In Kyiv there’s a drink called Green Mexican. It’s served in a long shot glass and consists of lime juice, banana liquor, and tequila. It was invented in Kyiv and many locals insist it’s something that every visitor should try.
As you might know, I hold a Master’s degree in Eastern European History and am very interested in Soviet history (and 20th century European history in general). I by no means sympathize with the Soviet Union but am very interested in everything that has to do with it, and that extends to monuments and architecture. That fascination comes across as strange to my Ukrainian friends and, as it turns out, that at some point earned me the nickname of not the green but the “Red Mexican.”
There is much more to Kyiv than Soviet architecture. So much more. Kyiv is known as the city of golden domes for a reason. It is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites and has a very rich history—part of it is the Soviet period. Soviet architecture is so present in Kyiv that it cannot be overlooked. Still, this is just one of the many sides of the city, but one that draws in many visitors.
Ukraine, or rather the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, was one of the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union. Its capital was initially Kharkiv but was moved to Kyiv in 1934.
The history of Ukraine during this period is beyond convoluted and way too much for a travel blog article, but here’s the most relevant bit: At the beginning of the 20th century, most of the territory of Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire. In 1917, while the Russian Empire was fighting in World War I, a Bolshevik revolution erupted, which forced the Russian Empire to withdraw from World War I. It was the beginning of the Russian Civil War.
That same year, a semi-independent, partially recognized Ukrainian state with its capital in Kyiv called the Ukrainian People’s Republic was established. A competing Ukrainian state recognized only by the Bolsheviks, with its capital in Kharkiv, was also established in 1919. Both states fought a war called the Soviet-Ukrainian War, which the Ukrainian People’s Republic lost and the Bolsheviks took power. The parts of Western Ukraine that belonged to the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires were taken over by Poland, a country which was reestablished in 1918 in the wake of World War I. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic became a founding member of the Soviet Union on December 30, 1922 and Kyiv became the third-largest city of the Soviet Union.
During Soviet times, Ukraine endured the collectivization of its agriculture, the famine from 1932-1933 (which killed millions of people and had a massive demographic impact), widespread oppression, massive deportations (especially the deportation of the Crimean Tatars), as well as attempts to eradicate different aspects of Ukrainian culture.
Ukraine became an independent country on August 24, 1991.
The legacy of the Soviet Union today
Against this background it’s not difficult to imagine why many would want to leave the Soviet past behind. After all, the countries in the Soviet Union were not free.
And still, the Soviet past of Ukraine is something that continues to fascinate me, also within the context of post-Soviet remembrance. Furthermore, I am interested in the divisiveness of the issue: While many in Ukraine want those old symbols of Communism eradicated (which have been banned since 2015), others want them to stay because they are part of the country’s history. The Soviet Union caused a lot of pain and suffering in Ukraine, and the symbols can be seen as reminders of oppression, so understandably a lot of people want them removed. Across the former Soviet periphery, everything from mosaics to statues are disappearing. The names of streets and cities are being changed too. Some people are in favor of this, some are against. Who’s right? It’s not my task as a travel writer to answer that question but am nevertheless very interested in it.
There is a number of preserved mosaics all over Kyiv. What to do with mosaics? Many want to save them for their artistic value. The problem is that in the Soviet Union art was political and had propagandistic value, and that is reason enough for many to want them destroyed. I myself like them because they illustrate periods of time and have historical value. However, the perspective of a local is different to that of a nerdy outsider. And still, mosaic enthusiasts are putting a lot of effort into documenting as many as they can or even saving some before they are forever lost to decommunization.
One of my favorites is in the metro station Shulyavska. It depicts two workers, with one of them holding an atom in his hand. The Shulyavska station is on Prospekt Peremohy (Victory Avenue). Across the street is an abandoned factory formerly known as “Bolshevik Factory,” which also used to be the name of the station.
I came across a very cool mosaic by accident while trying to find the marshrutka to Chernihiv near the Chernihivska metro station. The mosaic is from 1980 and graces the facade of the Hygiene and Ecology Institute.
The holy grail of mosaic hunters (and my personal favorite) is the mosaic located on the facade of the Institute of Nuclear Physics. The piece is titled “Blacksmiths of the Present” and was completed in 1974, a time when people were still enthusiastic about the power of atomic energy.
Another place to see mosaics is the passenger terminal of the Port of Kyiv. Completed in 1961, the terminal now houses diverse art installations and is a popular hangout spot at night. Inside are several Soviet mosaics.
You can also see a number of mosaics covering the facades of several buildings on Peremohy Avenue, not far from the Polytechnic Institute Metro station.
Soviet War Monuments
As one of the “Hero Cities” of the Soviet Union, Kyiv has more than its fair share of World War II monuments. The only difference is that here you will see the dates 1941–1945.
For those of you who might not know why that is, it’s because the Soviet Union only officially entered the war in 1941. Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, thereby breaking a non-aggression pact arranged by Hitler and Stalin. The pact had been in place since August 23, 1939, and in it both totalitarian powers agreed to divide Europe between the two. A week after the pact was signed, on September 1, Germany invaded Poland. That was the start of World War II. The Soviet Union marched into Poland on September 17, 1939.
In Soviet historiography, the conflict between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany is known as the “Great Patriotic War,” and is considered to have lasted from June 22, 1941 until May 9, 1945 (thereby ignoring the Soviet invasion of Poland). That is why you will only see those years in Soviet war monuments.
Kyiv is home to one of the most impressive Soviet monuments I’ve ever seen in my life: The Motherland statue. Opened on May 9, (Victory Day) 1981, this gigantic statue measures 62 meters in height. This heavy metal lady holds a sword and a shield bearing the coat of arms of the Soviet Union—a symbol that is technically illegal but unlikely to be removed as World War Two monuments are not subject to decommunization. Many residents of Kyiv would like to see this gigantic statue removed but chances are that’s not going to happen. At the feet of the Motherland is another statue called “Crossing the Dnepr,” which depicts Soviet troops on a boat. Fun fact: This monument was designed by Yevgeniy Vuchetich, who also designed the monument in Berlin’s Treptower Park.
Not far from the Shulyavska Metro station there is a war monument with a T-34 tank.
Not far from the Motherland Monument is the Park of Eternal Glory. This massive monument features an obelisk with an eternal flame. Not far from there is the Holodomor memorial, with its haunting statue of a starving girl clenching onto three pieces of wheat symbolizing the Law of Spikelets. While that’s not a Soviet monument, it does honor the victims of a Soviet crime, and provides an interesting contrast as to how the Soviet Union is understood and remembered after independence.
Other Soviet monuments
The Friendship of Nations Arch is another monument from the early 80s. It depicts two workers, a Ukrainian and a Russian one, holding a medal. Overhead is a giant arch, 50 meters in height. A black crack was painted on it to symbolize the strained relations between Russians and Ukrainians.
The “Middle Way,” a statue of a blue hand by Bogdan Rață, stands where Taras Shevchenko Blvd. meets Khreshchatyk Blvd. Until 2014, a red marble statue of Lenin stood there. The Blue Hand is not a Soviet monument but it replaced the Lenin statue, which was torn down during the Maidan Revolution and replaced with the Ukrainian trident.
The Kyiv Metro
The Kyiv Metro is very Soviet. Its construction started in 1949, and most of it was built during Soviet times. Earlier stations, such as Vokzalna or Universytet, have that Socialist Realist feel, while others such as Obolon or Minska, which were built in the 1980s, have a more modern, semi-futuristic feel.
An anomaly is the station Zoloti Vorota (Golden Gate). Completed in 1989, it is decorated with Byzantine-like mosaics depicting the story of Kyivan Rus’ (but not without twisting it a bit in the direction of Moscow). Other stations worth seeing are Hidropark, Olimpiiska, Dnipro (one of my favorites) and obviously Arsenalna, otherwise known as the deepest metro station in the world. The station is 105.5 meters underground and it takes four minutes and 26 seconds from the foot of the escalator to the top.
Totalitarian architecture has the function of representing power (which explains the imposing dimensions), so it’s interesting to consider what buildings and monuments symbolize after the demise of the respective political system. Are these buildings then seen as relics of a totalitarian system and their aesthetics as the remains of a bygone era? Do they become mere buildings instead of representations of power?
Whether you’re interested in the aesthetics of Soviet architecture or in the meaning of buildings beyond architecture in a totalitarian system, Soviet architecture is very interesting. It’s ugly, imposing and futuristic; it is even borderline absurd, and because of that I’m fascinated by it.
Soviet architecture is not uniform. There are different styles, from Socialist Realism (most representative of Stalin) to Brutalism (widespread in the later years of the Soviet Union). Since Kyiv was heavily damaged during World War Two, the Soviets had free hand when it came to redesigning the city.
As the former third-largest city of the Soviet Union, Kyiv has a lot of examples of Soviet art and architecture.
Khreshchatyk Avenue is Kyiv’s main thoroughfare and features a lot of Soviet architecture from different periods. Now, Soviet architecture is usually synonymous with concrete, but in reality there are many faces to Soviet buildings. Stalin preferred the Socialist Realist style, which was widely used into the fifties (Stalin died in 1953). This style is lavish and majestic; its dimensions are exorbitant, to the extent that it’s difficult to appreciate the details of the facades because they get lost in the immensity of their surface.
The Socialist Realist buildings on Khreshchatyk really resemble the ones on Karl-Marx-Allee in (East) Berlin, which were also commissioned by Stalin and built in the early 50s. If you look up on Khreshchatyk you will notice Communist symbols. One of the buildings has a huge antenna topped with a star, which was painted in the Ukrainian national colors by an intrepid climber.
The buildings surrounding Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) are all built in this style with the exception of the Trade Unions Building. Also the Hotel Ukraina, which towers over the square, dates back to the same period.
The expocenter of Ukraine
A typical Soviet exhibition center, Kyiv’s Expo Center features exhibition halls lavishly decorated with Soviet symbols denoting the industrial and agricultural prowess of the union. A bit of a slap in the face to boast about agriculture in a country where the Soviet Union caused a famine that cost millions of lives.
The exhibition halls of the expo center are built in Socialist Classicism, which was typical for the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Modernist Soviet Architecture
Kyiv’s Blue Metro line south of Independence Square stops at some of the city’s main Socialist architecture jewels. The first stop is Palats Ukraina, a concert hall completed in 1970. The next station, Lybidska, is where you need to get off to see the Institute of Information, known among us enthusiasts of Socialist architecture as “the UFO.” To see the National Library of Ukraine simply travel to the next station, Demiivska. Another bizarre building is the Hotel Salyut, built between 1982 and 1984. You’ll inevitably see it on the way from Arsenalna to the Motherland monument.
Other areas to see Soviet architecture are Shulyavska. If you walk on Peremohy Avenue you will see the Kyiv National Economic University, which its Socialist Classicist façade completed with Hammer and Sickle. Another part of town where you can see (less monumental) Soviet architecture is the area between the historic quarter of Podil and the Taras Shevchenko Metro station. The rule of thumb is: The further you go outside of the city center the more Soviet buildings you’ll see.
I hope this guide helps you discover Kyiv’s Soviet past. Remember that the Soviet period is painful to many people in Ukraine and is not to be glorified.
I hope you enjoyed this article! If there’s anything else you’d like to know feel free to shoot me a message! For general information about visiting Ukraine check out my detailed guide here.
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