more people were killed – like 100 in the end. I was really proud about Kiev and the country, that these guys just came to this area to take up the fight against the police. They even burned an armoured car with Molotov cocktails. The police couldn’t do anything, because at night people from Maidan got on facebook, and said “guys, the police are here and they’re trying to take down the barricades”. When they did that, they waited 30 minutes before they saw a lot of people from all over the town move to the city centre with sticks and helmets. It was really amazing. For me, that was when Ukraine was born. Before that, we were not patriotic at all. I didn’t like our flag, for example, or our crest which is called “Tryzub” (three teeth). But with this situation in Maidan, many people changed their minds about it. In this crest there are four letters. It means “freedom”. Freedom is really important for Ukraine. During Maidan, everyone came together and we had a country which we could be proud of again.

 

Could you share some of your memories from Maidan?

“I was working just 1000 metres from Maidan. I heard the explosions from the gas grenades, and then I saw on the news that something serious had happened; that policemen had shot people… I went to the bus station, I heard no more explosions; no people outside, no cats, no buses. Just empty streets.”

See Max's Full Answer

I was working just 1000 metres from Maidan. I heard the explosions from the gas grenades, and then I saw on the news that something serious had happened; that policemen had shot people. Our boss sent us home, and when I went to the bus station, I heard no more explosions; no people outside, no cats, no buses. Just empty streets. It was crazy. You didn’t know what to think. It could have been war. You could be killed. Then I went home and saw the videos: there were old ladies cooking for the protestors, some collecting rocks or making molotov cocktails. I saw a photo of one guy sitting on a frozen statue, wearing a mask beside some molotov cocktails. He was reading his university books so he could study while he was protesting. A sushi café in the square was turned into a makeshift hospital. Some people did surgery on the floor of that café. You had medics taking bullets out of people. The berkut once attacked that hospital and destroyed it along with all the medicine that was there, but then people put it back together.

What is your main concern or worry about Kiev and Ukraine?

“After Maidan, when Yanukovych was overthrown… we thought we’d won… But maybe the next week, Russia occupied Crimea.. We had a knife in our back from a brother, because Ukrainians and Russians are supposed to be similar people. It was betrayal.”  

See Max's Full Answer

For Ukraine, it’s our corruption in politics. Maybe it’s a problem in every country. But after Maidan, we wanted to see bigger changes. For example, they changed the police. Before Maidan, the police were worse than gangsters. You could be walking down the street, and when you see the aggressive guys in tracksuits, you can confront them or you can walk away. But if you see the police, they can stop you and plant something in your pocket and then you have to pay. The police were cruel, and stupid. There was one moment where some big captain in the police force who said we should arrest people wearing jackets and helmets during maidan. And the police just went around arresting students and protestors who were wearing them. I think some of them were killed, because they found some bodies in some of the forest around Kiev. After Maidan, the police were better friends to the public. You could ask them for directions, some of them speak English. I rode my bicycle when I was drunk in summer once. The road was empty because it was night. So I was just having fun. I saw police lights behind me, and they stopped me, and asked what the hell I was doing and if I was drunk, but not in an aggressive way. I told them I was and they just advised me not to do it again and let me go. The previous police could have just taken all my money and maybe even my phone if they’d seen it. For now, the police is ok, but we have a lot of problems. We don’t have enough money to rebuild the entire police force. Maybe just the patrol police. The political system is the same at the higher level. It’s the same people, the same corruption. The lower level are ok. But the core is ok. Even in our judiciary system, we still have the same judges. They represent the vampires of our country. They tried to drink our blood. They are millionaires and billionaires, because everyone starting a business has to pay them. If you have trouble in court, you can go to jail just because you refused to pay these judges. It’s like 1930s Chicago. But in day-to-day life, it’s ok. We don’t come into contact with that part of the system normally, so it’s ok.

 

I didn’t say anything about Russia. Our ‘best friend’, our ‘bro’. It’s a bigger problem than our judiciary system. The real biggest problem is Russia. After Maidan, when Yanukovych was overthrown, I know someone who knows the guy who was in the car with him when he fled. Obviously I can’t tell you who it was, but he told me some stories. When he left, we thought we’d won. But maybe the next week, Russia occupied Crimea. It was terrible, and very unusual. I can’t really find the right words to describe it, because in Crimea there were Russian military towns, Russian warships, and Ukrainian army bases. These guys, the soldiers from different countries, they were friends. But then suddenly Russian soldiers came with guns, and said “you are our prisoner, it’s not your country any more, we’re taking it back.” I have a friend from the Crimean peninsula, and she said that Russian guys put mines on the border in 2014. They built walls and barricades. The same thing happened in Danbas. We had a knife in our back from a brother, because Ukrainians and Russians are supposed to be similar people. It was betrayal. 

Actually my worry about the city of Kiev is the cars. We have a lot of people here who are kind of rich. They travelled to Europe, saw a better life, better streets, and model solutions to problems they had with city building. In Kiev, we had soviet planning in streets, soviet solutions for parking, for cars, and so on. For example, in Soviet union, in one big area with thousands of people they’d plan only six spaces for cars because nobody had cars! This comes back to bite us now. Now we have many young, educated people, who saw Europe and who want to live better. But this city can’t rebuild itself. This is a problem. People want to buy more cars, to build bigger streets. But I just read a book about urban development by a minister from New York, who wrote about rebuilding streets. If you want to get less traffic jams, you should not make your streets wider, but actually the opposite. They should make it narrower! They talked about L.A, where they built this big, big, big street with 16 lanes or something, and the day it opened it was a huge traffic jam. People see a bigger road, they buy a new car and they use it. People see small road, they get a bicycle and ride it, or they take a metro bus. It’s really interesting. European cities try to live this way, not like the U.S. In Kiev, lots of people want to choose the U.S. way. But for cities like ours, it wouldn’t be good. So, we have a problem with the cars and the government ignores it. Young people want to build a beautiful, green city. So there is a little conflict there. Maybe it’s not the biggest problem in Kiev but it’s one that I see.

In day-to-day life, do you feel as though you’re in a country that’s at war on it’s home soil?

“We didn’t even have an army in 2014. It was all cheap equipment from the USSR… our army is professional now. They are living on the border… The latest news I saw was that Russia, on the border with Donbass, has brought more and more guns, tanks and soldiers. There are now 81,000 soldiers there… so we’ve been in a scared mood for a while.”

See Max's Full Answer

At the beginning, it was like that, but now most of our people have forgotten about the war in the East. You know, people can’t pay attention all the time for five years; they just want to go to bars, to buy things for their kids. So they are tired about the war.

We didn’t even have an army in 2014. It was all cheap equipment from the USSR. It was bought through some corrupt schemes. We had a few tanks and a few squads with old guns. When it began, people around all of Ukraine gave some money to our ‘new army’. This bought new clothes, cars and equipment for our volunteers. Now, some people say it is the most veteran and battle-hardened army in Europe. In the beginning, we had some European and US instructors who taught our soldiers. But now, some guys told me, our army is professional now. They are living on the border. There are real snipers duals, real special operations. Of course it’s hard for us when we think about it. The latest news I saw was that Russia, on the border with Donbas, has brought more and more guns, tanks and soldiers. There are now 81,000 soldiers there, 900 tanks, a few thousand armoured cars and 500 planes. In Ukraine we have maybe 20 planes… so we’ve been in a scared mood for a while. But people have become tired of it and they don’t want to see this problem.

What are your thoughts on Stereotypes of people from Kiev?

“…the stereotype of people from Kiev is that they are very, very rich. Very often they are billionaires. Specifically, they say rude things like they call us Kiev-f*ggots.”

See Max's Full Answer

In the rest of Ukraine, the stereotype of people from Kiev is that they are very, very rich. Very often they are billionaires. Specifically, they say rude things like they call us Kiev-f*ggots. In Kiev people wear more modern clothes and spend more money on clothes. In the rest of Ukraine they get the cheapest clothes on the market, and wear one T-shirt for years.

What is the best thing to ever come out of Kiev?

“Do you know that your Christmas song is Ukrainian? It’s called Shchedryk (you’ll recognise the tune in this YouTube video). This is a traditional Ukrainian song. Some Ukrainian immigrants brought it to the USA.”

See Max's Full Answer

Do you know that your Christmas song is Ukrainian? It’s called Shchedryk (you’ll recognise the tune in this YouTube video). This is a traditional Ukrainian song. Some Ukrainian immigrants brought it to the USA. Here, it’s not an important song. Before soviet union, we had Catholic Christmas, but during it we only celebrated New Year. New year is the biggest celebration for us. It’s like your Christmas. We forget about Christmas because of atheism in the USSR. But for people from Western Ukraine, who are more Catholic, they celebrate real Christmas. And some listen to folk Christmas songs like this. But I googled the lyrics and it doesn’t actually make sense!

Where’s your favourite place outside of Ukraine?

“Every time I travel I try to imagine “what if I lived here?” So I love Amsterdam; the bicycles, the streets. I like how people live there. I saw some rabbits on the grass in the middle of the city. It was amazing.”

See Max's Full Answer

Honestly my favourite place is Amsterdam. Not because of that “stuff”, but the streets. I like the old part of Amsterdam. My girlfriend is an architect, and she told me about several interesting buildings in Amsterdam from famous architects. We went there and saw them and it was amazing compared to Kiev. Every time I travel I try to imagine “what if I lived here?” So I love Amsterdam; the bicycles, the streets. I like how people live there. I saw some rabbits on the grass in the middle of the city. It was amazing. In Kiev we have only ducks. So they had rabbits on the grass and people living on the riverside, with windows out onto the water. It’s amazing.

As someone who’s into movies, what are your thoughts on the Ukrainian movie industry?

“We haven’t started producing good movies, because movies are really expensive. We have some film producers, but the productions look like sh*t. But the commercials are really professional… I dream of a movie sphere in Ukraine. In USA… The producers there are at a Hollywood level. But in Ukraine they are like the ex-USSR level.”

See Max's Full Answer

We haven’t started producing good movies, because movies are really expensive. We have some film producers, but the productions look like sh*t. But the commercials are really professional. We dream about our Ukrainian movies, because in a few parts of history we had some interesting periods, like the Kievan Rus. They tried to make movies about then, too. We can make the movie industry better. I dream of a movie sphere in Ukraine. In the USA, they have the best fabric of movies; Hollywood. The producers there are at a Hollywood level. But in Ukraine they are like the ex-USSR level. Russia has the same problem; they try to make good movies but only one or two are watchable, honestly. Because there are a lot of bad comedies.

What do you eat during the Holidays here?

“Food in the West and East of Ukraine is different. From Central to Eastern Ukraine it feels more soviet. But in the Western part, it is more like Poland, like a European country. There are catholics here, and the dishes are not the same. For people from other parts of Ukraine, this Western part is pretty exotic.”

See Max's Full Answer

We have special food on New Year, but it’s pretty soviet. It’s maybe the same in Russia and Ukraine. Of course, we have olivier, which is a Russian salad with sausage, boiled potatoes and mayonnaise. In USSR, people didn’t have much meat. So on New Year, they bought this big sausage, chop it, and have it with this salad. The second thing is a dish called ‘Fur Coat’. It’s fish called ‘shuba’. It’s maybe not in every café or restaurant, but when I go to my parents they cook it. It’s very weird but for us it’s tasty. We also have holodets, but I don’t like it. It’s jelly from meat… it looks like a dead body. But with vodka apparently it’s tasty. Food in the West and East of Ukraine is different. From Central to Eastern Ukraine it feels more soviet. But in the Western part, it is more like Poland, like a European country. There are catholics here, and the dishes are not the same. For people from other parts of Ukraine, this Western part is pretty exotic. We love it. We feel like real Ukrainians because they didn’t lose that. In USSR in the centre and the East we lost it. They have the Carpathian mountains and it’s really beautiful. They even have a different accent when they speak in Ukrainian. You can tell who’s from the Western part and who’s from the Eastern part. You can tell very quickly who’s who.

 

What is your favourite and least favourite Ukrainian Dish?

“…you’ve tasted salo, right? It’s like lard. They take pieces of this lard and fry it on the pan. It tastes a bit like bacon, but I don’t like it because with bacon you have this meat between the fat, but with this you have only the fat…”

See Max's Full Answer

I don’t really like traditional dishes; I’m not a fan. Maybe it’s darume, these fried potato pancakes, which is very simple.

 

My least favourite it’s holodets; the body in jelly. I tried it in my childhood and then never again. And also Schwarke, you’ve tasted salo, right? It’s like lard. They take pieces of this lard and fry it on the pan. It tastes a bit like bacon, but I don’t like it because with bacon you have this meat between the fat, but with this you have only the fat, fried with potato, and it’s not so tasty. They add it to things like barszcz.

 

Reccomendation:

“…have you tried Varenyky? From all these dishes I would recommend you barszcz, but you’ve already had it. Varenyky can be boiled or baked.”

See Max's Full Reccomendation

We have a lot of Vodkas made from different grasses and fruits. We have a drink which is like vodka but a little stronger, maybe. We have different flavours. In the Carpathians, for example, they have lots of vodkas made from different berries.

 

Also, have you tried Varenyky? From all these dishes I would recommend you barszcz, but you’ve already had it. Varenyky can be boiled or baked. Ukrainian food is simple.

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The Plate: Varenyky

“Everything that dulled my enthusiasm for boiled pierogi vanished when I met it’s baked counterpart. The meek and soggy dough sheath that flopped lifelessly around on the end of my fork was replaced with a golden, crisp shell that met my cutlery with some resistance and my teeth with a crunch… a parcel of fried onions and meat… brought desperately-needed variation in both consistency and sapor.”

Read About Varenyky

Since my foray into the Slavic kitchen, it’s felt like Poland and Ukraine have been in competition with each other. But maybe that sibling rivalry has masked the fact that, really, the two are far more similar in a lot of ways than they would like to admit. Polish Barszcz suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of it’s Ukrainian cousin, but boiled varenyky, Ukraine’s answer to pierogi, is a carbon copy of the dumplings found in it’s Western Neighbour. So, rather than repeat a review of pierogi (you can find the original one here) with a different name, and to stir up animosity between Polish and Ukrainian connoisseurs, I decided to try baked varenyky. I can feel a little less guilty about picking favourites this time, since Poland also offers a baked version of it’s dumplings.

Everything that dulled my enthusiasm for boiled pierogi vanished when I met it’s baked counterpart. The meek and soggy dough sheath that flopped lifelessly around on the end of my fork was replaced with a golden, crisp shell that met my cutlery with some resistance and my teeth with a crunch. The tedious bland and starchy texture of a potato filling that blended with the equally dull casing became a parcel of fried onions and meat that, rather than sticking to the roof of your mouth to the point you felt like you could suffocate, brought desperately-needed variation in both consistency and sapor. Where boiled pierogi relied on an outside source of moisture in the form of oil from fried onions, baked varenyky comes with it included free inside. It’s more exciting, less tiring to chew, and all-round feels “less soviet” than the version I’d tried in Poland, which I was happy to leave behind without hesitation.


Thoughts? Leave a comment down below!


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Oleksandr Rozhok in Lviv, Ukraine
Victoria Gazda in Lviv, Ukraine

Attempting to cycle from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Baku, Azerbaijan while interviewing locals en route. Despite my chequered history with bikes, here’s to me returning home with an intact facial structure and at least as many body parts as I left with.

2 Comments

  • Dennis

    You have an amazing talent for eliciting personal opinions from your interviewees! I am so grateful to be living in the UK despite the Brexit fiasco….

  • Hilda

    The capital of a country, in general, is not a true reflection of the country as a whole. Nevertheless, Kiev sounds fascinating. Lucky Max to be in such an interesting field of work

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